Philosophical Anthropology. Part 1: Giambattista Vico

Introduction

This is the first of a three part “essay” on three thinkers—Giambattista Vico, Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried Herder—who were pioneers of a more historically sensitive anthropological and dialogical style of philosophy than the philosophies that have done so much to shape and do so much damage in the modern world. Originally what are now three essays were the final part of my book, Idolizing the Idea: A Critical History of Modern Philosophy. When I finally found a publisher willing to take on a book that was deeply critical of both major paradigms of contemporary philosophy, which are commonly (if not very accurately) termed analytic and continental philosophy, they nevertheless baulked at a 200,000-word manuscript by a writer from the academic boondocks with no reputation. I had no choice but to cut the final section, which, was for me the best part.

I had intended to write a second volume in which I would start with them, but when the Postil expressed interest in them, I thought I could spare any potential readers my tendency for prolixity. I only raise this point about their original context as chapters from a book criticising how modern philosophy has repeatedly succumbed to what I call the idolatry of the idea. That is modern philosophies—including ones which insist upon not succumbing to the sweet sirens of abstract ideas by being faithful to history (its spirits or laws) (Hegel and Marx ), or the earth (Nietzsche, and the positivists and empiricists), or Being (Heidegger), or anti-totalism (post-structuralists)—constantly set up some unassailable idea, principle or model which it uses to judge us and our world, and what it repeatedly does is try and squeeze us into the idea. I call this position idea-ist—it is not the same as idealism, because materialists are as much idea-ists as idealists.

I, following the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who made this same point, also call this the know-All position. For it is based upon the belief that what the philosopher knows is the essence of things, or the All that really needs to be known. Religion is by its very nature dogmatic. And that is its strength—for its proscriptions proceed from (a) God, while our powers of reasoning are limited. That our powers of reasoning are very limited indeed is manifestly confirmed by philosophers themselves who do not agree on much at all, especially the larger questions of the nature of truth, or goodness. After more than two thousand years one may have thought if there were a truth it would have been found and appreciated at least by the philosophers who have gone in search of it.

In my book, I argue that what keeps happening in philosophy is that the questions keep shifting, and this has much to do with why the answers differ so much. I think this confirms the value of philosophy, but it is a confirmation that requires philosophers to have better appreciation of what they can and cannot do well. But such appreciation requires not succumbing to the temptation to think we know the All—and to accept that reality is, to use a religious term, “revealed.”

This in turn also means giving up another common philosophical habit—viz., the dismissal of very important contingencies which impact upon us and our world because the model or principle governing a philosophical position has occluded them. But as soon as philosophers think they know the essence of the world or us or history or whatever they think is the key to it All, they set up an optic of occlusion—and subsequently all manner of very important things become dismissed and widely ignored. Thus, for example, Heidegger dismisses mere empirical history as unimportant so he can focus upon the history of metaphysics and its role in shaping our world, but, as I argued in Idolizing, this is foolish in that it leads to the belief that the only things that matter are what metaphysics has done, or what Heidegger himself takes as an alternative voicing to metaphysics, viz., poetry can do.

I do not wish to repeat criticisms about modern philosophy that I have made elsewhere, but I will repeat one other point I made in that book: the development of modern philosophy has created a metaphysical dyad of “determinism” (we are determined by laws and/or a system), and “voluntarism” (we can make the world and ourselves the way we want). And both of these one-sided views of life are false—and it does not become true by simply oscillating between them as Marx and Nietzsche or the contemporary progressives, who see capital, or gender, sexuality or race as determining people’s behaviour, unless, like them, they can acknowledge it and thus change the world to make it how they want.

Let me be clear, principles and ideas can be very important, and the word idea is a perfectly useful word. Likewise, we have all sorts of ideas about all sorts of things, but in our day-to-day world we can easily distinguish between doing something and having a philosophy about doing something, and we can all see that the doing need not really be subordinate to the philosophy if we want to do it well. I might write on the Philosophy of Education or the Philosophy of Running or the Philosophy of Friendship or the Philosophy of Morals, or the Philosophy of Art and be a terrible educator, runner, friend, person and artist or even connoisseur of the arts. The philosophy is just a means to something—and we and our deeds are the something that we have knowledge for. At its best philosophy can help us organize the information we have—in this sense it can help us think better, but it is not a stand along thing. If someone is a terrible “reader” of affairs or people or the world, philosophy will not be that helpful.

The stuff we think with and about generally does not come from philosophy, unless we are thinking of some very specific philosophical thing; but even then, the information and associations we draw upon which can help us think better even about a philosophical claim or formulation is extra-philosophical. Likewise, although sometimes we may notice something with our senses that makes us reflect upon other associations or information we have and also while some kinds of activities and observations are conducted methodically, a great deal of what comes to mind when we think come from the names and words which trigger our feelings and other associations. And the names and words—and the value and weight we ascribe to them—in the overwhelming number of cases have arisen from collective experience and response to events.

Thus, it is when I speak of idea-ism I am talking of the tendency to take our ideas for the world and our actions as if they were all we needed to know, or even the most important thing. Yet it is obviously the case that the world and action are, with the aforementioned exception when a sensation is decisive, mediated in thought as names and words. I strongly recommend the works of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig who have made exhaustive cases for why names matter, and why ideas, and the philosophical fixation with ideas is a dangerous thing. Idolizing the Idea was in many ways simply a detailed account of the history of this fixation within modernity, and it was undertaken because this tendency has gone hand in hand with a more ideocratic and ideologically driven kind of politics and sociality that is making us strangers to ourselves and each other and making us spiritually sick.

The final section of my book was intended to make the case for the alternative to philosophical know-all-ism, and idea-ism that had already been undertaken by Vico, Hamann and Herder. Vico and Herder have widely been hailed as precursors of anthropology, even if their readership is, as with Hamann, almost excusive to scholars of their works, all three are also important figures in the history of hermeneutics. But their importance has generally been pretty limited in terms of the more dominant currents of philosophy. Kierkegaard loved Hamann, and Hamann was also appreciated by contemporaries such as Schelling and Hegel—but most Histories of Philosophy do not devote a chapter to him or Herder, or Vico.

Anyone familiar with Isaiah Berlin will have immediately recognized that they are the subject matter of one of his books, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, a work that took a previously unpublished essay by Berlin on Hamann and added it to the early book Vico and Herder. Berlin’s discussion of the three is scholarly and judicious, if somewhat uneven. I think he is most comfortable and perceptive with Vico, he genuinely appreciates Herder, but I do not think he conveys just how encyclopaedic and astutely philosophical Herder is, and I do not think he “gets” what Hamann was doing at all.

But my major criticism of Berlin is what I consider to be the simplistic way he sets up two camps, those who are on the side of Enlightenment and reason and science, and those, like Vico, Herder and Hamann who aren’t. Clearly, he has some sympathy with their objections to the Enlightenment, but he sees rampant nationalism and Nazism as the political-cultural progeny of the anti-Enlightenment. I just find this a very unhelpful and unconvincing way to think not only about them and their legacy, but philosophy and ideas and movements more generally. I have no intention of giving a developed critique of Berlin, and I do not want to give the impression that Berlin is all wrong or not worth reading, I will just say that what follows is an alternative to his way of thinking about the three and their significance.

As will be evident from the above, my interest in Vico, Hamann and Herder cannot really be separated from a more general view about philosophy which I have developed over almost fifty years, and which is a view that, to put it mildly, is not widely known or shared. Thus, I beg the reader’s indulgence for the following introductory lead into the essays on Vico, Hamann and Herder, as a way of better preparing him for what it is I am comparing them with when I discuss their contribution.

Hermeneutical Openings For Philosophical Anthropology

With the Pre-Socratics, philosophy commences with questions that seek to identify the overarching principles that equip philosophy for its own particular modality of inquiry. This initial search is for what is “eternal,” what provides an implacable and stable, even static means of orientation. With Plato it leads to a triumvirate of ideas—the good, the true and the beautiful. That we can immediately recognize the three domains of philosophy—moral philosophy, epistemology, and aesthetics—and their underpinning ontology and metaphysics is indicative of the importance of this aspect of the philosophical quest. The “pitch and jag” of questions posed to what are ostensibly answers to these, and subsequently other philosophical questions is, however, responsible for paradigmatic movements within philosophy’s unique “seam of speech.”

Aristotle’s questions ultimately lead him to open up another modality of orientation. This modality focusses upon the “structures” of things. To be sure Plato had brushed against this modality, but he does not delve into it to anywhere near the same degree or extent as Aristotle. While it certainly has multiple implications for morals (and a moral exploration of politics), epistemology, and aesthetics (consider, for example, how Aristotle’s Poetics attempts to identify not only the nature but also the structure of tragedy), it also affects how one thinks about the ontological and metaphysical terrain. For all the differences that come with this new clustering of questions and the answers that then open out into new questions, the quest is not able to throw off completely the stabilizing factors of philosophy itself—Aristotle too appeals to truth and morality and a kind of beauty.

While the early modern metaphysicians and philosophers of nature are generally identified as anti-Aristotelian, and were so in important respects, this particular aspect of philosophical development and importance is not thrown off in the paradigms that encompasses not only philosophers as epistemologically, metaphysically and ontologically diverse as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Malebranche, Berkeley, but even those who branch out far beyond naturalism and veer into more historical and social considerations. In so far as historical and social analyses appeal to some sovereign idea, principle such as equality, or freedom from domination (as with Marx or the post structuralists), or culture (as in Nietzsche), or a cluster of contingencies, they remain susceptible to questions about the truth or moral character (with the kind of aesthetic emphases that have come to dominate from the latter part of the nineteenth century, “the beautiful” has lost its place as the sovereign idea of aesthetics).

To repeat, then, philosophy itself never completely shakes off the opening pitch of its questions, though what is “jagged” out of the answers will change.

But there is also a third line of questioning and orientation, and it is this line of orientation that takes greater account of social symbolization and semiosis, as it delves more deeply into the socio-historical-anthropological conditions, and the degree of impact and plasticity involved in our world-making. It is not the case that it completely abandons the original pitch, though as it evolves, that pitch dims substantially (this is evident, for example, if one compared Herder’s numerous concessions to the good, true and the beautiful, with his progeny, Rosenstock-Huessy, who has little good to say about these eternal philosophical beacons). The same is true of its relationship to the Aristotelian innovation.

Nevertheless, its own insights and quarries retrieved from its quests redound upon the “eternal” seam, as well as the more structural kind of analyses. But it does make historicity as well as culture take on a far greater philosophical significance. Further, it also creates a far more complicated picture of the problems that we confront than are conjured up by those seeking to solve our problems along more voluntarist lines. That is, the more we enter into this third paradigm the less we are likely to believe that our problems will be solved by placing excessive reliance upon either our knowledge of natural or social “laws,” or the good will and “faith” of those seeking change.

While this third paradigm, philosophical anthropology, does not completely eliminate the horizon of the eternal with its “stablizers,” it nevertheless also opens this up further. For in entering into a deeper appreciation of the social, history and culture, it must look beyond the strictly philosophical virtues and answers, not only to other narrative modes, but also to the importance of names themselves and thus it inevitably goes back beyond “ideas” For it is by responding to the range and chain of names that have left deep enough impressions on us to see their importance, so that we become conscious of the historical dimension of experience.

We should also mention from the outset, as will be developed throughout these three essays, that this should not be mistaken for “historicism” of the sort in which all meaning may only be found by sinking so deeply into historical detail there is nothing left to do but recount those details, or else appeal to them as if they themselves bore all authority for future orientation. Future and past both beckon us in our present. As we shall see in Vico, who is a pioneer of this third philosophical approach, the “eternal” and the structural are not completely overthrown by this new approach, yet, for all that, it remains another approach, replete with different kinds of questions and hence answers.

Vico’s New Science And The Opening Up Of The Idea To Past Ages

A brief comparison of Vico with David Hume is a helpful way to illustrate what is so original about Vico’s approach to philosophy.

Hume had argued that the strict divide between understanding and imagination which had been so important to the metaphysical revolution of the new philosophies was ultimately unsustainable: understanding and reason were not to be divorced so sharply from imagination, passion and impression. The importance Hume ascribed to imagination, impression and association in the context of “common life” thus helped draw philosophy back into the world as we live it, as opposed to what world a thinker wants us to (or thinks that we should) live in. Nevertheless, Thomas Reid’s critique that Hume still hung on to philosophical bric-à-brac that came from the “way of ideas” was important. For having invoked “common life,” Hume wipes away the different forms of life that peoples have over the ages by placing too much weight upon the constancy of human nature. As Leon Pompa recounts of Hume’s position:

Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations, and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour.

This was what enabled Hume, in spite of all his scepticism, to have such “certainty” about his own enlightened faith. We may indeed see certain constants across the ages if we focus upon certain human needs and behaviours—and on occasion it might make much sense to take note of such constants as the desire to survive, or the need to eat, or the extraction of resources and the opportunity costs involved, or the use of the imagination. But there is a serious problem that Hume bypasses, which Pompa raises against Hume’s position:

…such a conception of the nature of ideas is unacceptable when we consider their operation in the social and historical world. Here we are dealing with social agents, and it is impossible for anybody to be a social agent without understanding the concept of the type of social agent in question. One cannot, for example, be a judge or a school-teacher, unless one’s conduct reveals an understanding of what one should do in the legitimate fulfilment of one’s role. Indeed, the requirement is somewhat stronger than this. For not merely is it necessary to know what one’s role involves, but it is necessary also to know that others know what is involved. One cannot, in other words, act as a judge unless one’s conduct both conforms to a shared understanding of the role and to the knowledge that that understanding is shared. For, in the last resort, it is one’s success or failure in being able to show that one has acted in accordance with what one knows to be shared that determines the legitimacy of one’s actions as a judge. Acting in a social role thus presupposes possession of a social concept which one knows to be shared. This need not be something which one can explicate theoretically, but it must be such that one can use it. It is no objection to this that we use the concept of a natural object in order to can use it, should one be challenged, in defence of one’s claim to have acted legitimately in that role.

It follows from this that ideas cannot, in the social world, have only the secondary ontological status which Hume ascribes to them. For an idea to have this secondary status, it is necessary that that of which it is an idea could have existed in the absence of the idea itself. But this is not possible in the case of social agents, for to be a social agent is just to act in accordance with certain conventions and in the knowledge that those conventions are known to be shared. In the social world, therefore, consciousness of such ideas is constitutive: without it there could be no such world.

Unlike Hume, Vico had extricated himself completely from his earlier (Cartesian) mechanistic philosophical influences, and his cognizance of the plasticity of the human imagination and its impact upon sociality ultimately added the dimension of the cadences of lived-time to our self-understanding. While Vico’s New Science is “therefore a history of human ideas,” its novelty consists in the recognition that “ideas” are themselves deeply dependent upon human development. And although, he acknowledges philosophical antecedents in Jean Bodin and Francis Bacon’s recognition of the importance of myth in aiding human instruction, and, even more pertinently, the importance of “following the method of philosophizing made most certain by Francis Bacon, Lord of Verulam,” he transfers the “idea” to “this world of nations;” thus “carrying it over from the things of nature… to the civil affairs of mankind.”

In general, then, Vico observes that philosophy (including Bacon’s) has not hitherto “reflected on and seen” the actual or historical development of human sociality, and hence also it has failed to grasp what we can discover about the growth of the human mind. To understand that development, requires philosophy taking a new methodological step by turning to the signs that humanity over the ages has left behind in its action which provide evidence of “the human will,” that is “all histories of the languages, customs and deeds of peoples in war and peace.” The New Science then proposes that:

…philosophy undertakes to examine philology (that is, the doctrine of everything that depends on the human will; for example, all histories of the languages, customs and deeds of peoples in war and peace), of which, because of the deplorable obscurity of causes and almost infinite variety of effects, philosophy has had almost a horror of treating.

And,

This queen of the sciences, by the axiom [314] that “the sciences must begin where their subject matters began,” took its start when the first men began to think humanly, and not when the philosophers began to reflect on human ideas (as in an erudite and scholarly little book recently published [by Brucker] under the title Historia philosophica doctrinae de ideis, which comes down to the latest controversies between the two foremost minds of our age, Leibniz and Newton).

The method of the “New Science” thus requires a thorough study of the writings of antiquity, primarily Greek and Roman. Moreover, one of the most conspicuous feature of Vico’s astonishing originality in the New Science lay in treating Homer as a key to unlocking not only antiquity, but as an aid for identifying different ages in their decline and emergence—the patriarchal giant age of the gods symbolized by the cyclops, and the heroic, which is the primary content of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—as well as a close philological treatment of other ancient materials, particularly Plato and Roman authors (Tacitus, Varro, Livy, the Twelve Tables, Plautus, Plutarch). But Vico also finds supporting evidence in what he knows of the Egyptians, Germanic tribes, Chaldeans and Scythians in order to detect what kinds of ideas predominated in different ages. Vico also identifies how the ideas and the institutional contexts in which they emerge relate. The following rather lengthy passage provides Vico’s summary of the core insights into the three different major formative ages that his New Science has uncovered as providing the basic, and recurrent stages of the development of the gentiles:

(1) The age of the gods, in which the gentiles believed they lived under divine governments, and everything was commanded them by auspices and oracles, which are the oldest things in profane history. (2) The age of the heroes, in which they reigned everywhere in aristocratic commonwealths, on account of a certain superiority of nature which they held themselves to have over the plebs. (3) The age of men, in which all men recognized themselves as equal in human nature, and therefore there were established first the popular commonwealths and then the monarchies, both of which are forms of human government, as we observed a short while ago.

In harmony with these three kinds of nature and government, three kinds of language were spoken which compose the vocabulary of this Science: (1) That of the time of the families when gentile men were newly received into humanity. This, we shall find, was a mute language of signs and physical objects having natural relations to the ideas they wished to express. (2) That spoken by means of heroic emblems, or similitudes, comparisons, images, metaphors, and natural descriptions, which make up the great body of the heroic language which was spoken at the time the heroes reigned. (3) Human language using words agreed upon by the people, a language of which they are absolute lords, and which is proper to the popular commonwealths and monarchical states; a language whereby the people may fix the meaning of the laws by which the nobles as well as the plebs are bound. Hence, among all nations, once the laws had been put into the vulgar tongue, the science of laws passed from the control of the nobles…

Hitherto, among all nations, the nobles had kept the laws in a secret language as a sacred thing, for it will be found that everywhere the nobles were also priests. That is the natural reason for the secrecy of the laws among the Roman patricians until popular liberty arose. Now these are the same three languages that the Egyptians claimed had been spoken before in their world, corresponding exactly both in number and in sequence to the three ages that had run their course before them. (1) The hieroglyphic or sacred or secret language, by means of mute acts. This is suited to the uses of religion, which it is more important to attend to than to talk about. (2) The symbolic, by means of similitudes, such as we have just seen the heroic language to have been. (3) The epistolary or vulgar, which served the common uses of life.

One major implication of Vico’s work, that would prove enormously fecund for anthropologists as well as historians, is the recognition that reality is never fully encompassed by the social divisions and allotments intrinsic to a specific type of social reproduction. The imagination and institutions, ideas and experience are so closely bound up with each other, that we need to be conscious of the very different “social imaginaries” of different “life-worlds,” as they would later be called. This is also commensurate with us taking seriously ideas of a pre-philosophical ordering of reality rather than dismissing what does not conform to our more philosophical deliberations as mere delusions or superstitions.

With the New Science, Vico was seeking to become to the social and historical world what Aristotle had been to Logic and Newton to Physics: the discoverer of a great continent of learning, which once entered, forever changes how one sees things. We should also note that while Vico speaks of the will (and thus, as Berlin notes, continues in the Renaissance spirit so eloquently expressed by Pico della Mirandola in On the Dignity of Man), the metaphysic is not one of the subsequent idea-ist and voluntarist offshoots of the “will” which promises to set us free from the burdens specific to an age if we allow it flight (as, say, we find with Deleuze’s de-territorial-ization).

Indeed, the ever-conspicuous metaphysical presence of providence in the New Science militates against this. For its regular invocation in the New Science is in large part to demonstrate a profound truth that voluntarism misses: viz, that what we are doing individually and what we are actually doing collectively, or what we will to achieve, and what we actually leave behind of ourselves are not congruent: “…for out of the passions of men each bent on his private advantage, for the sake of which they would live like wild beasts in the wilderness, it has made the civil orders by which they may live in human society.” In so far as good comes out of our willing this is due to powers beyond our ken, and hence beyond our willing, which Vico identifies as Providence. At the same time, Vico does make the famous claim, repeated by Marx to his own voluntarist end:

…this world of nations has certainly been made by men, and its guise must therefore be found within the modifications of our own human mind. And history cannot be more certain than when he who creates the things also describes them. Thus, our Science proceeds exactly as does geometry, which, while it constructs out of its elements or contemplates the world of quantity, itself creates it; but with a reality greater in proportion to that of the orders having to do with human affairs, in which there are neither points, lines, surfaces, nor figures. And this very fact is an argument, a reader, that these proofs are of a kind divine, and should give thee a divine pleasure; since in God knowledge and creation are one and the same thing.

To be sure many of Vico’s philological readings have since then proved unsustainable. In part this also rested on his mistake that because man makes his world, this world might be easier to know than the natural one–for if anything is evident today, it is that in so far as we are all enmeshed in stories, it is no less difficult to move outside of our story-telling situation to really listen to story that comes from another set of appeals, contingencies and ways of seeing and making reality, than it is to be inducted into the natural sciences.

The latter requires intellectual ability, but the former requires a willingness (that far too few are willing to make) of self-dissolution, of getting out of one’s way and own “identity” so that one can open up to another way of being in and viewing the world. Nevertheless, what still rings true is that ‘the inexhaustible source of all the errors about the beginnings of humanity that have been adopted by entire nations and by all the scholars’ is that “whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand.”

For when the former [i.e., ‘entire nations’] began to take notice of them [i.e. the beginnings of humanity] and the latter [the scholars] to investigate them, it was on the basis of their own enlightened, cultivated and magnificent times that they judged the origins of humanity, which must nevertheless by the nature of things have been small, crude and quite obscure.

In the main, and prior to David Hume and Thomas Reid, the mechanistic philosophers believed it their job to rescue “experience” from “common sense,” but what Vico has noticed is how human experiences of times long since passed have been taken as confirming or conforming to more contemporaneous philosophical concerns and manners of thinking, something he sees as particularly conspicuous and damaging in the natural law philosophies of Grotius and Pufendorf. That is, philosophers all too frequently reflect upon other times and ages and find there aught but diminished versions of their own philosophical ideas staring back at them. Vico had also understood the challenges that await the “civilized mind” in exploring the poetic sensitivity, unencumbered by the vast array of accumulated experience that develops with numeracy and literature, the division of labour and urban life. Thus, he urged that the philological philosopher needs to “listen” to the “language” which had helped form the social experience of an age and hence was intrinsic to the understanding and “reasons” of its makers, and which is not to be confused with the “reasons” of philosophers:

…the nature of our civilized minds is so detached from the senses, even in the vulgar, by abstractions corresponding to all the abstract terms our languages abound in, and so refined by the art of writing, and as it were spiritualized by the use of numbers, because even the vulgar know how to count and reckon, that it is naturally beyond our power to form the vast image of this, mistress called “Sympathetic Nature.” Men shape the phrase with their lips but, have nothing in their minds; for what they have in mind is falsehood, which is nothing; and their imagination no longer avails to form a vast false image. It is equally beyond our power to enter into the vast imagination of those first men, whose minds were not in the least abstract, refined, or spiritualized, because they were entirely immersed in the senses, buffeted by the passions, buried in the body. That is why we said above [338] that we can scarcely understand, still less imagine, how those first men thought who founded gentile humanity.

In spite of the magnitude of the task, the worlds of different ages are not completely incommensurable for our understanding, rather we need to expand our ideas and understanding in such a way that we can enter into an appreciation of the making of another age. Above all that means philosophy must take a completely different direction than that required by Descartes and the new metaphysics more generally. Although his reputation would grow long after his death, Vico opened up the importance of method for understanding certain kinds of processes and identifying the patterns that may be discernible within them. Indeed, more generally, one of the great achievements of philosophy is to sensitize us to patterns, and hence orders heretofore unnoticed; the temptation, though to be avoided, is to focus so much upon the pattern that one ignores the great array of discordances, the processes of unravelling and turbulence, the “white noise” and “fuzzy logic” that produces a new pattern completely outside our ken and range of anticipations and expectations. But thinking itself, and not just philosophy, works with patterns, as well as with unique persons, events, memories and actions.

Vico had drawn attention to the fact that different ages with their different institutions were built upon different social imaginaries, and he required that our understanding of the “history of ideas” find access to the very different underpinnings of how ideas were made in different ages. Moreover, he also recognized how these patterns would repeat themselves. This was in recognition of the cyclical nature of societies and peoples–the “gentiles”–whose ideational and institutional formations were not based on the attempt to break the cycles of nature, and the “tyranny” of those cycles. Thus, although Vico also invokes the providence of the divine mind, he only occasionally deploys biblical examples.

Scholars have been divided over whether Vico’s cyclical account of the ages which was limited to the gentile nations was a contrivance for avoiding persecution. But there is a strong argument (developed by Franz Rosenzweig in the Star of Redemption without any reference to Vico) that the covenant at the basis of Jewish existence was a unique decision of a unique people with a unique God, whose revelations occurred through time and whose promise was of a time and world to come.

It is true that one can find in Plato’s Laws the germ cell of the idea of providential gods (“being good with all goodness, possess such care of the whole as is most proper to themselves”), and this is later picked up and developed by Plotinus and Proclus. And although Vico’s conception of God as divine mind is more Greek philosophical than biblical, the fully developed idea of providence–as it is in Judaism and subsequently Christianity–goes hand in hand with the revelation in ‘Song of Songs’ (again Rosenzweig draws this point out) that “love is as strong as death.” Daniel will prophesy that the kingdom of gold will give way to inferior kingdoms until finally the earthly kingdom is no more than iron mixed with clay, but “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.” In the Middle Ages this prophecy underpinned the notion of the church as the translatio imperii, the church as God’s eternal representation on earth, a testament to the defiance of the birth and extinction of human empires.

Irrespective of Vico’s faith, when we turn to Johann Georg Hamann we find, as Berlin rightly saw, a somewhat kindred spirit to Vico in so far as the importance ascribed to language and the imagination serves as a means to waken us to our sociality and historicity. But whereas Vico has tied his project to the “history of ideas” by opening up philosophy to philology, something Hamann is also doing, Hamann poses a far greater challenge in his restoration of the figurative imagination. And whereas Vico retreated to the distant past to show philosophy its shortcomings, Hamann simply had to point to the world around him as it was still being made by people driven by their biblical faith and their figurative imaginations.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured images shows, “Der Einzug des Königs Rudolf von Habsburg in Basel 1273 (The Entry of King Rudolf of Habsburg into Basel 1273),” painted by Franz Pforr, ca. 1809-1810.

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 2: Johann Georg Hamann, On The Idolatry Of Faith In Reason

There is a great irony in Hume’s fate in so far as the very probablism which he used against religious faith was taken up in Germany by Friedrich Jacobi and Johann Georg Hamann, not only to provide an argument for the inescapable role of faith in life, but also, especially in Hamann’s case, for mounting an argument about the value of the Christian life. So impressed was Hamann by Hume that he translated his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion into German.

The religious Hamann had no delusions about where Hume stood on matters of religion—and in this respect, Hume was on the side of the enlightened, i.e., the enemy who were substituting their metaphysically derived ideas, which is to say, their bloodless version of life, for life itself. Nevertheless, as he would confide to Herder: “Hume [over against Kant] is always my man because he at least honored the principium of faith and took it up in his system.” And to J. Lindner he picks up on Hume’s statement in the Enquiry that because the Christian religion “was at first attended with miracles… even at this day [it] cannot be believed by any reasonable person,” commenting: “Hume may have said this with a scornful or wistful attitude, nevertheless it is orthodoxy and a witness to the truth in the mouth of an enemy and persecutor of the same—all his doubts are proof of his proposition.”

The sceptical Hume, for Hamann, therefore veers into the doubtful territory of faith. Had Hume been a little less prejudiced when roaming around in that territory, he would have had to concede that in it are to be found men and women, like Hamann, every bit as capable of using their reason, and yet also sceptical of reason’s overreach, whose faith, nevertheless, leads them to live the lives they do. In this respect, W.M. Alexander (whose book Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith is, in my opinion, the best book, among some seriously good books, on Hamann) observes “Hamann’s problem” is,

the philosophy of his age and how his own thought as a Christian relates to it. How does the Christian exist (and more specifically—in his “authorship”—how does he think authentically as a Christian) in genuine contact with the world. Hamann was one of the first Christian thinkers to recognize that he lived—as did the early Church Fathers -in a non-Christian world—the Church was no longer communicating to “Jews” but to “Greeks.”

The essentially Christian character of Hamann’s thinking stands in striking contrast to what remained an essentially metaphysical position advanced by his friend Jacobi, who had become very famous in Germany with his Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to Herr Moses Mendelssohn. Jacobi had detected the Spinozian (deterministic) influence upon the age, and had countered that faith is an ontological given and a foundation of reason. Furthermore, it was not just, as Kant had argued, a rational element within the moral sphere of life. While an ally of Jacobi with respect to emphasising the inescapable condition of faith in the larger scheme of reason, Hamann was also critical of the latter’s metaphysical philosophizing. Thus, Hamann would pointedly say to Jacobi of his David Hume on Faith: “In the absence of your book I can say nothing further, dear Jonathan [Jacobi!], except to speak of the relation of both of the objects of your authorship to mine: ‘Idealism’ and ‘Realism’ versus Christianity and Lutheranism. Both of the former are, in my eyes, ideal; the latter real.”

While Jacobi, then, wished to ‘demonstrate’ where faith stood in the greater schema of reason and, indeed, philosophy itself, Hamann’s faith was not the result of any philosophical question, but the result of a personal crisis. As a talented young man with prospects, he had been assigned to represent a Riga merchant on diplomatic business. That had proven to be a dead end and after squandering his and the firm’s money on drinking and carousing, and trying to make ends meet as a lutenist, he entered into what was probably a sexual friendship with another young man, whom he subsequently discovered to have received money for sexual favours by a wealthy patron.

Appalled, broke, and solitary he started reading the Bible, and like so many Jews and Christians he came to the realization that it was no ordinary book—but a book that expressed the immediacy of his circumstance and experience, and God’s responsiveness to humanity’s despair and cry. The truths that the book contained, then, were inseparable from the needs and longings and willingness of the reader to respond in kind to God’s love and majesty, which he saw depicted everywhere throughout this book which was part historical chronicle, part testimony, part instruction, part description, and so much else beside. But also, and most importantly, the record of an encounter between the one true loving God and His people, which opened up the believing heart to also encounter the living God, and take up a new life based upon that encounter.

In other words, what Hamann grasped was the fact of faith, and the fact of his faith being tied in with a tradition of experiences and stories and history, and an encounter of exactly the sort that he had experienced. This is obviously a million miles away from what Jacobi was doing, let alone what Kant did when he tackled the problems of God and the soul, and came to the conclusion they were the product of reason’s own dialectical transcendence of our cognitive conditions, a transcendence which is really an illusion, in so far as the conditions only have validity as truth conditions about the things of our world when they apply to the world. This is what Kant called appearances because the things of our world must appear in space and time in order to be experienced. Kant and Hamann had for some time at least been on friendly terms, and Hamann even helped find a publisher for the Critique of Pure Reason (a work, as we see below, he thought completely wrong-headed). For his part, Kant thought Hamann was a Schwärmer, a rapid “enthusiast,” which is, to say, what the British call “a nutter.”

Generally, Hamann’s philosophical contemporaries saw the bible as either a superstitious attempt to make sense of their experiences or a mythic rendering of moral laws—a position which one can only hold until one reads the Bible. Kant read it like this and had to morally reproach Abraham. For Hamann this was missing the whole point, as was the kind of discussion around faith that had involved Jacobi, Kant, and later Hegel: Hamann did not just believe something he read, he experienced his faith completely changing his life. The book made him a different man. Thus, it was not merely a cerebral matter, but a matter of soul, and thus to treat the Bible along the usual lines of scholarly or philosophical interrogation is really to miss what is most essential about it: it would be like saying one had been swimming but one just had not gone into any water.

Note also, that while the enlightened philosophers would question the reality of the object of faith—God—they would treat God as if He were an object, or, as in Kant, once it is conceded that God is not an object like a natural object, as a “mere idea of reason.” Hamann, as with so many of the faithful, does not see God as an object (or idea of reason) at all; God is no more an idea than He is a thing. But, if we are to stay with philosophical language, God is, nevertheless, a condition of reality, not a “logical condition,” but a creator of whom we can only make sense through encounter and engagement. From Hamann’s Lutheran perspective, when we speak of or about God rather than to Him, at least if we are not disposing ourselves as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit, we are already losing sight of Him. This is also why, for Hamann, “if they are fools who in their hearts deny the existence of God, it strikes me as yet more foolish to want to prove him first.”

To repeat, Hamann has invoked God in a completely different manner from the philosophers—for the purpose of the philosophers’ inquiries, God cannot be divorced from the subjects forming their narrative (the philosophers). For philosophers, what Hamann has done by insisting on taking seriously what the book actually does as opposed to what it merely says is to open-up the floodgates that threaten reason (and philosophy) itself. This, as far as Hamann is concerned, not his problem, but their problem, and it stems from their wanting to only look so far at what is going on in our lives and in world. That is, they want to deny God to be as God: what they know is what is—the entire philosophical attempt from Descartes to Kant to lay down what constitutes experience (the laws of nature) is, from Hamann’s point of view, a confirmation of this.

Hamann overturns what he sees as the self-delusion that motivates the enlightenment project—and his thinking returns us to the pre-philosophical disposition. Ancient people did not come to their gods through their powers of reason—because reason, imagination, and world were all intertwined. Thus, too they knew that their gods existed because they were implicated in a world of mutual dependency: sacrifices are as necessary for the gods as for the gods’ responsive beneficence. One might venture that this is as true of the Jews as of every ancient people, as evident in Yahweh’s jealousy and commandment against false gods.

This kind of anthropological understanding renders the kind of clear-cut distinctions of philosophical ideation irrelevant. The kind of truth that this hermeneutical community is engaging with is the truth of their very own existence, which would have no existence apart from the very parables, commands, bonds, and common orientation that is both the content of their faith as well as its condition. Hamann’s faith is, then, indeed the kind of faith to be found in what Hume had called “common-life,” but “common life” as a whole is no longer understood in the abstract as something that can be analytically dissected into the enlightened and superstitious parts; it forms a unity, which is not to say that things people do is beyond criticism—but the pitch of the criticism is always going to come from some human place, and not some ideational “heaven” that can be found by talking and thinking a certain way.

In this respect, Hamann thinks philosophers are victims of their own superstitions. For Hamann, truths that are abstractly constructed, that have not developed within time, literally have no life. Likewise, metaphysical “truths” are at best conjectures, and typically spurious. Only what has life can be true. As Alexander rightly says: “Truth,” for Hamann, “is not primarily and most authentically an idea or text of written words but a concrete historical life.” Likewise, “truth is not an academic possession: it unfolds only in the transition of a lifetime… ‘Truths are metals which develop under the earth.’”

The notion that truth is something that is revealed over time—“by their fruits you shall know them”—requires taking our temporality and historicity seriously. This, in turn, requires conceding that we do not engage with eternal “ideas,” for such an engagement is purely beyond our ken. We and our ideas grow, and hence reveal themselves for what they are in and through and over time—our climbing high to espy the “all” is sand-castle-in-the-air stuff that brings us crashing down to earth. From this perspective, the Platonic cast of mind shares with the metaphysics of modernity a view of the cosmos in which the eternal order of mathematics takes a particular pride of place, but for all that way of thinking can achieve by way of construction and contrivance with merely material “substances,” when it comes to what we hold important in our lives, what we believe in, then, at best, it may be an ancillary, but at worst, it is an elimination of who and what we are. The elective affinity between mathematical and metaphysical thinking is an affinity that draws us away from what we sense and feel, and want.

What we find in Hamann and ultimately makes his legacy so powerful and fecund, is the combination of a resolutely anti-metaphysical disposition with a great sensitivity for the kinds of problems (if not the answers) that are genuinely philosophical. Moreover, because, for Hamann, “All of our knowing is piece-work and all human rational foundations consist either in faith in the truth and doubt of the untruth, or faith in the untruth and doubt of the truth,” we cannot simply divide the world into what conforms to faith and what conforms to reason, as if this kind of bifurcation somehow conforms to some kind of objective disjunction.

Hamann’s antipathy to bifurcation makes him an important influence upon figures such as Herder, Hegel and Schelling for whom dualism was always the source of a more fundamental philosophical problem than a genuine solution. Moreover, for Hamann: “faith is no work of reason, and therefore is subject to no attack by the same, because faith as little happens through reasons as taste and sight.”

The question of the relationship between faith and knowledge and/or reason, and the nature of the relationship between the two would become a key one of the age. Kant would argue that freedom was a matter of rational faith, and that the reason behind identifying the limits of knowledge was primarily to enable that faith so that our sense of moral duty would preside over what merely is by nature. Hegel saw the problem as a symptom of the divided nature of the modern self, which sought knowledge, but could not bear to reconcile itself with the conditions of its own actual achievements of freedom, seeking solace in a beyond accessible to faith, but ultimately a mere empty “should,” ever out of reach and unrealizable.

Hegel’s brilliant critique of the antithesis between faith and knowledge/reason in Faith and Knowledge and tirelessly repeated throughout his corpus makes perfect sense when directed at Kant, Jacobi, Fichte, Schleiermacher, and even Schelling (in so far as he commences with the Absolute’s being and (un-, or dark) ground). For they are indeed operating with conceptual dualisms within a system, and hence too each was seeking some ground or rationally defensible starting point for what was always a metaphysics. But it does not touch Hamann. For Hamann has no interest in providing a rational basis for faith; he has no system. Christianity is not a philosophical system, even if theologians may wish to bring rationality to it for coherence.

The unity of a life is more akin to the kind of unity a body of faith displays (with members in division) than a philosophical system which, from the outset, requires conceptual or ideational consistency. Hamann commences with the fact of his faith and then clarifies how it shapes his life, and the lives of others who live in their faith communities. This is an anthropological move that differs from the neo-Hegelian anthropology of Feuerbach and the young Marx, insofar as the neo-Hegelian appeal to community, freedom, equality is always to an ideational end that motivates the anthropological aspect of their thinking. Hamann, however, emphasises the common anthropological condition, and then compares different bodies with their different faiths (most specifically philosophers and Christians like him).

Just as Hamann’s discussion of faith and reason is distinctly un-metaphysical, his observations about reason is not itself dependent upon an adequate logic of demonstration: reasons come after the fact. As he would write to Kant: “I must almost laugh over the choice of a philosopher for the purpose of bringing about in me a change of mind. I look upon the best demonstration as a reasonable girl does a love-letter.”

While, then, Hamann’s insight about faith and common life is far closer in spirit to anthropology than philosophy, it nevertheless has implications for philosophy, implications which would “rein in” its rationalist tendencies. This is well brought out in a letter to J.G. Lindner, where Hamann would paraphrase (or slightly misquote) Hume and critically compare the enlightened faith in reason with Jewish faith in the Law, and both with Paul:

“The final fruit of all philosophy is the noting of human ignorance and weakness.” This same function, which is related to our powers of understanding and knowledge, shows us how ignorant we are just as the moral shows us how evil and shallow is our virtue. This cornerstone at the same time is a millstone which shatters to pieces all his sophistries. Our reason therefore is just that which Paul calls the Law—and the Law of the Reason is holy, just and good. But is it given to us to make us wise? Just as little as the Law was given to the Jews to justify them, but to convince us of the opposite: how unreasonable is our reason, and that our errors are to be increased by it, just as sin increased by the Law. If everywhere Paul speaks of the Law one puts “reason” (this “law” of our century and the watchword of our clever heads and scribes), Paul will speak to our contemporaries.

For Hamann, when it comes to the kind of knowledge we most need, he wrote to Jacobi: “Sense and history are the foundations and ground—be the former ever so deceptive and the latter ever so simple, I still prefer them to all castles in the air.” Our circumstance is such that what we can think is always either revealed, fragmented, or abstracted: “A reason which acknowledges itself as a daughter of the senses and the material, behold! this is our religion.”

To make thought something more real than the senses is itself to commence a train of abstraction that can all too swiftly leave our language and traditions which have been the means by which collective sense is formed. It is philosophy that, according to Hamann makes “castles in the air.” Or as he put it in another letter to Jacobi—philosophy carries on with “empty shadow-boxing with ideas and speculations against data and facts, with theoretical deceptions against historical truths, with plausible probabilities against witnesses and documents.”

Although all the most reputable Hamann scholars recognize that dismissing Hamann as an “irrationalist” is nonsense, if by that we mean that he does not think reason has any role to play in a life. Beiser puts the matter succinctly when he points out that “The stumbling block of all irrationalist interpretations of Hamann is therefore nothing less than the central thesis” of Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: that faith is neither rational nor irrational since reason cannot either prove or disprove it.

What Hamann does is something that no serious philosopher should, or even can, simply dismiss: he identifies reason’s limits as deriving from its dependency upon existence itself, community, history and language. He is not arguing that we should deny what we know or what can be known—but reason is an activity or operation taking place within our lives (a point taken up by Kierkegaard and existentialism more generally): to hypostazise it is to beguile ourselves into thinking that we really know all we would need about what is going on in life, and that we are not surrounded by genuine mysteries, which in Hamann’s case are given meaning through his faith in God and revelation.

For Hamann, one of the more persistent errors of philosophy is to treat reason as “real being,” which it is not, rather than as an activity which we undertake. As he wrote to Jacobi:

People speak of reason as if it were a real being, and the dear God as if the same were nothing but a concept. Spinoza speaks of an Object causa sui and Kant of a Subject causa sui. Until this misunderstanding is removed, it will be impossible to understand one another. When one knows what reason is, all discrepancy with revelation ceases.

Conversely while philosophers may ceaselessly dispute about what reason is, people of faith harken to their God and build their world around that harkening. To be sure once matters of faith becomes theological problems, the same problem occurs; but, if viewed with a more ancient eye, the issue of theological dispute can also turn around the matter of “which God?” is appealing to us and demanding our response—the God that creates, reveals and redeems, or a supra-human (diabolical) power that may be merely devouring us?

In this respect, Hamann’s position can be buttressed by an insight that plays a pivotal role in the work of Rosenstock-Huessy, a genuine progeny of Hamann. For Rosenstock-Huessy saw the problem of his age was not just that people did not believe in God, but they did not have any clue about the gods; only once one concedes the reality of gods—a reality that is witnessed in behaviours, for the gods are not under our command—is one in a position to understand God. For originally the gods are recognized and named, and their communal importance assigned so that they can be followed, summoned, supplicated to, and obeyed (or disobeyed). I will take up this point below.

For Hamann the discrepancy between reason and revelation ceases because revelation deals in contingencies, not metaphysics, which deals in the Absolute. The nature of the Absolute would become the centre of philosophical gravity for post-Kantian idealisms, but Hamann already recognized the problem of this philosophical move before it even takes place when he writes to Jacobi: “Being, faith, reason are merely relations which are not to be dealt with as absolutes; they are not things, but pure academic concepts, signs for the understanding, not things to be admired, but means of helping to awaken and fix our attention.”

If one thinks that the truth of life’s meaning is disclosed through reason itself, then Hamann’s position is absurd. Though it is precisely this question of what reason is and what it can really do that runs through Hamann’s critique of metaphysical thinking. While it is commonplace for philosophers to present people of faith as ignorant, or superstitious dupes as opposed, for example, to Dennett’s “brights,” Hamann’s contrast between the God of “rational salvation” and the “God of historical revelation’ is the contrast between ahistorical abstract thinking taking its cues of truth from “nature” and an historical hermeneutical community taking its orientation from a tradition and its symbols grounded in mystery, creation, miraculous contingencies, covenant, prophesy, love, hope and faith in salvation. The enlightened philosophers can only construe all this through a process of “denuding,” so that what is left is mere “nature;” or rather those features of nature, which accommodate the framing required by the experimental and mathematical conditions that render it a totality of laws.

Spinoza’s breaking down of the emotions into natural drives, which then, along with other natural circumstances, are invoked to make sense of the Bible, exemplifies the process. It is, though, the substitution of a history based upon the understanding as opposed to the history of the imagination, the substitution of what exclusively conforms to law for what is frequently parable, and the substitution of one community’s orientation—the philosophers’ community—for the communities of the Jewish and Christian peoples.

For Hamann the failure to grasp that historical nature is not mere nature, but one in which symbols, imagination, and the gamut of semiotic triggers bind and form communities is a mere prejudice of enlightenment philosophers, and illustrates a major difference between the depth of knowledge about the nature of people and life within the religious tradition that the enlightened are simply blind to because of their own prejudice. Thus, of Lessing’s Education of the Human Race, he writes in a letter to Herder:

A week ago, I took up the Education of the Human Race for the second time… Basically the old leaven of our fashionable philosophy: prejudice against Judaism [i.e. anti-historical]—ignorance of the true spirit of the Reformation [i.e. knowing only philosophical self-salvation].

Another major reason why Hamann is considered an early existentialist is because he revels in the absurd—in a manner that suggests a deep affinity with the British author Laurence Sterne—and he turns the tables on those who would take the absurdity of existence as if it were somehow capable of receiving a rational explanation. And he does this in all manner of ways, from the (seriously) playful nature of his authorship, to his position on language as a miracle, to his critique of the enlightenment as a form of idolatry. The great irony of the power of Hamann’s thought is that it plays the “fool” against reason’s majesty and might, only to expose the threadbare nature of that majesty. Philosophy engages in a substitution racket and takes unreal things as real things—and then it criticizes things we know through the very lives we live, because they do not conform to the unreal schema we have created.

Of course, Nietzsche will make this same point—but the real assessment of any comparison between Nietzsche and Hamann revolves around what one thinks of their respective faiths in the superman or Christian life, and it must be said, Nietzsche’s and Hamann’s radically different views over what the Christian life entails. Hamann would undoubtedly find in Nietzsche’s (and Heidegger’s) reading of Christianity an ahistorical fantasy. Both Nietzsche and Hamann, nevertheless, concur about Platonism being an “enemy” of life, and Hamann’s admiration for Socrates does not extend to the legacy of his greatest pupil, which he sees as an being inimical to Christianity: “Platonism is not the friend but the enemy of Christianity.”

Bearing the above in mind, then, it is true that Hamann was opposed to placing faith in the abstract “reason” of imagined “forms.” And he wrote to Jacobi that “the entire Kantian construction appears to me to rest upon the idle trust that certainty comes ex vi formae [by the power of forms].” Which is to say, he saw Kant’s entire undertaking of the transcendental delimiting of the legitimacy boundaries of our experience in the Critique of Pure Reason as completely wrong-headed.

For the mind to try and understand itself through self-reflection and the study of the “mind” is akin to someone thinking that fish are produced by a fishing rod, (the same analogy is also apposite for understanding why Hamann objects to naturalist attempts to understand language of the sort that he thought his close friend Herder had foolishly undertaken). Why the mind is more knowable than language and experience is itself, though, due to a mistaken faith. And this faith in the mind’s power to oversee itself, is, for Hamann, a blind and blinding faith that suffocates and smothers “life” with its own limited understanding and glaring light. As he would write to Herder: enlightened reason is the reason of “sadduaic freethinkers;” and their “reason is untruth, a superstition.” “Sound reason” exists in their “imagination.” Thus Alexander perceptively observes:

Hamann can sum up his authorship as an “exposure [Entkleidung] and transfiguration” of those who attempt “a violent unclothing [Entkleidung] of real objects down to naked concepts and bare intellectual entities, pure phantoms, and phenomena.”

And,

Hamann’s purpose is to challenge “the despotism of Apollo” [“God of wisdom” i.e., philosophy] which “fetters truth and freedom in demonstrative proofs, principles and conclusions” (II, 272). These things only distort truth, which is not enshrined in any consistent combination of ideas. Truth is the life which became flesh and the Spirit which “justifies and makes alive” (III, 227). God gives life to us in a unity which does not come before us dissected into intellectual abstractions. In His revelation of Himself He concentrates Himself in the unity of one human person. Not only in his thought, but in his style as well, Hamann tries to reflect this concentration and this unity. His style is its own symbolic attack on that way of thinking which “prefers the conceivability of a thing to its truth.
Truths, principles; systems I am not up to. Rather scraps, fragments, crotchets, thoughts.

I might also add here that the similarities between Hamann’s and Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics and their eschewal of “naked” truth cannot be overestimated—but Nietzsche, unlike Hamann, hails a new metaphysics of will to power because he wants philosophers to be the value creators of the future. For Hamann, the idea that one can philosophically will a culture would be just one further symptom of the derangement of enlightenment faith.

In so far as Hamann is correct to recognize that the “Greek” (i.e., philosophical) mind, with its various “ideas,” names, and way of going about its business had culturally triumphed over the “Jewish” and early Christian spirit, Hamann had no choice than to “speak Greek.” Although he mixed it up with babble and strange tongues to both engage and confuse minds dealing with clarity and distinctness in a world full of lives which rarely offers either. That is, to truly take on what he saw as becoming the dominant faith of the new age on whose cusp he lived, any criticisms which might be heard by the younger generation had to be, at least partially, philosophically shaped. Yet the purpose of his speaking philosophically was to draw philosophy into another, more hermeneutical rather than “rationalist” or metaphysical “camp.”

Moreover, it was not that he thought all philosophical thinking was useless, a point made obvious in his Socratic Memorabilia that shows his serious respect for philosophy which was genuinely inquisitive, yet sufficiently humble to accept reason’s aporias, rather than engage in elaborate rationalisation and abstraction which swiftly becomes an idol of one’s own making. To his friend Lindner he wrote:

An ancient king of Israel believed in an old witch who saw gods mount up out of the earth. Since then, our philosophers have tightly closed their eyes in order not to have to read any distractions to the detriment of nature, and have folded their hands in their laps to pamper their beautiful skin; and it has rained castles-in-the-air and philosophical systems from heaven. Whoever would work his land or build houses, dig up or conceal treasures, must dig in the womb of the earth, which is the mother of us all.

Alexander cleverly observes three major ways in which philosophy appears in Hamann:

Hamann uses the term philosophy in at least three different senses which taken together, point to Hamann’s distinctive conception of philosophy and faith.

1. Philosophy understood as against faith, or as another faith. Often “philosophy” in Hamann means “false philosophy.” Philosophy here is “idolatry.” If he thought of “Rome” and “papacy” as cryptic symbols for the new philosophical “despotism” of the Enlightenment, then perhaps he also spoke of this philosophy as anti-Christ …

2. Philosophy understood as before faith, or better, before Christ. Philosophy here is “ignorance.” This is philosophy which is not yet Christian, but is not anti-Christian or incompatible with faith. Its symbol is Socrates.

3. Philosophy understood as in Christ, or as thinking “from faith to faith.” Philosophy here is “love of the LOGOS.” Much of what he calls “philosophy” in this sense would in modern usage be called theology. An example is in his letter to the Princess Galitzin, December 1787: “Herein [in Jesus Christ] consists the Alpha and Omega of my entire philosophy. More I know not, and do not wish to know.”

What is most original is that Hamann had, at the time of the Enlightened philosophy’s greatest self-assurance, opened up the meaning of philosophy in such a way that we may legitimately inquire after the religion of a philosophy, and not blithely accept the enlightened reading of religion as the outer shell of a philosophy, which could be understood by the “natural reason” of the philosopher, and thus turned against those world and self-making aspects of religion which could be relegated to mere “superstition.” With this insight Hamann had thrown out a philosophical challenge to philosophers from Spinoza through to Hume and Voltaire et. al.

But while Hamann’s madcap style and provocations would ensure acclaim amongst philosophical and literary luminaries, such as, Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel (up to a point), and Jean Paul, his erstwhile friend Kant would fail to recognize anything of genuine philosophical importance in Hamann. And he would write his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, as if he were oblivious to the significance of his former friend’s challenge, and provide one further enlightened rationalisation for religion being morals for people who could not take their medicine straight, as rational ideas, but who needed the hoopla of ritual to ingest it. But, for Hamann, it was actually morality itself as an object of reason, and (again) the philosopher’s substantiation of a thought process into a “faculty” that was genuinely phantasmic and idolatrous. As he would write to Herder after reading Kant’s Metaphysical Elements of Ethics:

Instead of Pure Reason the talk here is of another phantom of the brain and idol: the Good Will. That Kant is one of our shrewdest heads, even his enemies must admit, but unfortunately this shrewdness is his own evil demon, just as is the case with Lessing; for a new scholasticism and a new papacy are represented by both of these Midas ears of our glorious age.

Just as Hamann saw philosophy in anthropological terms, his hermeneutical apologetics of Christian faith is such that it exposes any such enlightened reductions as vacuous precisely by illustrating how faith orientates, and hence how different faiths orientate differently. Thus, even if one does not share another’s faith, one at least will be able to see how faith incarnates a life and a life-world. This would be an insight that would be of decisive importance for Herder.

Of the various orientations and emphases that lay behind Hamann’s insight into where faith fits in life, one of the most elemental that has important implications in more standard philosophical theologies is his (Lutheran) overturning of the more traditional theo-philosophical account of the “nature” or character and “directionf of the relationship between humans and God. The Greek movement toward monotheism, which would be so fateful in the neo-Platonic and neo-Aristotelian traditions and that wing of the Christian tradition that had been deeply influenced by those traditions, had all identified the soul’s spiritual journey as a process of transcendence, an upward movement of the soul to a God who Himself is characterized by his “transcendence.”

In response to this Hamann makes the obvious point (though one that is rarely expressed within philosophically shaped theologies) about the Jewish and Christian God that “is the basis of all his [i.e., the philosopher’s] attacks” on “natural; theology” and “natural religion”, viz., that, within the biblical narratives, it is not God’s transcendence that is the all-important issue for understanding the human predicament in relationship to God, but God’s “condescension.”

When theologians and philosophers refer to God’s transcendence, a term that evolves out of the Greek philosophical mind rather than biblical tradition, and when they refer to transcendence, without focusing upon the greater mystery of condescension, for Hamann, they not only misconstrue God, but they foster an exaggerated and idolatrous faith in the power of the world. For transcendence, as Alexander sums up Hamann’s position, is “world-oriented,” but the “symbol of ‘condescension’ is God-orientated.” That is the theo-philosophical emphasis upon God’s transcendence means that He is conceived, in the first instance, in relationship to the world, which appears familiar to us. Alexander also uses the example of baroque art to brilliant effect to illustrate what Hamann’s sees as what is at stake when we focus upon the relationship between God and humans as one of transcendence, rather than “condescendence:”

A glance at the art ruling Hamann’s age instantly reveals the source of Hamann’s instinctive objection: its world is one in which reason’s confidence in its position, its powers and its cosmos are self-secure. The world is more real than God. Everything Hamann protests against is here: it is a world in which reason demonstrates its dominance over every nook and cranny of reality. Ornamentation and artistic ramification testify to its self-confidence. No area is beyond its all-shaping power. When God in His “transcendence” is represented, it is “transcendence” (as in Sebastiano Conca’s “David Dancing Before the Ark”) over an otherwise “solid” earth. There is no question here as to what reality is utterly prior—it is man’s world and the human reason which has shaped it—and no amount of “height” in the painting can improve God’s “status.” Divine infinity has disappeared and only a domesticated variety remains.

Alexander adds that commencing with the “world-orientated” theology turns “all symbols into irrational assertions, and theology has simply asseverated that we must be content with this irrationality.”

By starting from the familiar, as natural theology does, to the unfamiliar, we have immediately reversed what Hamann sees as the far more profound insight of revelation; for what we do in the world with biblical faith is commence with something mysterious that is disclosed through parables, stories, commands etc. Moreover, for Hamann, the whole point of the Bible is revealed through how it speaks to its faithful, and the living power it reveals to those who are prepared to build their lives and world through faith in that power. Thus, for Hamann: “Every biblical story is a prophecy which is fulfilled through all centuries and in the soul of every man” (1,315). But also, “Every book is a Bible to me and every occupation a prayer”’ And “All the miracles of the holy scriptures happen in our souls” (I, 78). In other words, Hamann sees the universe as one that is pregnant with meaning. Of course, so does the schizophrenic, but the “gamble” of faith (to draw upon Pascal) lies, for Hamann, not in the origin—for faith in something is inescapable—it lies in what that faith engenders in a life and in a community.

One of the more remarkable features of the Western world today is that while the academic mind so frequently serves the enlightened ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, it has largely accepted the importance of culture as a primordial and positive force of identity. We shall briefly return to this point in our discussion of Herder, but here I simply wish to underscore that Hamann was living at a time when Western culture was undergoing a seismic shift due to philosophy extending into the various domains of human being, which up until relatively recent times it had little, or at best, as in the church, an ancillary role to play.

He had grasped that the world of Christendom and its culture was being swallowed up into a world bathed in philosophical glare. He was not a romantic wanting to revive medieval Christendom, as say Novalis or Frederick Schlegel, or Franz von Baader would become. And he did not idolize culture itself. But what is interesting is that the kinds of arguments he is raising about peoples and their faith, arguments developed and expanded along somewhat similar lines by Herder in applying them to cultures (though I think Hamann always the more radical, consistent mind), have been accepted not only by the more anthropologically inclined and in the humanities more broadly, but in society’s ideas-brokers at large.

Yet when it comes to the West itself, the victory of the enlightened mind is intrinsic to the general historical amnesia, and often sheer hostility, to Christian symbols and history. Hamann’s importance is that he taps into the experiential dimension that makes sense of Christianity as a personal and collective act, by constantly deploying biblical examples to illumine (genuinely enlighten) everyday as well as more perennial kinds of experience.

To put this slightly differently: today we can all accept that the imagination, history, language, and faith of people matter more than the reasons we impose upon them (which is not to say that we have to accept, as Gellner and others have feared that this leaves us without any means of critical judgments about cultural practice). That is, we think culture matters. Hamann opens up the door to why and how faith matters culturally and personally.

For, while Hamann is “up front” about his Christianity and Lutheran outlook, an outlook he not only did not assume his readers shared, and which many of his readers did not share, Hamann undertakes to be a thorn in the Enlightenment, a kind of Christian Socrates against the enlightened philosophers, who, for Hamann, are the sophists of his own time. They come with their own theological dogma and faith in their reason to deliver salvation, which though is largely hidden to them because they think they serve truth, and that the world will be saved through their works. But their truth is a lifeless idol.

What has taken the place of divine infinity is now reason’s infinity: its infinite capacity is the corollary of its absoluteness—whether as a heuristic (Kant) or substance (Hegel) makes no difference to the essential point Hamann recognizes. What, though, is meant to be the philosophical display of reason’s supreme majesty, is, for Hamann, really indicative of the mayhem of the age, a mayhem in which the every-day truths of every-day life are maimed by abstractness.

The most fundamental act of intellectual maiming, for Hamann, occurs through the philosophical cleavages which purport to deliver rationally pure forms and classifications. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, as the name of his short essay on Kant clarified, was symptomatic of this delusional obsession with purity. As Hamann presents the problem, the increasing ascension of philosophical purity has occurred over time at the expense of the most elemental features of human sociality: tradition, custom, belief, religion, law-making, and ultimately language itself.

The first philosophical purification consisted in the partly misunderstood, partly failed attempt to make reason independent of all tradition and custom and belief in them. The second is even more transcendent and amounts to nothing less than independence from all experience and its everyday induction. After a search of two thousand years for who knows what beyond experience, reason not only suddenly despairs of the progressive course of its predecessors, but also defiantly promises impatient contemporaries’ delivery and this in a short time, promises also, of that general and infallible philosopher’s stone indispensable to Catholicism and despotism. Religion will submit its sanctity to it right away, and law-giving its majesty, especially at the final close of a critical century when empiricism on both sides struck blind, makes its own nakedness daily more suspect and ridiculous.
The third, highest, and as it were empirical purism, is therefore concerned with language, the only, first, and last organon and criterion of reason, with no other credentials but tradition and usage.

Yet again, we see a Nietzschean trope—“be true to the earth”—already deployed by Hamann against the destructive incursions of metaphysics into the most elemental features of social life.

Such talk as reason’s grounding or basis alludes to its capacity for building a tower or ladder to better understand the ways of God, the term which still worked for the deists, and, with German idealism, would become equivalent to or more often subsumed under the term the Absolute, before the Absolute would, with Fichte and the neo-Hegelians, and Nietzsche, become the imposition of the human will. For Hamann this overweening ambition and self-idolization—addressed in the story of the tower of Babel—could lead to nothing but disaster.

With great prescience he would see that the disaster would be driven by morality—which was just a veneer for the self-belief that people have in being able to dictate to God’s creation—i.e., life—how it should be: In a letter to Hartknoch he speaks of “our moralistic century” and in another to Jacobi he writes of the “moralistic” enlightened free thinkers as “apostles of lies.” And to Johann Steudel, he refers to “the moralistic generation of vipers among the Pharisees.” This is but one more example of Hamann’s turning of the tables on the men who believed that their own light would save the world—for it is usually Christians who are presented (and indeed often guilty of) grim and earnest moralizing.

For Hamann, “morality, bourgeois righteousness, industrious community service and charities” fueled the problem of evil—and he countered with the simple faith that “Christ is the door.” I think the following sentence will also resonate with those who cannot stand the virtue signaling that has become so widespread and which emanates from people who want for nothing, and who live off the ill-gotten (for they themselves keep saying how ill-gotten everything in the West is) gains of their forefathers, but seek ever more adulation for being who they pretend to be: “A strict moralism appears to me more vile and stale than the most capricious ridicule and scorn. To turn the good inward, and to show the evil outwardly—to appear worse than one actually is, to be better than one appears: this I hold for one’s duty and way of life.”

While Hamann is not strictly a political philosopher, he could see that what the enlightened philosophers were spreading was a suffocating web of tyrannical moralising. Thus, Alexander writes: “The ‘philosophical century,’ a proud epithet to the illuminati of the eighteenth century, Hamann uses as a term of opprobrium. He speaks of the ‘Babylonian philosophy’ which stands under the Confusion of Babel. It is the new “despotism,” a ‘metaphysical, moralizing’ Catholicism, ‘which has its seat in the very place [Berlin] where such an outcry is raised over the papacy.’”

More important than the nausea he felt at the philosophical sycophancy directed at Frederick the Great, and Frederick’s own taste for vain-glory was his prophetic sense of the hellish future emerging from the idolatry of reason’s light. In 1762 when the following passage first appeared it may have seemed the ravings of a lunatic, but in 1794 it was nothing if not prescient:

Nature works through the senses and the passions. But those who maim these instruments, how can they feel? Are crippled sinews fit for movement?—Your lying, murderous philosophy has cleared nature out of the way, and why do you demand that we are to imitate her?—So that you can renew the pleasure by becoming murderers of the pupils of nature, too—Yes, you delicate critics of art!, you go on asking what is truth, and make for the door, because you cannot wait for an answer to this question—Your hands are always washed, whether you are about to eat bread, or whether you have just pronounced a death-sentence.

Such prophecy, for Hamann, stands in the closest relationship to what it was he saw as the real meaning of Enlightenment: a power grab by abstract moralizers who want to become the guides and guardians of their new world. In his Letter to Christian Jacob Krauss he responds to Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?” with its “Sapere aude!” and Kant’s claim that enlightenment is the emergence of people from their “self-incurred tutelage.”

Hamann immediately “smells a rat;” for who is it who espies those in need of emancipation, and what is their role in the process, and what benefits accrue to them in terms of office, profession, prestige and such like? I quote at length because it is such a powerful indictment of the Enlightenment, which comes armed with its own mythology, and which has been used to judge all other mythologies but its own, which it seals with the sanction of a reason that is naught but its own conjuring:

Who is the other lay-about or guide that the author has in mind but has not the heart to utter? Answer: the tiresome guardian who must be implicitly understood as the correlate of those who are immature. This is the man of death. The self-incurred guardianship and not immaturity-
Why does the chiliast deal so fastidiously with this lad Absalom? Because he reckons himself to the class of guardians and wishes thereby to attain a high reputation before immature readers. The immaturity is thus self-incurred only insofar as it surrenders to the guidance of a blind or invisible (as that Pomeranian catechism pupil bellowed at his country pastor) guardian and leader. This is the true man of death-
So wherein lies the inability or fault of the falsely accused immature one? In his own laziness and cowardice? No, it lies in the blindness of his guardian, who purports to be able to see, and for that very reason must bear the whole responsibility for the fault.
With what kind of conscience can a reasoner [Raisonneur] & speculator by the stove and in a nightcap accuse the immature one! of cowardice, when their blind guardian has a large, well-disciplined army to guarantee his infallibility and orthodoxy? How can one mock the laziness of such immature persons, when their enlightened and self-thinking guardian-as the emancipated gaper at the whole spectacle declares him to be—sees them not even as machines but as mere shadows of his grandeur, of which he need have no fear at all, since they are his ministering spirits and the only ones in whose existence he believes?
So doesn’t it all come to the same thing? Believe, march, pay, if the d[evil] is not to take you. Is it not sottise des trois parts? And which is the greatest and most difficult? An army of priests [Pfaffen] or of thugs, hench-men, and purse snatchers? According to the strange, unexpected pattern in human affairs in which on the whole nearly everything is paradoxical, believing seems harder for me than moving mountains, doing tactical exercises-and the financial exploitation of immature persons, donec reddant novissimum quadrantem [till they have paid the last penny].

In this sense, then, the understanding and use of reason is itself corrupted, and philosophers who would have reason devour way more than it can chew, and in their devouring prepare the world for a new kind of hellish tyranny, concealed under the birth lights of rational progress.

In depicting Hamann’s critique of the Enlightenment, let us take up again the earlier point about the gods and the life-worlds of pre-philosophical peoples so that we can bring into sharp relief the world of faith in reason’s ideas and faith in gods. For Hamann is not for a second claiming that we should deny what we know to be true. But (again Nietzsche makes the same point but in a more palatable way to a readership hankering to display its creative genius in world-making), he contrasts one world, which divinizes its ideas without conceding that it does this, with another, which rests on faith about a God it obeys and whose way are miraculous and hence never completely rational or comprehensible.

And he finds no compelling reason whatever—precisely because he takes experience and history as the touchstones of reasons about human matters—for rationalized principles to be taken as completely truthful of anything about us or our world. Whereas Kant had thought he had demonstrated, in defense of human dignity, that the very form of our reason is the clue to how we generate a moral content so that we are not (at least in thought) beholden to the limits of our nature and world, Hamann sees nothing but lunacy in such an aspiration.

Again, the comparison with Nietzsche is apposite: Nietzsche had stressed that behind reasons of value we would find nothing, at least nothing other than a will to power. But for him that meant he and the higher men should see nihilism as an opportune condition so that they could then create a higher culture and breed supermen who would give meaning to the earth.

Hamann would have been caught between nausea and laughter had he read Nietzsche: nausea at the sickening nature of the arrogance and all the deluded blather about great men, and heroes that was so typical of 19th century romantics fearful that the world in the making was as Nietzsche had put it, one fit for nothing more than “hopping fleas;” laughter at the kind of people who sit around and fancy in all seriousness and pomposity that they can provide the conditions for human greatness. He would, though, I think we can safely say, have loved Chesterton’s depiction of the superman as the feathered creature living in Croydon who was so sensitive that a breeze could kill him.

Hamann perhaps speaks more forcefully to us today than to his contemporaries. For we have witnessed what forces the attempt to replace gods with reasons and political actions of the sort pushed for by Nietzsche and Marx have unleashed. And we can also see that the less eschatological rights-driven attempt to replace this world with a morally absolute one, while having success in the West, is not at all embraced in cultures, where traditional values and figurative speech and imagination still are very much alive.

The only God that reason ever overthrew was the God of reason, but that God was itself a philosophical/metaphysical creation. Yet it was the case that as the faith in abstract ideas grew, as people have become more caught up in and satiated by material success, as, to use Weber’s terms, instrumental reason contributed to the disenchantment of the world, Western people have cared less for a “language” and for rituals in which the “gods” were called upon.

But the world’s mysteries do not stop because we are less conscious of them. The pre-moderns, which is to say a great number who inhabit the globe today, had accepted and still accept that the world is full of mysterious powers and thus told stories about their gods. And their gods were the living powers which “overpowered,” or “ruled” over them, and hence the powers to which they supplicated themselves.

Again, let me turn to Hamann’s greatest and most original “pupil” of the twentieth century Rosenstock-Huessy, a thinker who like Hamann challenged the security of the modern mind by his persistent recourse to ancient symbols and “names” to enable it to see with different, and more attuned eyes what was happening in the pre-modern world and to the selves it was shaping, in order to better see what moderns were oblivious to in their own destructive doing. The echoes of Hamann loudly resound in the following passage addressing the perennial and existential nature of human supplication and “divine” invocation by Rosenstock-Huessy:

Manifold are the powers which raise their voices in man. Anything may become his “god”, anything his ‘world.” Atheists, for example, may bring the “concept of God” before their tribunal in the name of their own God, matter. In other words, their God is matter, and their doubts and questions are aimed at a dead thing, the definition of theology. But this heckling of theological concepts has little to do with the name of the living God. A God is present in the materialist’s question as in any other. God is not a concept. He is always a person, and he bears a name. The name in which we are asked to ask others.
For instance, when I ask a sportsman: “How may a good sport do such and such a thing?” I invoke the power of sport. The sportsman in question shall not justify himself for my personal satisfaction. He is summoned to satisfy “Sportsmanship” and Her imperative. I am evading the disagreeable situation of somebody setting himself up as in authority, but putting the Sport on the higher level and myself remaining on the same human level with the other fellow. Yet there can be no doubt that I am relying on the existence of two levels, one of human democracy, the other of ruling powers….
The power who puts questions into our mouths and makes us answer them is our God. The power which makes the atheist fight for atheism is his God. Of course, God is not a school examiner. Man never gives his real answer in words; he gives himself…The gods whom we answer by devoting our lives to their worship and service ask for obedience, not for lip-confession. Art, science, sex, greed, socialism, speed—these gods of our age devour the lives of their worshippers completely.

That the gods preceded man, and that, historically, polytheism precedes monotheism are both indications of how the ancients sought to make sense of their worlds and their selves. Monotheism was, inter alia, a cry for the concordance of these powers to cohere and life and death to be under the dominion of a higher justice and goodness than evident in our mortal experience. This cry for concordance is partly addressed in Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythologies, where the gods belonged to a common “household,” so that these living powers and mysterious surprising forces, for all their discord, share the same “dwelling.” The polytheistic residues are evident, as Rosenstock-Huessy also observes, in the plural Elohim expressing, for the Jews, “the divine powers of creation.”

The modern rebuilding of everything from scratch, the mind’s year zero of Descartes et. al. is at once a reversal of how life has been experienced, and figuratively represented by pre-philosophical people, as well as an occlusion of our fragility and dependency. The initial anti-historical bent of Descartes was quickly replaced by a combination of models and axiomatic philosophical mythical history, so conspicuous, in the social contract theorists, that were indicative of the new myth-making of those relying upon their “natural reason,” and who would interpret history as not only a repository of myth, but as a template for their own projections which were meant to grasp what was really happening in order better to fix it with their philosophies. That is, they preferred their stories to those who had made the past, and reconfigured them in such a way that the earlier stories would fit the templates and models of those who “understood” more and came later, and whose energies were devoted to making a new kind of future.

But if we rely upon our understanding to provide “meaning” of the past we are inevitably drawn back into the mythic. That generation upon generation of historians will revise previous findings of the past as they get closer to the “truth” is invariably the result of the new quest and questioning being posed to the “facts” of the past. But the new quest with its own certitudes—such as the certitude of knowing what is involved in the creation of a less oppressive or more just society (in spite of philosophers ceaselessly disputing the principles and assessments as much as historians dispute the roles and “weights” of different causes and meanings of events)—is itself but the identification and valorisation of ideas of orientation and value that reflect faith in the new god.

Historical knowledge ostensibly provides a firm foundation alongside reason, but its mythic dimension is the inevitable result of us not simply deriving meaning from events, much less interpreting an event as just a collection of itemised or catalogued facts, but us drawing upon events to support the meaning of the world we inhabit. Thus, Hamann surmises against Viscount Bolingbroke: “Perhaps the whole of history is more mythology than this philosopher thinks, and like nature a sealed book, a cloaked witness, a riddle which cannot be solved unless we plough with some other ox than our reason.” And, “The field of history has always seemed to me to be like that wide field that was full of bones, and behold, they were very dry. Only a prophet can prophesy of these bones that veins and flesh will grow on them and skin cover them.”

The reference here to prophecy stands in the closest relationship to another invaluable insight of Hamann, viz., that as we are ever poised between past and future, and as future is making us as much as past is forming us, we are as much implicated in the quality of our prophetic capacities as in our observational ones. Neither our prophetic nor observational capacities are substances. But they are all part of a more general sensorium which informs our understanding, even though we understand very little of how we understand, let alone prophesy, or mediate between past and future.

Our knowledge is indeed in part, and our prophesying in part; united, however, it is a triple cord that is not quickly broken. If one falls, the other will lift up his fellow; if the two lie together, then they have heat. What would all knowledge of the present be without a divine remembrance of the past, and without an even more fortunate intimation of the future, as Socrates owed to his daemon? What would the spirit of observation be without the spirit of prophecy and its guiding threads of the past and future? It rains its gifts on the rebellious also, that the Lord might nonetheless be and dwell among them incognito without their knowledge and will.

And,

Despite the authority of the intellectual universe into presence and absence, I do not pretend that these predicates are anything more than subjective conditions by which no actual duplication of the objects themselves is substantiated, but rather merely a relationship of the diverse views and sides of one and the same thing to the measure of the inward man which corresponds to them, to his negative, variable, finite power which is incapable of any omnipresence because this is the exclusive property of a positive immeasurability.

Likewise, the spirits of observation and of prophecy are expressions of a single positive power which cannot be divorced by their nature but only in thoughts and for the use of thoughts; they in fact mutually presuppose themselves, refer to each other, and have effects in common. Hence when I compared the present with an indivisible point, the duplication of its power and its close connection with the past, as effect, and with the future, as cause, are not at all cancelled.

The enlightened philosophers had indeed put themselves in the role of prophets through their intimation that knowledge in accordance with the philosophical strictures they placed upon it would yield a more benign future. But knowledge is a vast, indeed boundless field, when it comes to trying to identify precisely what will come of what we do. The enlightened philosophers were only as good as the lights by which they operated, and those lights were (to rephrase Pascal) as much of the heart as of the head, the question that Hamann keeps throwing at these philosophers and their philosophers is simply: how much do you really know about the human heart and the human circumstance? Is it really better than the vast compendium of observation across ages, types of people and circumstances, the concatenation of contingencies gathered within the Bible?

Of course, this earlier “knowledge” is not method-dependent, and hence “unenlightened,” but are Spinoza and Descartes, Rousseau and Kant et. al. really more insightful about who and what we are than the biblical authors, or artists such as Homer or Shakespeare? Some do concede they are. But there is no compelling grounds to concede this. Further those who use philosophy to prove the superiority of the philosophical approach to value and existential meaning are only compelling to those who already share their faith in philosophy’s power.

As we saw with the founding of the new metaphysics, it initially takes off by studying nature and reason as such, before moving into ethics, politics, aesthetics etc. But Hume had raised the issue whether the science itself really needed the metaphysics (even though he still drew upon it). For his part Hamann, like Pascal, had the good sense to know that the study of natural science (a subject which he seems to have taken little interest in) was completely irrelevant to the kinds of claims he was making.

On the other hand, he made the critical observation of the Cartesian and post-Cartesian view of nature that is at once the kind of pre-philosophical observation any person sensitive to “nature” could make, and also central to the phenomenological critique of reductive naturalism and its metaphysics. The following collection of citations from Hamann all bring out different features of this insight, and give a sense of how important it is to Hamann:

Only a “bloody-lying philosophy” pretends this is all to nature, and thereby sets nature aside
Nature is an equation of an unknown quantity, like a Hebrew letter without vowel-points. It is a book, a letter, a “fable.” It takes more than physics to exegete her).
The great and small Masoretes of philosophy have poured over the text of nature like a flood. Must not all her beauties and riches be reduced to water?
Is nature a matter of “single, natural points to which everything reduces itself? Does everything consist of mathematical lines?”
Nature groans under such tyranny and longs for the day when it will be free of man’s fallen condition.

Just as Plato had moved from the study of the cobbler to reasoning about how we should live, and the nature of the entire cosmos, the new philosophical idea-ism had quickly moved from the study of “nature” and “mind” to all else beside. But such a move requires ignoring the very different (to use Wittgenstein’s formulation) “rules” of different “language games.”

And it is precisely when we take stock of the unavoidable fact that reasoning, whilst not denying ‘blazes’ of insight, or the mute thereness of all manner of contingencies, nor, even, the importance of silence in reflection, is operating in a world made by and smothered in the calls and behests, the promises and decisions, the education within a “problematic” and field of learning with its historical development, and concatenation of support structures, professional opportunities, that is to say in the vast formative, triggering, incubating and commanding powers of language enmeshed in assigned roles and circumstances, the understanding of which circulates socially.

As Hamann would write: “If I were only as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would need to do no more than repeat one phrase three times: reason is language, Λόγος; this marrowbone I gnaw and will gnaw myself to death over it.”

Hamann’s conviction that reason cannot be divorced from language, and that human life is so bound up with language that one cannot “transcend” it to make any sense of actual lives, and “life-worlds” stands in striking contrast to the idea that the mind “uses” language as a tool is an elementary, albeit widely held belief that is found in philosophy. Whether Hamann followed all the conceptual twists and turns of the first Critique and how they related to Aristotle, Leibniz, and Newton is impossible to gauge from his pithy critique of Kant and comments expressed in letters, but he certainly recognized immediately that Kant had treated reason as if language were not intrinsic to reason or even the world. Commencing with a paraphrase of Kant’s question, he observes:

How is the faculty of thought possible? the faculty to think right and left, before and without, with and beyond experience?—then no deduction is needed to demonstrate the genealogical priority of language, and its heraldry, over the seven holy functions of logical propositions and inferences. Not only is the entire faculty of thought founded on language, according to the unrecognized prophecies and slandered miracles of the very commendable Samuel Heinicke, but language is also the centerpoint of reason’s misunderstanding with itself, partly because of the frequent coincidence of the greatest and the smallest concept, its vacuity and its plenitude in ideal propositions, partly because of the infinite [advantage] of rhetorical over inferential figures, and much more of the same.
Sounds and letters are therefore pure forms a priori, in which nothing belonging to the sensation or concept of an object is found; they are the true, aesthetic elements of all human knowledge and reason.

That Kant had privileged mathematical physics over the vast expanse of the world “experience,” thereby creating a hiatus between “morality” and “experience,” each with their own transcendental foundations adding support to metaphysical principles, whilst also making the faculty of (aesthetic and teleological) judgment a mediator between two worlds, is completely in keeping with the Cartesian break with experience as historical. Thus, conceptualisation of experiences in Kant, governed by the understanding in conjunction with its intuited representations, draws upon a mental disposition to reality, which has nothing to do with the actual social processes involved in the demarcation of different spaces of investigation, role reciprocation, and the great amalgam of activities and other dispositions (mental as well as physical and social) where tradition and language reinforce each other. But it is precisely these kinds of convergences that Hamann notices. Thus, in his Essay on an Academic Question, (published under the pseudonym Aristobulus) Hamann writes:

The lineaments of a people’s language will therefore correspond with the orientation of its mode of thinking, which is revealed through the nature, form, laws, and customs of its speech as well as through its external culture and through a spectacle of public actions.

It is through speech that we take notice, that we form not just groups, but communities beholden to publicly declared commitments and associations, thereby leaving the eternal present of mutability or more elemental languages of mere animality, and move between past and future, as generations may “feed off” the discoveries and legacies, as well as errors of the past. “Speak that I may see you!—This wish was fulfilled by creation, which is a speech to creatures through creatures; for day unto day utters speech, and night unto night shows knowledge.”

But, for Hamann, speech does not thereby elevate us to the all-seeing position of a Zeus, or deist’s philosophical God, which the philosopher would love to reach, and which may free us from error. On the contrary,

To speak is to translate—from an angelic language into a human language, that is, to translate thoughts into words—things into names—images into signs, which can be poetic or curiological, historic or symbolic or hieroglyphic—and philosophical or characteristic. This kind of translation (that is, speech) resembles more than anything else the wrong side of a tapestry:
And shews the Stuff, but not the Workman’s skill, or it can be compared with an eclipse of the sun, which can be looked at in a vessel of water.

Or, as Paul put it, we experience the world as through a glass darkly. And while our senses do indeed convey information to us, it is our galvanization of collective and collaborated experiences that enables us to make sense of our senses. Thinking that reason somehow provides the all-knowing vantage point, makes no sense at all to Hamann, because reason can only work with the materials at its disposal, and apart from sensation it is primarily language. Thus, he writes to Jacobi:

With me it is not so much the question: What is reason? but rather: what is language! And I take this to be the basis of all paralogisms and antinomies which it is customary to lay at the doorstep of the former [the reason]. Thus, it happens that one takes words for concepts, and concepts for things themselves. In words and concepts no existence is possible which applies simply to things and matters of fact.

Language is simultaneously the storehouse, retriever of all past knowledge and past experience, as well as what activates so many of our moods and aspirations for the future—it speaks from and of the inner as well as the outer. We did not make language any more than we made our hands or feet or heads. Yet, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, we are making and remaking it all the time, just as it is making and remaking us. It is the source of our reason as much as the source of the abuse of reason, and much else. But it is also miraculously bestowed, rather than willed, and it grows and activates far beyond any limits of intention. It is alive with spirit. The divine word and the Holy Spirit are, for Hamann, both intrinsic to the faith that is deeply experiential and antithetical to a more abstract way of thinking based-on separating our participation in life from life as objectified.

Hamann had seen and amply demonstrated that the seam of biblical speech fitted the very condition that anything real has: potency. And the reality of something is its truth. Plato had conceded that even as he attempted to bifurcate reality into the higher and lower, the idea and that which participates within it. As did Aristotle, who distanced himself from this dualism of Plato, as he tried to conjoin the aspects of what made the real in such a way that it would remain within the province of philosophy. This required designating what was substance and what mere accident so that we could compare and inquire into substances.

But both Plato and Aristotle elevate the mind and definition in tandem with the idea and substance. The proof, though, of a process resides neither in our understanding nor defining—again that is what Hamann knew and appealed to. Of course, there are philosophers in moral philosophy who follow some variant of Kant’s dualism in which the truth of a principle is in its rational grounding—the world and all in it hence must be shrunken in order to conform to an overarching morally rational principle. Which only serves to show exactly what Hamann knew—that a madman is not to be divorced from the contingency he loves by the demonstration of his madness. He or she must be won over by loving another contingency.

Hamann plays the madman because he thinks we are all a little mad, and the maddest are those who believe in their own purity and rational certainty; they have found the perfect means of convincing themselves that the unreal is real. Contingency, though, including the contingency of our feelings, memories, “prejudices,” schooling, allegiances etc. are enmeshed in our convictions and willingness to change our minds.

Hamann grasped that the way the world is spoken of becomes the way the world is: this speaking is through commands and decisions, oaths and affirmations, loyalties and obligation, the creation of masters and protectors and commanders. When the heart goes bad, it may still, indeed, in some cases only then open itself enough to be saved, which is a Jewish and Christian idea; but to believe that the heart might be able to escape sin, that it will not mess-up, is a philosopher’s moral fantasy, that rests upon principles and ideas being substitutes for who we really are, what we do and what we believe, and what tempts us and what saves us.

The Enlightenment with all its hope has been one current in the formation of a modern world that for many is experienced as a hopeless, loveless, isolating, selfish enterprise. Just as language is the clue to our world making, to how we beckon and call, describe, and evoke, draw others into social projects whether to hold a meeting, build a bridge, follow a career, go to war, make a law, buy a product and engage in any number of actions, the poor use of language is also responsible for all manner of errors and seductions. It is not that we think without language, but the language we think with may not be its best usage.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment elevated the mind, but generally either ignored or objectified language as in the study of linguistics. This is because it puts demands upon the world to be represented in sufficient clarity and distinctness that we know what things really are, as opposed to what we merely think and say they are. Mystery dissolves under the glare of enlightenment. And the danger of the idea of enlightenment itself was that it tore us out of the traditional gatherings and collective experiences and the sediments of that gathering in language and promised redemption through abstraction.

To be sure, the radical nature of the search for light had taken on such momentum because of the scale of carnage of the religious wars and Thirty Years War, as well as the new pathways of life that accompanied the Reformation, and the new modalities of social power which required political articulation. While, then, the Enlightenment was itself a reaction to, and symptom of a tradition in crisis, the fact was that Hamann could also see a catastrophe of enormous magnitude incubating in the solution, which is why he sought to temper the philosophical abstractions that were carving out a new future with the more figurative traditional spiritual stock and forces of Christian culture.

Hamann’s friend and admirer Herder would attempt to bring those “forces” of culture back into philosophy. In this respect he more than Hamann continues in the vein of Vico.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured image shows, “The Cult of Reason being celebrated at the Notre Dame, Paris,” anonymous engraving, 1793.

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 3: Why Herder Matters

1. Herder And Philosophical Anthropology

Like Hamann, Johann Gottfried von Herder has remained a peripheral figure in the history of philosophy, often (and irrespective of the mounting number of books and articles demonstrating the folly of this oversimplification) wrongly caricatured as an irrationalist, nationalist and relativist. As with Hamann he does not fit the more common arc of the history of philosophy that moves from Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Leibniz to Hume and Kant, through Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.

Although, due to Herder’s Spinozian organicism (and its fusion with Leibniz and Shaftesbury), and his metaphysical arguments for the centrality of attractive and repellent forces, the claim that there is a point of “indifference,” that nature is an organic whole of gradations, along with his preoccupation with the spirit of peoples, many of his ideas (though to be sure thrown-off and applied rather than systematically developed) are firmly imprinted in Schelling and Hegel.

Nevertheless, Herder’s approach is so contrary to systemic closure that his absence in Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy should not be surprising: for ultimately philosophy in Herder is so closely allied with the vast expanse of human sensibility and knowledge more generally that it makes it difficult for philosophers to know exactly what to do with him. Thus, it was that Kant, Herder’s former teacher, in his first review of Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, chastised him like a schoolboy for his lack of philosophical rigour: “Our resourceful author should curb his lively genius somewhat, and that philosophy, which is more concerned with pruning luxuriant growths than with propagating them, should guide him towards the completion of his enterprise.”

For his part, when Herder was his student he had been deeply impressed by Kant, and had even read a poem of his in class lauding his teaching. But, Kant’s critical philosophy was symptomatic of the depth of division between their respective philosophies. Whether in the analytic or the continental and poststructuralist tradition, Herder has remained largely out of sight and mind. It is true that Heidegger did give a graduate seminar on Herder’s work, On the Origin of Language, in 1939 which has now been published and translated as, On the Essence of Language: Concerning Herder’s Treatise On the Origin of Language—but this treatise is not only a mere slither of Herder’s corpus, it represents a position Herder later came to see (largely due to Hamann giving him a blast) as mistaken.

If it is Kant and his successors rather than Herder that has been incorporated into the larger body of philosophy, Herder was, nevertheless not only a decisive figure in the formation of the golden age of German letters, commencing but moving far beyond Sturm und Drang, but also a major influence in nineteenth century movements outside of Germany such as Emerson’s Transcendentalism, English romanticism, the Oxford movement, the pre-Raphaelites, and figures, such as, Ruskin and Carlyle.

Within Germany, there was hardly any contemporary cultural figure Herder did not engage with personally—Lessing, Klopstock, Winckelmann, Jacobi, Lavater, Mendelssohn, von Haller, Schiller, Abbt, Nicolai, Lenz, Wieland, Merck, Gleim—a “who’s who” of German letters of the time. He was Goethe’s greatest educator. And after Goethe had broken with him—due to Herder’s intolerable rudeness toward him—Jean Paul would make himself his “student.”

Likewise, there is no subject that did not interest him. In every way, he defied conforming to a type. He was an inspiring pastor, rather than a university professor; an inspirer of poets, translator and literary critic, rather than a poet (he wrote many poems, but they are not what make him important); a philosopher generally unacceptable to other philosophers; the author of a philosophical anthropological history, rather than a historian as such; a Christian and a Spinozist (and hence too a major figure, along with Goethe, in the Romantic rendering of Spinoza); a disciple of Hamann who, nevertheless, does not share Hamann’s hostility to metaphysics; a lover not only of Hebrews and Winckelmann’s Greece, but of all human cultural achievement. Few had read so widely and deeply about the various “spirits” of the ages and across the globe, or indeed, as his Adrastea illustrates, European political history and genres of expression of the eighteenth century.

I should also mention that there has always been a current of interest in Herder in the English speaking world, beginning in 1800 with what remains the only complete translation of Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit by T. Churchill (translated as Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man).

By far the most comprehensive and detailed examination of Herder’s life and thought in English is Robert Clark Jr’s extremely thorough Herder: His Life and Thought. It is also the case that work on Herder is now more intense than ever, and with such landmark studies as the recent edited collections by Hans Adler and Wulf Koepke, Companion to the Works of Johann Gottfried Herder, and, Anik Waldow and Nigel De Souzas’s Herder: Philosophy and Anthropology (also an edited collection); as well as a number of quality works by F. M. Barnard, Michael Forster, John Zammito, Sonia Sikka, Vicki Spencer and others, Herder’s intellectual importance no longer need be a forgotten secret.

Yet the fact remains that Herder is still something of a minor philosophical figure in a time when the appetite for German eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophy has never been greater. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of this state of affairs than the fact that while there is now a reasonable selection of his works available in English, such major works as his Letters on the Advancement of Humanity (with the exception of some letters), his two large and important critiques of Kant: Understanding and Experience: A Metacritique of the Critique of Pure Reason, and Kalligone, his critique of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, as well as his encyclopedic Adrastea have not been translated. Though there is a reasonable amount of German secondary literature on Herder’s writings on Kant, his critique of Kant remains largely ignored in the English-speaking world, and most of the German material tends to side with Kant. More’s the pity, for Herder rightly saw that the Kantian legacy is one in which people who do not know or feel enough (aesthetics) are all ready to pass judgment as if they were reason incarnate.

If, we are looking for the key to what holds Herder’s work together, there is much merit in Nigel DeSouza’s claim that “Herder’s thought as a whole is best seen through the lens of the term ‘anthropology:’ all his writings on literature, the arts, history, language, religion and education have at their center the aim of understanding human beings.” Herder himself writes that: “Philosophy is drawn back to Anthropology.” Nevinson’s observation, which defines Herder via negation, is no less astute: “Herder was neither a priest, nor a poet, nor a philosopher.”

Herder’s genius is the genius of intellectual openness, and insatiable interest. He has the same spirit of endless humane curiosity that makes Herodotus the world’s first historian and anthropologist—though Herder took inspiration from almost everyone and everything he read, even if he could be a savage polemicist. Indeed, when it came to philosophical inspiration for his ideas, he was an enormous sponge soaking up—and refashioning for his own purposes—all manner of contradictory intellectual influences, which he combined into a philosophy which was uniquely his. Thus, along with Hamann, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Shaftesbury, he incorporates the pre-critical Kant, Rousseau, Bacon, Vico, Montesquieu, Thomas Abbt, Locke, Newton, Baumgarten, Plato, and pretty much everything else he could get his hands on.

Ultimately it is the integration of philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, religion, natural science and the recognition of humanity as culturally constituted, and culture itself as temporal (cultures are born, live and die) as well as spatial habitats that makes Herder our contemporary. Paradoxically, in spite of falling far behind Kant or Hegel in terms of direct philosophical influence, he is more our contemporary than either of them. For while their genius is indisputable, each come to grief through the limits of making what they know dominate their respective systems.

While Kant has the advantage over Hegel of making systemicity a heuristic rather than Absolute, in the overall scheme this matters little—for Kant’s philosophical inquiry is based upon the fabrications that have already been philosophically prepared for it, i.e. the transcendental conditions, and accompanying cognitive sources Kant believes he has been the first to successfully isolate within the greater orb of reason, while Herder consistently held that the mind and soul cannot be divorced from the gamut of physiological forces which provide its great “sea of inflowing sensuality which stirs the soul, which supplies it with material.” Hence contra the lineage that links Descartes with Kant: “One will never get deeply to the bottom of these forces if one merely treats them superficially as ideas that dwell in the soul, or, worse still, separates them from one another as walled compartments and considers them individually in independence.”

The Newtonian base-line of the first Critique, when taken in conjunction with the account Kant provides, and the orientation required to build up our concepts so that they match our intuitions, serves for what is ultimately a very narrow funnel for a more enlightened understanding of the world, and the kind of knowledge we have of it. The epistemological foundation, and underlying ontology, of theoretical knowledge is theoretical physics, hence the touchstone of human knowledge is supplied by the disposition of the inquirer, whose own participation in reality, is also “theoretically” limited to that of observer and crafter of models for testing and confirming the laws of nature.

Of course, this is then subordinated to the moral aspirations and ideas of the rationally moral “free” subject. The Critique of Judgment belatedly comes to rescue the subject from the isolation of moral freedom, by conceding that the sensory side of the subject may be awakened to what is beautiful and sublime, and be permitted to deploy a heuristic for the purposes of identifying ends within natural processes, and a moral purpose within history. Hamann, Herder, Schelling, Hegel all react to Kant’s compartmentalizations and the transcendental “funnels” of the self’s mental activities as simultaneously failing to provide anything more than a mental spectre of the unity we experience in action, as well as the vast body of knowledge—including the scientific knowledge of nature that falls outside Newtonianism or biology—that refuses to be funneled into Kant’s compartments.

Hegel is closer to both Hamann and Herder in simultaneously valorising the underlying unity we provide for our imaginings, knowledge and experiences whilst rejecting the fissures Kant requires to ensure claims be allocated to the compartments philosophy has created. Nevertheless, whereas Hegel’s Absolute requires perfect knowledge at every movement of its dialectical development (even if, to save him from himself, Hegelians avoid this or purport, in spite of all Hegel’s claims to the contrary, that this is not the case), Herder’s philosophy is developmental and dialogical, provisional rather than complete, an aspiration for further conversableness.

Schelling’s anti-Hegelian combination of the contingency of being, and the irruptiveness of freedom is closer to Herder, but, unlike Herder, his philosophical labour is so tightly aligned with his metaphysical conundrums and explorations that one is interminably drawn back into the cosmic inwards of his system. That is, whether Schelling is exploring nature, the arts, mythology or revelation, the demonstration of his system with its key principles shapes the directions and developments of his corpus.

Again, Herder is not sufficiently beholden to philosophy for such a conceit: although there are recurrent philosophical decisions and metaphysical ideas that drive his work—such as organic relationships, providence, force, sensation, physiology, language—he assembles philosophical positions to enhance the “understanding” of the material under observation so that the different groupings best be compared and learnt from. The primary purpose is always to make our inquiries contribute to a better understanding of the world and the cultures and peoples who constitute it.

Far from being inconsistent with his opposition to system-building, this is all part of a programmatic undertaking for philosophy, rather than the marshalling of evidence to confirm the principles of exploration as such. That Hamann could respect and intellectually support Herder in spite of sharing none of his metaphysical speculations is indicative of the intellectual openness of his philosophical deployments. (Hamann commented that Herder’s God, Some Conversations was a “Schuhu, a great horned owl that had better creep away and hide itself in the dark.”
While Nietzsche emphasises that truth is grounded in perspectivism, Herder can be seen as something (but only something) of a kindred spirit in opposition to abstractions that simply ride over the social, historical and cultural (“spirited”) habitats which supply people with their understanding and ideas about life and what has value.

But Herder wants to take to the open seas to “gather” as many perspectives as humanly possible. Nietzsche also uses the metaphor of open seas—but outside of his beloved Greeks, and the rather slim pickings he takes from European history and elsewhere, as in his appeal to the Book of Manu, Nietzsche’s dreams of supermen and higher men, alongside his divide between master and slave morality leaves him little need to leave his (and Zarathustra’s) mountains.

Nietzsche, in spite of his opposition to Platonisms of all sorts represents the terrible tendency of idea-ism—which, connects him with Marx, and the 68 generation, viz., intellectual self-satisfaction with the very little knowledge one actually has, and complete self-assurance that this knowledge of the world and people suffices for dictating a future that the people of the world need to make a better world. For his part, Herder could never know enough. The ambition and the urge, confirmed by the sheer depth and breadth of the subject matters of his corpus, is expressed with youthful exuberance in his Travel Diary of 1769 where he writes of the thrill of travelling (in mind as well as body), whilst contrasting the world and all its inexhaustible richness with the situation of the everyday life of the scholar.

On land one is chained to a fixed spot, and restricted to the narrow limit of a situation. Often the point is the student’s chair in a musty study, a place at a monotonous boarding-house table, a pulpit, a lectern. And the situation is often a small town, where one is an idol of an audience of three, to whom alone one pays attention, and a monotony of occupation in which one is jostled alike by conventionality and presumption. How petty and restricted do life, honor, esteem, desire, fears, hate, aversion, love, friendship, delight in learning, professional duties and inclination become in such circumstances; how narrow and cramped the whole spirit in the end!

The Diary itself is a great sea of ambition and enthusiasm, a life-long project requiring him to know all he can, to answer the countless questions he raises about—pretty-well everything. At one point he exclaims:

What a work on the human species! The human spirit! The culture of the earth! Of all spaces! times! Peoples (Völker)! forces! mixtures! forms! Asiatic religion! And chronology and policing (Polizei) and philosophy! Egyptian art and Philosophy and policing! Phoenician arithmetic and languages and luxury! Everything Greek! Everything Roman! Nordic religion, law, customs, war. Honour! Papal time, monks, learning, North-Nordic-Asiatic crusaders, pilgrims, knights! Christian heathen awakening of learning! France! English, Dutch, German form! -Chinese, Japanese politics! Natural science of a new world! American customs etc.—Great theme: the human race will not pass until it is all done! Until the genius of luminosity is traversed! Universal history of the world!

A no less ambitious account appears in the same work:

Let my first prospect be the study of the human soul, in itself and in its manifestations on this earth; its strains and stresses, its hopes and satisfactions, its influence on a man’s character and on his conception of duties; in short let me discover the springs of human happiness. Everything else is to be set aside whilst I am engaged in gathering materials for this task and in learning to know, arouse, control and use every motive force in the human heart, from fear and wonder to quiet meditation and gentle day dreaming. For this purpose, I will collect data from the history of all ages: each shall yield to me the pictures of its own customs. Usages, virtues and vices, and its own conception of happiness; and I will trace them all down to the present and so learn to use them rightly. In every age—though each in a different way—the human race has happiness as its objective; we in our own times are misled if, like Rousseau, we extol ages which no longer exist and never did exist, if we make ourselves miserable by painting romantic pictures of these ages to the disparagement of our own instead of finding enjoyment in the present.

The critical reference to Rousseau, the warning against extolling ages “which no longer exist and never did exist,” and the dangers of idealizing other peoples and ages for the purpose of criticising one’s own nation and age is indicative of Herder’s desire for a well-informed understanding of what humanity has actually achieved in its diverse ways of world-making, in the context of its material, physical, social, and historical conditions. Herder realized that he was laying out a research project rather than providing anything like a final reckoning. Thus, in the Preface to what (among many contenders) is probably his magnum opus, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man he writes:

He who wrote it, was a man, and thou who reads it, art a man also. He was liable to error, and has probably erred: thou hast acquired knowledge, which he did not and could not possess; use, therefore, what thou canst, accept his good will, and throw it not aside with reproach, but improve it, and carry it higher. With feeble hand he has laid a few foundation stones of a building which will require ages to finish: happy, if when these stones may be covered with earth, and he who laid them forgotten, the more beautiful edifice be but erected over them, or on some other spot!He who wrote it, was a man, and thou who reads it, art a man also. He was liable to error, and has probably erred: thou hast acquired knowledge, which he did not and could not possess; use, therefore, what thou canst, accept his good will, and throw it not aside with reproach, but improve it, and carry it higher. With feeble hand he has laid a few foundation stones of a building which will require ages to finish: happy, if when these stones may be covered with earth, and he who laid them forgotten, the more beautiful edifice be but erected over them, or on some other spot!

In the penultimate paragraph of the Preface, he will even refer to the book as his “infantile attempt.” To be sure, his hope that such a building might be completed “before the end of the chiliad, if not in the present century” reflects a providential view where our participations might somehow form a whole to be completed, thus underestimating the importance of the ever-changing temporalities intrinsic to the dialectical relationship between who is exploring and what is being explored. But ultimately, it is Herder’s opening of the vista of ideas, and his provision of an opening for doing philosophy, rather than the prospect of any closure that makes him so important. Although he displays little interest in the technological side of Bacons’ programme), he esteems Bacon for his emphasis upon the empirical study of the natural world around him.

Thus, the opening chapters of Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, commencing with the chapter “Our Earth is a Star among Stars,” are intended to supply the most up to date relevant scientific details of what we know about the natural conditions which give rise to life, and its organic forms, on earth before he focuses more upon “man” and his powers and habitat. Like Vico, Herder’s project requires listening to peoples of the past, to learn from them how they have gone about their “business.” And like Hamann he appreciates the centrality of language, and tradition. But it also requires a conversation between traditions in the context of them becoming contemporaries in a new world.

Further, Herder is driven both by a desire to understand as well as educate so that we may better appreciate the vastness of human experience, especially human achievements across ages, peoples and “nations” and cultures. In this respect he is dedicated to the project of moral and political advancement for the purpose of creating more peaceful conditions, and a richer deployment of the powers of the human spirit. But he is ever cautious of the dangers of adopting the higher moral ground for instructing those whose material and spiritual habitats have thrown up very different circumstances, problems, as well spiritual resources for dealing with their situations. Different habitats have required, and frequently still require very different responses from those appropriate for our “life-world.” The danger with abstraction, in part at least, lies in the failure to adequately appreciate the different constituent conditions which need to be understood if we are to understand what we are talking about, or what is a requisite of any “talking with.”

While empirical material is of the essence, Herder does see philosophy as an important means for improving our judgment in order to have a better (a clearer and more distinct) comprehension of what we are dealing with. Philosophy’s role is largely to assist in the organising of the material. Thus, in the Fourth Grove of his Critical Forests, he says:

The essence of philosophy is to entice forth, so to speak, ideas that lie within us, to illuminate into distinctness the truths that we knew only obscurely, to develop proofs that we did not grasp clearly in all their intermediary steps. All this requires judgments and inferences, judgments that start from the comparison of two ideas and are developed through a series of inferences until the relation of these ideas to each other becomes evident. Herein lies the essence and formative power of all philosophy: that through it I can see manifestly, certainly truths I did not see before at all, or at least not as clearly, not as distinctly; that through it I can form judgments of taste with a certainty and distinguish beauties in a light in which they had not appeared to me before; that through it I can view the origin, form, and consequences of the essence of good and evil in a manner that I simply had not glimpsed before. Such is the plastic power of philosophy.

Closely related to this role for philosophy is a view of ideas that is very close to Leibniz’s emphasis upon perception being a continuum in which clearer ideas are rooted in more obscure ideas and perceptions which are, nevertheless, in spite of their obscurity formative of the mind. In the Fifth Collection of his Letters on the Advancement of Humanity, number 61, what he writes of Leibniz well applies to himself: “There is nothing I admire more in this great, impartial soul, who his whole life joyfully adopted everything which served any part of science.” For all of his deep debt to Leibniz, though, which includes him not depriving sensation of intellection at its elemental levels, and his appreciation of Leibniz’s ability to always look for the best in a position, there is none of Leibniz’s logicism. Likewise, he refrains from accepting the idea that monads are completely self-contained and windowless.

But, as in Leibniz, the sharpness of distinction between reason and feeling is blurred for Herder. For a feeling has its reasons. This does not mean that Herder makes feeling everything, but it is allied with the importance he ascribes to aesthetics in intellectual development, and also it is indicative of an important difference between him and Kant on the matter of representations. Kant’s critical philosophy works in close conjunction with the problem of the fit between a “model” of the sort that is required for investigations in physics and brings together mathematics and the isolation of variables. From Herder’s perspective such a belated process of intellection cannot be taken as providing a clue to the ground of experience. Thus, in the same work, Herder writes:

The whole ground of our soul consists of obscure ideas, the most vivid and most numerous ideas, the throng from which the soul prepares its more refined ones; these obscure ideas are the most powerful mainsprings of our life, make the greatest contribution to our happiness and unhappiness. If we imagine the integral parts of the human soul in physical terms, it possesses, if I may be permitted to express myself in this way, a greater mass of powers specific to a sensuous being than to a pure spirit: the soul has therefore been endowed with a human body; it is a human being. As a human being it has developed, in accordance with its mass of internal powers and within the bounds of its existence, a number of organs with which to perceive surrounding objects and, as it were, to intromit (sic) them for its own enjoyment. Even the number of these organs and the vast wealth of impressions flowing into them demonstrate, as it were, how great the mass of the sensuous is within the human soul.

Philosophy, then serves, primarily as a means of sifting and clarifying for better comparison the material contingencies and hence also values that accompany the different experiences that form different persons and peoples. Different regions, and this is true for different ages, are enmeshed in different sensoria:

The sensibility of human nature is not exactly identical in every region of the earth. A different tissue into which the strings of sensation are woven; a different world of objects and sounds that initially rouse one dormant string or another by setting it in motion; different powers that tune one string or another to a different pitch, thereby setting its tone forever, so to speak—in short, there is a quite different arrangement of our faculty of perception, and yet it still lies in the hands of Nature.

The temptation of philosophy is to take short-cuts by laying down principles or finding general concepts—against which Herder says, “I cannot lay down rules; my aim is to present a history of individual experiences”—into which to pour what Kant calls a “manifold.” But, for Herder, by this very act philosophy ceases to be an assistant in the great labour of better understanding. Thus, he urges:

Let the man, who is proud of his reason, contemplate the theatre of his fellow beings throughout the wide world, or listen to their many-toned dissonant history the way of man resembles a labyrinth, abounding on all sides with divergent passages, while but few footsteps lead to the innermost chamber.

Concomitantly, just as Vico had criticized the tendency for philosophers to read history as if early peoples were opaquely expressing the ideas of later-day philosophers, Herder requires of philosophers that they go beyond their own systems and principles in order to recover what they have yet to learn. Although Herder played an important role in reviving Spinoza on account of his provision of an organic and dynamic view of life’s intrinsic unity, he also criticises the fact Spinoza has “only a metaphysical sense of the poetry of the Prophets; and in the whole composition of his works, he is a solitary thinker, to whom the graces of the social world and an ingratiating manner are entirely unknown.”

The problem of Spinoza and enlightened philosophers, including Kant, who undertake to identify and lay down general ethical or moral ideas in detail is their mistaken belief that the more abstract and general ideas are sufficient for providing guidance to the living. Thus, the philosopher is in danger of becoming a “know-all” about the good, true and the beautiful, instead of a contributor to a deeper fathoming of what they actually entail. And, as we have said repeatedly, what they entail must not be closed off by a decision that delimits them from the outset. Their content can only be discovered by the undertaking a “journey” of the human spirits and the multitude of achievements of those spirits.

2. The Importance Of Herder’s Metacritique Of Kant

Herder’s two critiques of Kant are his two most detailed cases pitting the idea of philosophy as a “journey” in opposition to the kind of philosophy that is “fixed and restricted to the narrow limit of a situation.”

Since the deafening silence that greeted the publication of the Metacritique (there was support from others on the philosophical margins such as Wieland, Gleim, and Knebel), and Goethe’s expression that he wished Herder had never published his Metacritique (Clark even makes the ridiculous suggestion, given its length and elaborate details, that he probably did not even read it), there has been no shortage of commentators lining up to “tut-tut” over Herder’s critiques of Kant, including, a Herder scholar of great merit, Michael Foster, who calls them, “an angry and irresponsible attack on Kant.” Such a dismissal does no justice to the character, nature, depth, or significance of Herder’s criticisms of Kant. Even more silly is the claim, made when it first appeared, that the two volume Metacritique merely plagiarises Hamann’s Metacritique (a work, though delivering a surgical strike, runs to less than twenty pages).

Herder wrestles seriously and at length with both the first and third Critiques, and he does so because he detects that Kantianism has been as influential as it has been damaging to philosophy, and not only to philosophy, but to the culture, particularly the younger generation. In the Preface to the Metacritique he writes:

The critical philosophy has played its role for twelve years, and we see its fruits. Which father (they all ask themselves) wishes that his son would become an autonomous critical type, a metaphysicus of nature and virtue, a dialectical or even a revolution rabble rouser, in accordance with a critical blow? Now look around and read. Which recent book, which science is not more or less covered with the stains of this sort, and how many noble talents (we hope, only for a while) destroyed?….
A person who would deform a nation’s language through artifice (verkünstelt), (how cleverly it is done) has corrupted and spoiled the tool of its reason; a great many young people have had their noblest organ mutilated, and the understanding itself, whose field can never close out speculative inquiry, misled. Could we have a greater duty and gift, than the free heartfelt use of our understanding?

The same concerns are also a primary motivation for writing the Kalligone where he speaks of how he has seen “so many, many youth corrupted by the Critique,” and he criticizes “the ignorant, arrogant, and insolent,” who take on academic positions, while they “should still be learning.” They pontificate upon what they neither have “the concepts,” nor “knowledge,” to understand. “The time will come,” he warns, “when the nation itself is ashamed of every ignorant, indecent, random criticism of a shame inflicted on her.”

If the Kalligone is often polemical, that is largely because Herder had spent a lifetime thinking about art and its social and historical significance, and hence the work is replete with examples from different genres, while Kant’s aesthetics proceeds with little attention to actual aesthetic works. What Herder finds particularly galling is that Kant treats human creativity as if it were of far less consequence than the philosophical dictates concerning aesthetic value and meaning. Indeed, Herder is repulsed by Kant laying down an aesthetic without thinking he needs to explore the vast array of aesthetic creations which have played such an important part in the cultural formations of peoples.

Further, whereas Herder attempts to think how all kinds of knowledge are gathered and connected through the physiological apertures of our being, and the capacities of expression available to us, and thus how aesthetics is an essential part of what defines us as human, Kant’s third Critique was an “after-thought,” predicated upon the belated recognition of a gap in the critical system.

Thus, in the first Critique there was not a hint that art was even on Kant’s “radar” as important for answering what he referred to as “all the interests of my reason, speculative as practical,” which he says, “combine in the three following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? What may I hope?” Kant continues by “flattering” himself that he has “exhausted all the possible answers” to the first question, “which is merely speculative.” It was only belatedly that Kant realized that there needed to be some bridge between freedom (practical reason) and necessity (“experience”), which sent him back into the cognitive sources and kinds of judgments—in this case, aesthetic and teleological judgments—which provide clues to claims about beauty, sublimity, self-regulatory systems (biology), and a sense of historical moral improvement.

A core component of Herder’s critique of Kant, in both the Kalligone and Metacritique, is his frustration at Kant’s philosophy failing to adequately incorporate the developmental and conditional—specifically social, historical and cultural—of science, morals and aesthetics because of the apparatus it sets to work with.

In the Metacritique, Herder also does not accept, for a moment, the very restricted view of the sciences that comes from the net Kant weaves with Euclid, Aristotle and Newton. Although Kant “experts” tend to spend their labours nuancing the intricacies of Kant’s moves and choices, the most egregious error of the first Critique emerges from the very thing that makes it such a water-tight accomplishment; the alignment of what Kant sees as the three foundational sciences of space and time (Euclid, and the foundations of mathematics in the number line), of rational thought (Aristotle), and of the physical world (Newton).

But no matter how great a philosophical attempt one may think the critical philosophy was, it was an all-or-nothing philosophy. For if these foundational sciences are just further steps along the way to a greater understanding, how can they then serve as foundations robust enough to provide the clues to the elements of cognition for the framing of nature’s law-governed structure?

Developments in spatial/geometric understanding, logic itself, and eventually even within physics were the developments that were far more destructive to the critical philosophy than any of the idealist critiques that were made by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. For while the post-Kantian idealist philosophers, whether fairly or not, could all be accused of metaphysical regression, once the bulwarks of the transcendental philosophy were shown to be less than implacable, the very basis of the problem as well as the clues to the solution had also collapsed.

Now, while Herder does not put the case as bluntly as I have just done, this needs to be born in mind when assessing Herder’s Metacritique, which is, as we shall see below, very much driven by a much more developmental understanding of knowledge so that he finds the very idea of “pure reason” to be a mistaken enterprise, and the mistakes of that enterprise lie at the very foundations of Kant’s problem and ricochet through the answers it provides, which in turn generate in Kant further problems and answers.

Just as in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein breaks open the kind of logical atomism which he once “perfected” by tackling the most basic assumptions which allow it to take off, Herder’s Metacritique refuses to concede the adequacy of the nomenclature for a philosophical enterprise as all-encompassing as Kant proposes his to be. That challenge stands in the closest relationship to his emphasis upon what he sees—and what Hamann also sees—as a false dualism between thought and language, a dualism which is ensconced by Kant’s dividing representations (Vorstellungen) into intuitions and concepts, with intuitions being mute, as they await to be “understood” by means of our concepts. By his invocation of Vorstellungnen as the primary genus which then requires further subdivision, Kant has already mentalized, and thereby invoked a kind of understanding of experience that simply confirms the dualism that he commences with.

By contrast, Herder finds it meaningless to talk in this way about experience as such—what does it mean, he asks, to “intuit” “a tone, a smell, taste, feeling?” Instead of the term Anschauung (which Kant deploys in a manner that draws upon an incipient dualist metaphysics), Herder argues that we would do better to use the more accurate, and less metaphysically and “mentalized” weighted term, Inne-werden (“an awareness” of something). Mentalization without regard to how language dictates our organizations is for Herder an error—one he believes (with more than a little generosity) neither Leibniz, nor Locke committed, both of whom he cites on language.

For Herder, when we are talking of ideas, we are always referring to names of things, names come from the fact that objects are intrinsically meaningful because of the capacity of people to recognize common generalities within differences. In his Ideas of a Philosophy of Mankind, he makes the point in such a way that we can see immediately how his argument also differs so fundamentally from Kant’s asocial atomistic approach and the metaphysical quandaries that are generated out of the approach. Likewise, we see how Herder has pitched the nature of knowledge in such a way that it bypasses the kind of metaphysics that Kant grapples with:

No language expresses things, but names: accordingly, no human reason perceives things, but only marks of them, which it depicts by words. This is an humiliating observation, which gives the whole history of our intellect (sic) narrow limits, and a very insubstantial form. All our science of metaphysics is properly metaphysics, that is an abstracted systematic index of names following observations of experience. As a method, and an index, it may be very useful, and must guide our artificial understanding to a certain degree in all other sciences: but considered in itself, and according to the nature of things, it affords not a single perfect and essential idea, not a single intrinsic truth. All our science reckons with abstracted, individual, extrinsic characters, which reach not the interior of the existence of any one thing, as we have no organ to perceive or express it. We know not, and can never learn to know, any power in its essence: for even that, which animates us, and thinks in us, we feel and enjoy it is true, but we do not know. Thus, we understand no connexion between cause and effect, because we can see into the interior neither of what acts, nor of what is produced, and have absolutely no idea of the entity of a thing. Thus, our poor reason is nothing more than a figuring arithmetician, as its name in many languages implies.

As we can see, then, for Herder, to commence with metaphysics, as if it were the condition of the sciences, rather than a concatenation of ideas and names that has emerged in conjunction with experience and with the sciences, is to proceed in a fundamentally wrong-headed manner. A point which, for Herder, is confirmed by the fact that knowledge is built out of historical experience. Closely related to this is Herder’s fundamental disagreement with the way questions of the soul in Kant are transported beyond any social, historical or anthropological content onto the plane of pure reason.

In Kant, we recall, the ideas of God, and the soul are the products of a transcendental dialectic, reason taking categories, whose sole legitimate function is for the understanding of experience, and treating them as substances. That is, Kant’s treatment of God and the soul is a purely rational one, which is why his transcendental critique is ipso facto a critique of rationalist metaphysics. Nevertheless, for all its elaborateness, Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics is simply a reformulation of the enlightenment critique of the feverish imagination, except now it is reason that has literally taken leave of its senses—or more precisely taken the understanding’s categories out of their legitimate deployment.

Herder, although open enough to seek common ground with deism—as he does in his defense of Spinoza in God, Some Conversations—ultimately does not see God as a rational answer to a rational problem, but as an anthropologically invoked power, a power which is part of a community’s sense of itself and its world. If we want to understand God or the soul in the sense that Herder does, we need to understand the meanings that people have ascribed over time and in their respective locations to these names. God and soul are not metaphysical objects—at least in the sense Kant uses the term—but words that circulate in a community’s doings.

From Herder’s perspective, then, we can understand why different peoples have different gods, and we can then track how the different communal commitments to the powers they serve help form a collective history and identity (a culture) over time; with Kant all we can say is that people have been deluded by a transcendental dialectic, and their different delusions (cultures) count for little in the greater scheme of achieving knowledge and freedom.

All of the above is closely related to another feature that Herder’s Metacritique shares with Hamann, viz., opposition to the compartmentalisation of the pure forms and functions of reason by reason. In this respect he sees the critical philosophy as resting on a phantasmic starting point. Kant has made himself both party and judge, law and witness in reason’s “trial.” But for Herder, we are not capable of overseeing what we are within; we use our “reason” to identify and demonstrate what our reason does, which is also why it is wrongheaded to identify “transcendental elements” divorced from reason’s ongoing discoveries. And those discoveries cannot be separated from the names that have accrued over time to identify experience. Closely related to this is Herder’s emphasis upon the capacity of the soul to “recognize” unity in its diversity.

By claiming that the cognitive elements are pure, i.e. transcendental, means they are neither physiological, nor psychological. But the fact that the very names of the components which Kant draws upon are also often psychological and physiological, lends support to Herder’s refusal to accept what he ultimately sees as an attempt to surpass the reason—which Herder tabulates late in the Metacritique—of the wisdom of life, culture, and the supra-cultural in a wisdom of life that is “transcendental hot air.” For Herder the truer formulation for any “Critique” of reason would be: “the [physiology of human knowledge,” something he sees Bacon as already having made a major contribution to.

Given these broader metacritical points, it is perfectly understandable why Herder takes issue with the key terms that gets the Critique off the ground, viz., the “a priori,” and “pure.” Thus, he writes:

In order to avoid misunderstandings, we want to leave aside completely the words a priori, and pure, i.e., pure concepts, calling general concepts general, necessary [concepts] necessary, without bringing into play the strange convoluted concept of a priority preceding all experience, because generality and necessity cannot be ascribed to any knowledge, if it is not necessary and general in its nature.

And as with Hegel later, Herder is just as unwilling to concede the very starting point of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. For Kant, an analytic judgment logically contains the predicate in the subject—while a synthetic judgment is formed by adding knowledge that goes beyond mere logical unfolding.

As readers of Kant know, the example he gives of an analytic judgment is that bodies are extended substances. As readers of Leibniz know that is what Descartes thought, but Descartes got it wrong. I just raise this so the reader may see that while some analytic judgments may be straightforwardly analytic in Kant’s sense—e.g., a bachelor is unmarried—the distinction is very unhelpful when we are speaking about subjects where knowledge is involved. And this was Herder’s point where he notes that:

The determination, that the predicate contains in the concept of the subject and is part of the same, which would have to be brought out analytically through division, is far too narrowly conceived: because in naming the subject not everything, which lays in it or belongs to it is revealed immediately; judgments are made, if we do not want to eternally rattle-off one and the same A+A, or wish to dissolve 4 into 2 + 2, which expand our knowledge, i.e. that say something in the predicate that is not instantly apparent in the subject.

Kant’s theory of mathematics depends upon mathematical judgments not being analytic, but synthetic (they cannot be empirical because numbers and geometry are not contingent entities, but he argues they are not merely logical either; rather, they are constructed by the mind; more specifically the faculty of “inner intuition”). This is laid out in the earliest section of the Critique of Pure Reason, “The Transcendental Aesthetic,” and it was an essential element in his grand design of laying down once and for all the foundations of a metaphysics that he thought could lay claim to be complete and implacable. It was also intended as the coup de grâce against Leibniz’s Platonism—Leibniz is the real bête noir of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and the entire strategy of the Critique is to discredit what he saw as Leibniz’s rationalism.

But Kant’s theory of mathematics, and the argument that mathematical judgments are synthetic, has frequently met with bewilderment, and is one major reason Kant’s theory of mathematics has found no strong philosophical support (the other problem is that the “architecture” of Kant’s solution does not help once we get beyond the number-line and operate with irrational numbers, and take note especially of non-Euclidean geometries).

Herder’s response to Kant’s primary claim about mathematics, which is the key to providing Kant’s “solution” to the problem of how the apodictic knowledge and axiomatic system of mathematics is applicable to phenomena, i.e., physical structure and laws of the natural world is this: “Thousands and ten thousand mathematical judgments are analytic; the ‘synthetic method’ cannot help but proceed analytically in mathematics until they reach an identical concept.” Likewise, he also takes issue with the primary reason that Kant has for arguing that mathematical (which includes geometrical) judgments are synthetic, i.e. (and as I have just said) because mathematics involves construction. Herder responds that “there are definitely cases in mathematics, where I recognize the truth of apodictic sentences, although I cannot construct them identically; and opposite cases, which are nevertheless apodictically certain, but the construction seems to contradict the concept.”

More generally, whereas Kant’s Critique proceeds by way of piling dualisms upon dualisms, dualisms, which Herder says involve “artificial hair-splitting” which extends to “syllables and spelling, such as deist and theist, transcendent and transcendental and so many other spider-webs.” Herder emphasises how our ideas are dependent upon integration, and that integration reaches from the most elemental of physiological processes to the greater social and cultural processes in which we are incorporated.

Thus, whereas Kant had argued that Hume had opened up the way for him by positing the problem of causation as an illustration of a synthetic a priori judgment, Herder argues that the sentence “what happens must have a cause” is an identical sentence: “because in the occurrence we postulate the cause of becoming.” Likewise, for Herder, if we deploy concepts such as force, effect, countereffect we are committed to conceptual associations, which are intrinsic to their very meaning. Thus, when we say “the effect and countereffect is the same” we are simply using the ideas in a manner that makes them meaningful.

Of course, this is another example of Leibniz’ enormous influence upon Herder. But whereas Kant had insisted upon the synthetic a priori safeguarding us from metaphysics spawning a rationalist substitution for experience, Herder is not at all convinced that this is the case. The question remains one of integrating material, and for Herder the “integration” is done “all the way along the line:” this is what reasoning does: it associates by bringing parts together in so far as they conform to some underlying “identity.” The strict division between purely rational or “pure experience” requires that our abstraction denies the integral unity that is involved in perception.

Our knowledge is initially dependent on an infinitude of micro-cognitive sensory processes, so that “every sense has its sphere; every object its meaning.” It is true that once we “model” experiences to espy sharper differentiations, our testing of natural phenomena can be enhanced. But to take a late stage in a process of understanding, as if that requires completely refabricating the development of the process is, for Herder, only to create an entirely new fleet of problems that are not only unnecessary, but catch us in the kind of spider webs of reason which, in spite of its intention, occlude our lived experience of ourselves as social and historical creatures.

Herder’s refusal to accept the a priori/a posteriori disjuncture is also evident in his critique of Kant’s discussion of space in the transcendental aesthetic. While Kant acknowledges that mathematics begins through practice (he speaks in the first Critique of mathematics having “long remained, especially among the Egyptians, in its groping stage”) he stresses that it only really became a science once someone brought out “what was necessarily implied in the concepts that he had himself formed a priori, and had put into the figures in the construction by which he presented it to himself.”

That there is a tipping point in which practical know-how is transformed into a “science” is not to be disputed, and that the development is irrelevant once a foundation has evolved (leaving aside here the development of foundations themselves) is also not a problem, especially for those doing the science. But the issue dividing Kant and Herder is whether the science is really explicable in Kantian terms, and whether his explanation actually adds anything at all to the science, which of course it doesn’t and wasn’t actually designed to do; Kant’s “theoretical reason i.e., understanding of phenomena” only has a purpose in so far as there is also its other—“practical or moral reason.”

To reformulate this somewhat: Kant is a Euclidean and Newtonian, but neither Euclid nor Newton are Kantian. Kant is not tackling the problems that lead to a metaphysics of experience in order to advance either mathematics or physics (and ironically as those disciplines advanced, Kant’s philosophy looked ever more arcane and unhelpful), but to circumscribe the bounds of the metaphysics of experience—that is, in order to create a rational faith in our moral freedom.

But here we just need to say that there is nothing philosophically wrong-headed in Herder pitting the importance of our lived-experience within spaces and times (in a move that anticipates phenomenology) against Kant’s transcendental aesthetic. For Herder’ counter argument to Kant is undertaken to demonstrate that Kant’s philosophical terminology is dubious, and that becomes even more apparent when one tries to address other questions about the nature of knowledge that Kant had not considered.

The accusation, then, that Herder fails to understand Kant’s problem I find completely unconvincing; he is considering (unsurprisingly given his own philosophical holism) where the bits and pieces of the system that Kant builds with his answers lead. Stated otherwise, it is not the case that Herder fails to understand that Kant’s view of space and time is developed around the primacy Kant allots to kinematics—this strikes me as so obvious to anyone who reads the first Critique with any care, that it is not really plausible that Herder missed this. Rather, Herder refuses to sever a theory of knowledge from our own being in the world, and he refuses to accept an ontology that does not register with the kind of being we are as well as the way our existence develops.

Thus Herder’s “discussion of the word space” commences with the fact that “we are with others”—space is originally a location, a “where” of our existence—it thus has to do with places. Space, he says, is a “concept of experience caused by the sensation or impression that I am neither the All (das All), nor everywhere, that I occupy only one place in the universe.” But our experience is such that “we encounter some occurrence which makes space for itself with its powers.” We learn that there are limits that surround what we encounter but that may be overcome.

Movement, change, velocity, location are all part of the experience, as are our being action and suffering: “Our language,” Herder reminds his readers, “is full of expressions of space in every being, act and suffering.” Herder’s approach to time is similar, starting with our noticing natural changes and dividing them—they are grounded in “practical purposes.” He continues that “time has nevertheless become a discursive, i.e. general concept of measurement of all transformations.” And time is intrinsic to ordering our concepts in a series, just as space for our situating things.

On the surface this may seem to confirm Kant’s view of time and space as a priori forms of experience, but whereas Kant is focusing solely on time and space as kinematic “backdrops” for an experience that applies more to projectiles than to people if we conceive them as more than mere mechanical composites, Herder is interested in space and time as lived, and how, in the living, times and spaces are discursively developed. And this extends to the sciences as well as the most basic aspects of human orientation and participation. That is, living in space and time will indeed be essential to developing such a science as physics (not that it is inevitable, for all knowledge is contingent), but it is not confined to that.

In so far as we are ever something of a mystery to ourselves, and that our knowledge of ourselves is revealed through our doings over time, any epistemology or ontology we invoke has to be open enough to the variety of vistas that we may consider and engage with as well as the variety of actions that we engage in. The “knot” of human physiology and aesthesis (which is closely connected to how nature operates within and through us), language, and historical being, for Herder, cannot be severed by an appeal to ideas which are taken to be formal conditions (calling them transcendental does not help one iota).

To be sure, one might well find fault with the metaphysical arguments Herder deploys against Kant. Nevertheless, Herder’s own metaphysical arguments are predicated upon them being able to link up with the fundamentals of experience grounded in physiological (aesthetic) impressions, and linguistic and historical contextualizations. Were this not the case, Newtonianism would not need to have been the result of a vast array of social and historical contingencies (predecessors, pedagogical spaces, literacy, mathematical knowledge etc.) that prepared Newton himself for the experimental and mathematical approach to nature he excelled in. (And Herder is neither ignorant of, nor positioning himself against Newton’s work—as far as it goes).

That Kant can narrow his focus in such a way that he sloughs off developmental matters into the domain of irrelevance suggests that the human mind, in spite of all Kant’s safeguards and deference to the phenomenal world we are implicated in, really is, for Kant, “God-like” (in the Greek rather than biblical sense). This is, in spite of Kant thinking that by arguing against the idea of “intellectual intuition” he has emphasised the finitude of human intellect. But what Kant gives with one hand, he takes away with the other; for he has dispensed with all manner of finitudes to prioritise the philosophical disposition itself above the contingencies which are fundamental to its precondition, but which fall outside the problem he has cordoned off.

Were the problem as Kant depicts it, why would we need to be “schooled” in its nature? Why would the sciences need to evolve—and I do not mean (as Kant emphasizes) the specific laws observed, but the sciences which study the laws? Hegel tackles this problem by tracking reason’s dialectical development and the emergent spheres of conceptual schema taking definitive ideational shape. But while Hegel is resolutely anti-dualist, the logicism of his philosophy enmeshes History in a philosophical logic and thereby creates an irreconcilable difference between his approach and that of Herder’s. Thus, for all his differences with Kant, Hegel’s philosophy, as with Fichte and Schelling, takes off from Kant’s problematic in which reason is substantialised, rather than, as in Herder, an operational development of our historical and language-dependent nature.

In sum, Herder is absolutely right to challenge Kant on the very ground where the problematic is laid down and the cognitive sources and elements are identified, for the mind not only cannot be purely extracted, but its nature is revealed by its doings. Isolating a particular “doing,” and then making that particular doing the basis for all our other knowledge is precisely what Herder contests. To be sure, Herder is willing to concede that there might be fundamentals akin to categories that we might identify as more elementary for understanding how we process information, and he provides a number of different tables throughout the Metacritique, commencing with his initial categories of understanding: “1) Being; 2) Existence; 3) Duration; and 4) Force.” Further, as force is construed “through number and measure,” and as our understanding also draws upon “contiguity, sequence and emergence,” for Herder, space and time are indeed the “mediums” in which force operates.

We will not reproduce how Herder develops the conceptual associations that he builds up throughout the Metacritique, we will just underscore, and repeat, the point that Herder recognizes that the sciences work in close association with “how” we go about knowing—principles and “laws” are closely connected, but knowledge is essentially developmental. And, for Herder, it is inconceivable that one can meaningfully do this without considering the labours of the species over time, and in the context of its habitat. That Kant is too indifferent to the importance of this habitat is stressed by Herder near the conclusion of the Metacritique where he criticizes Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties for how narrowly Kant construes philosophy, all the better to make the case for his own critical philosophy being the great arbitrator.

The ploy is, for Herder, a symptom of the narrowness of Kant’s vision of philosophy and the sciences, and is closely associated with a strong institutional dependency on Kant’s part. For Herder, Kant’s philosophical cleavages, with their respective foundations, is really just supplying the conditions for institutional specialization—which would then be carried out along Kantian lines. It is thus also the privileging of the academic “guilds” as much as Kant’s philosophy. For his part, Herder opposes the guilds, and ultimately anything which would close off knowledge for a more “holistic,” yet developmental, and hence pedagogically dynamic curricula. Likewise, he also emphasizes the importance of outsiders (a class to which he belongs):

Erasmus and Grotius were not faculty theologians, and took upon themselves the freedom, to clean up much in Theology. The monk Roger Bacon, and his name’s sake Francis Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Tschirnhaus, and how many others, who expanded the sciences not with words but with concepts, were lovers of the sciences, although no Faculty-trustees. As the faculties slept or became barbarised, a free society of lovers, the academy of Florence, arose, others followed, for whom we have to thank for the greatest developments in the sciences.

As mentioned above, behind Kant’s transcendental critique of “experience,” and Herder’s Metacritique, there is another set of questions and answers that sharply divides the two. From the outset of the critical philosophy, Kant had claimed that by identifying the source and scope of (judgments or knowledge of) experience by recourse to their “cognitive source” and “elements” and “rules,” he had hoped to secure what he sees as most important about human beings and rationality—moral freedom understood as the categorical imperative—from the mechanistic “reductions,” which would make any appeals to virtue and dignity irrelevant. Thus, it is that Kant locates freedom and dignity in pure reason itself, rather than any experience.

For his part, Herder is as little attracted to Kant’s view of freedom as he is to Kant’s ideas of reason and aesthetics, and the two metaphysical pillars (of nature and right) that the transcendental philosophy grounds and (in the third Critique) “bridges.” Herder remarks on Kant’s formulation of the moral law well bring out what he thinks of Kant’s view of freedom: “The general will of the legislator is just as incompetent-presumptuous as it is powerless: because the general, in this case the will, only becomes actual in deed through the particular and most particular… And what if persons, means and ends collide? Thus, the most vain egotism, which submits to the great purpose of the “judgment of all,” under the name of ‘self-esteem, self-respect,’ pervades everything and furtively engages in an eternal war between ‘self-purposes and self-legislators.’”

Although Kant is not mentioned by name in Herder’s work, Of Religion, Doctrines and Customs, Herder makes the decisively anti-Kantian observation that the egoistic usurpation of moral law-making, in its “empty legislative form” finds:

…neither power, salvation, spirit, nor life… Nothing tires more than commanding; even the pride that one has in being able to command soon becomes tiresome; and how? and would not a pure “un-will” to obey step into the position of the pure will to command? Mighty autonomist, your monarchy ends. Instead, anarchy, an impotent-wild word stand-off, would take over: “Compel yourself!”—”I cannot.” “You can, because you should.”—”I do not want to, because I cannot,” etc.

Herder can see no point in taking the essential social dilemma of moral choice and making it akin to a private matter to be subject to a formal law, as if the labour of socialization and instinctual cultivation were largely unimportant. We are, emphasizes Herder, mimetic creatures, and that mimesis extends even to how we use our limbs. We do not instruct ourselves out of nothing, but are socially saturated, as we are exposed to “an ocean of ideas, habits and actions” which we absorb and then use as though they were our property. “Spirit receives from spirits.” While “our entire lives are led by drives,” Kant’s moral thought treats drives as impediments to the purity of our reason and pure will, thereby relying upon a drive of his own fabrication—it is but “the personification of pride in its deepest powerlessness.”

Against such abstract egoic and formalistic ethics, Herder anticipates Nietzsche (albeit devoid of the latter’s pagan call for a revival of master morality, and the cruelty such a revival would require). For Herder, Kant’s grounding of morality in the form of reason is one more example of what he sees as the narrowness of a philosophy which fails to adequately embrace the idea that it is only through learning about the vastly different goods, truth and beautiful creations of the species that we can better form our world. The fact that the philosopher deals in ideas does not give him or her any special purchase on what we can know, or even what is worth knowing:

Really, ideas yield nothing but ideas, greater clarity, correctness, and order in thinking—but that is all one can count on with certainty. As for how everything will mix within the soul; or what will be encountered and what will have to be changed; how powerful and enduring this change will be; or, finally, how it might combine and clash with the myriad incidents and contingencies of human life, let alone of an age or of an entire people, of all Europe, of all the universe (as our humility imagines)—you gods, what an altogether different world of questions!

It is the different world of questions that ultimately require, for Herder, a turning not only from the known into the unknown, but from the living to the living. We have to put ourselves aside, and not just look for what catches our own light. At the same time, Herder sees difference and connection, and it is the appreciation of both that he sees as essential for human growth:

As the philosopher is much in the dark respecting the origin of human history, and singularities occur in its remotest periods, which will not accord with this system or with that, men have fallen on the desperate mode of cutting the knot, and have not only considered the Earth as the ruins of a former habitation, but have supposed the human species to be a remnant of the former inhabitants of this planet, who escaped perhaps in caves or mountains, from the revolution of its Last day. Thus, its reason, arts, and traditions, are treasures saved from the wrecks of the primitive World; whence on the one hand, they appear from the beginning with a splendour derived from the experience of thousands of years; and on the other, never can be clearly traced, while the remnant of the human species has served like an isthmus, at once to unite and to confound the cultivation of two worlds. If this opinion were true, there could be no such thing as a pure philosophy of the history of man; for the human species itself, and all its arts, would be nothing more than the recrement arising from the destruction of a former world.

3. “Humanity:” Encountering, Culture, And Dialogue

While Herder eschews any philosophy “according to which the whole human species possesses one mind; and that indeed of a very low order, distributed to individuals only piecemeal” (which is again indicative of a major difference between Herder and Hegel—and indicative of the difference between emphasising reason in language or reason as mind or spirit), he sees that while we can only understand humanity via the history of its traditions, we need to investigate what it was that those tradition and the organic powers of the species enabled and hence what made them sustainable for any length of time.

Such an understanding necessarily has a philosophical dimension, and thus he writes: “The philosophy of history, therefore, which follows the chain of tradition, is, to speak properly, the true history of mankind, without which all the outward occurrences of this World are but clouds, or revolting deformities.” Note that this openness which requires of us that we take history seriously avoids the seminal pitfall of historicism, whose founder he is sometimes said to be, viz., the task for a philosopher of humankind is not to become so locked in the history of the world of a people that it is an exercise in monadic identification.

Rather, the point is to search for the “Glorious names, that shine in the history of cultivation as genii of the human species, as brilliant stars in the night of time!” If the past leaves us with nothing but dead facts we have to ask what we are doing with it. Rather a philosophical study of history is undertaken to appreciate a living connection between times and regions—for once we enter a past world, we may be changed for the better by the experience of feeling, seeing, and knowing more about humanity and its powers.

In so far as the very enterprise is one which requires inquiring into times and habitats, there is the danger that one is so ensconced in one’s own tradition and experiences that one is incapable of really seeing the other. Thus, Herder insists, in letter 116 of the Tenth Collection of his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity: “The original form, the prototype of humanity hence lies not in a single nation of a single region of the earth; it is the abstracted concept from all exemplars of human nature in both hemispheres.” Concomitantly he stipulates: “Let one be unbiased like the genius of humanity itself; let one have no pet tribe, no favorite people on the earth…let none put into the hands of any people on earth on grounds of ‘innate superiority’ the sceptre over other peoples—much less the sword and enslave the whip.” He adds a couple of pages later: “Least of all, therefore, can our European culture be the measure of universal human goodness and human value; it is no yardstick or a false one. European culture is an abstracted concept, a name. Where does it exist entirely? With which people? In which times?”

To be sure there is a certain pedagogical and moral idealism in the project, but the idealism requires that we learn from each other, rather than push people into the prefabricated idea requiring common conformity to values and expectations which are laid down by those whose philosophical lights make them the leaders of humanity. Thus, he emphasizes again:

There must gradually awaken a common feeling so that every nation feels itself into the position of every other one. People will hate the impudent transgressor of foreign rights, the destroyer of foreign welfare, the brazen abuser of foreign ethics and opinions, the boastful imposer of his own advantages on peoples who do not want them.

If we compare this with Rousseau, who would force people to be free, with Kant, whose moral republicanism sloughs off anthropological, historical and social experience, with Nietzsche, who divides the world into masters and slaves and calls for philosophers of the future to create the conditions for the coming of the superman, with Marx, who would extinguish all classes save the proletariat, with the anti-domination philosophers, whose focus on domination largely bypasses non-Western brutalities, and who see nothing but an unjust world in need of their moral leadership, we can readily see how Herder’s position is essentially a prototype of dialogical encountering between diverse hermeneutical communities.

The point is to learn from each other. The idea that is sometimes expressed by people who know a little bit about Herder is that he can be adequately classified as a relativist. Bu this can only be held if one not only fails to take seriously what Herder is trying to do and how he goes about it. His great work, Adrastea, is “devoted to truth and justice.” And the statement made almost immediately after the “Dedication” of the Adrastea is as succinct an account of how Herder considers the truth as any he provides:

The ray of light refracts itself in a thousand colours and swathes itself differently to each object. But all colors belong to one light, the truth. In many melodic courses, the sound changes up and down; and yet only one harmony is possible on a gamut of world events and the relationship between things. What now fails, dissolves itself into another age.

Although Franz Rosenzweig shows no signs of any in-depth reading of Herder, his proclamation to Rosenstock-Huessy that the dialogical method he favoured involved shoving “the whole of history between myself and the problem, and so think with the heads of all the participants in the discussion” is essentially a restatement of Herder’s understanding of truth.

The importance of the many-sided character of truth and the dialogical dimension is also well brought out by Herder’s treatment of the importance of error in Letters for the Advancement of Humanity:

Free investigation of truth from all sides is the only antidote to delusion and error of whatever nature they may be. Let the deluded defends his delusions, and defend his opinion against those who think differently; that’s their business. Even if neither were to be improved, for the unprejudiced person a new reason, a new insight into truth, would surely emanate from every disputed error.

Herder is not, then, arguing that there are no truths, but as in one’s dealings with the deluded person, just having the truth does not suffice. It is our engagements with each other that matter—for every errancy can be important for gaining greater insights about each other, and our world, every encounter an opportunity for generating new forms or deeds of conviviality, love and solidarity (or their opposite), and hence for helping create a more “truthful” and valuable world.

The historical context of Herder’s work is one in which different “peoples” have become increasingly conscious of each other’s presence. How, then, do we deal with this? That is a serious and real, and not just “ideal” question. Having ideas about better and worse ways to be in the world, having principles that facilitate action is not the same as the idea-ism of paradigmatical imposition of a sovereign principle that is indifferent to what is occluded by the principle.

This is also why, as we mentioned earlier, Herder is happy to accept the traditional philosophical appeals to the good, true, and beautiful, provided that their content is open to the creative explorations of the human species. To be sure, he extends this way of thinking into the political and does side with republican politics. At the same time, he is conscious that this ideal itself can be phantasmic and even disastrous. Thus, he writes, in the same Letter, of the potential danger of pursuing “the best form of the state, indeed of all states:”

This phantom is uncommonly deceptive in virtue of the fact that it obviously introduces into history a nobler yardstick of merit than the one that those arbitrary reasons of state contained—indeed even blinds with the names of “freedom,” “enlightenment,” “highest happiness of the peoples.” Would God that it never deceived! The happiness of one single people cannot be imposed onto, talked onto, loaded onto the other and every other. The roses for the wreath of freedom must be picked by a people’s own hands and grow up happily out of its own needs, out of its own desire and love. The so-called best form of government, which has unfortunately not yet been discovered, certainly does not suit all peoples, at once, in the same way; with the yoke of badly imported freedom from abroad a foreign people would be incommoded in the worst possible way. Hence a history that calculates everything in the case of every land with a view to this utopian plan in accordance with unproved first principles is the most dazzling deceptive history.

And, in keeping with this, he emphasises:

All excessive subtle taxonomies of human beings according to principles from which we are supposed to act exclusively are quite foreign to the spirit of history. It knows that in human nature the principles of sensuality, of imagination, of selfishness, of honor, of sympathy with others, of godliness, of the moral sense, of faith, etc. do not dwell in separated compartments, but that in a living organization that gets stimulated from several sides many of them, often all, cooperate in a living manner. It allows each of them its value, its rank, its place, its time of development—convinced that all of them, even unconsciously, are operating towards a single purpose, the great principle of humaneness [Menschlichkeit]. Hence it lets all of them bloom in their time right where they are: sensuality and the arts of the imagination, intellect and sympathy, honor, moral sense and holy worship.

In sum, then, Herder’s desire for cultures and communities learning what each has been able to create, and hence to cultivate over time is predicated on the fact that the world is “a world,” albeit a world constituted by different habitats, sentiments, ideas etc. The faith he has is that this world can be one in which peace ultimately reigns. And he requires that we all explore and bring to the human banquet what is the best of our creations—it also requires identifying each other’s delusions and pathologies.

Herder is not so starry eyed about other people and cultures that he does not criticize them. But he is also very critical of his own culture. Only through our inquiries into our respective histories and behaviours can we all learn from each other. We will all inevitably be enmeshed in our prejudices and have our myopia—Herder himself is not completely free from this, but who is? We have to be able to put aside “one-sided,” “fixed” and “rigid” ideas—(and one of the great virtues of poetry for Herder is that it helps us overcome separation and one-sidedness).

In this sense, there is indeed a biblical, messianic component to Herder’s thinking. He was a Christian thinker, but a Christian who was frequently critical of how Christians have acted. Although, an exploration of Herder’s Christianity would be a huge topic in itself, it is not exaggerating to say that the central tenet of the Christian faith, for Herder, is the advancement of humanity itself.

Thus, in the second Collection of the Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, he writes that “The religion of Christ, which he himself taught and practised, was humanity itself. Nothing but that… Christ knew no more noble name for himself, than that he named himself the Son of Man, a man.” And in Adrastea, he asks: “Does Christianity teach anything other than pure humanity?” But this is not the Godless humanity of Voltaire, or the Enlightened who think they know what humanity is without it having to be revealed through its deeds and dreams. This idea of a humanity bonding through its conversableness also stands in the closest relationship to his view of providence. Thus too, in Adrastea, he writes:

Now you know… what my religion of all religions is. It’s an Adrastea, but in a much higher equation than the Greeks ever gave it. She was first a jealous, then a warning or punitive goddess; her highest maxim was, “Not beyond measure!” The nemesis of Christianity postulates balance and retribution in everything, in the moral as well as in the physical world, the least and the greatest, as the law of nature, but the determination of human beings elevates them in the overcoming of evil through good, with the charitable persistence of magnanimity. Humanity finally makes it the tipping of the scale, as a compensation of Providence, as it were, the decisive voice of the judge of the world, the judge, who always comes and is there, who receives and recompenses everything.

Herder’s contribution to philosophy is ultimately a “programmatic” contribution, a contribution which requires that philosophy develops in keeping with all the available knowledge it can draw upon. The development, itself, though is for the greater purpose of advancing our common humanity.

But this can only be done if we do not take humanity as an abstraction, but as the plethora of powers that have accrued over time and across the spaces. Those powers are themselves tested and judged in the course of the times. Thus too, Herder states that revolution “is as necessary to our species, as the waves to the dream, that it become not a stagnant pool. The genius of humanity blooms in continually renovated youth, and is regenerated as it proceeds, in nations, generations, and families.”

Herder’s deference to errancy and providence also places his thought at odds with that most modern kind of idea-ism which, for all its other differences, is as common to Kant and Robespierre, as to Marx and the anti-domination thinkers, as it is to even more garden variety ethics: the ethico-political idea-ism which emphasizes volition and principles. There is, of course, much that Herder does not really explore, but it does provide a kind of orientation and spirit that opens up the philosophical enterprise to a more expansive vista and quest so that it can be attentive to its own paradigmatical and sovereign entrapment.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured image shows a portrait of Johann Gottfried von Herder, by Gerhard von Kügelgen, painted in 1809.

“Well, Who Ya Gonna Believe? Me, Or Your Own Eyes?” Leopold Tyrmand: The “Cabal” and the “Media-Shangri-La”

The following points were the lead into the Daily Mail’s story on January 26 2021 about the findings of Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer:

  • New data from Edelman shows that American trust in media is at all-time low
  • 56% believe that journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead
  • 58% think news organizations are more interested in ideology than facts
  • Only 18% of Republicans trust the media versus 57% of Democrats
  • As a whole, 46% of Americans of all political stripes say they trust the media
  • Media trust is at lows around the world indicating a global phenomenon

In the United States this figure is more or less on par with the percentage of the population that believed that the outcome of the 2020 USA election was the result of foul play. While journalists may be disappointed by this lack of trust, given that from the moment of Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016, they shifted from opposing his candidature to all-out war with him and those who did not represent their interests or view of the world, one can only ask: why would they be surprised?

If the journalists were to be believed, then Trump had not only colluded with Russia to win the White House in 2016, he and his followers were white supremacists. His racism was such that he banned Muslim immigrants for merely being Muslim immigrants, and was happy to put Latino migrant children in cages because they were Latino migrant children. Who could not see that he was a monster? Then there was his sheer incompetence—his handling of COVID directly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Who could not see that he was a complete idiot? Surely, it was utterly immoral to let the fate of the world hang upon his deranged and deplorable supporters having the numbers on election day.

And so it was, as an intrepid reporter for Time magazine on February 4th, informed the world, in a sentence that would be endlessly repeated by conservative bloggers and Youtubers who were not allowed to say that the 2020 election had been rigged: “a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information.”

As the author of the piece, Molly Ball, spun it, thanks to their tireless efforts in making it easier to vote, democracy was saved from a tyrant. Other journalists had been routinely comparing the tyrannical Trump to Hitler, so she did not need to repeat that historical analogy; though the historian Timothy Snyder, who knows a thing or two about the holocaust, had said early on in the Trump presidency that the comparisons with Hitler might be a little overblown—Mussolini was closer to the mark.

To the Trump haters who appeal, when it suits them, to “the science,” who “fact check” every joke or exaggeration that Trump has ever made, and who see the need for a Reality Czar to deprogram the members of the Trump cult, the minor fact that Trump had not imprisoned any journalists, or any other of his political opponents for that matter, was of no consequence. As for the dribbling deranged deplorables—likened by the actor Sean Penn and FBI Director James Comey to members of Al Qaeda—who, on election night, thought that their votes might just have been discounted or put in the Biden pile along with the votes of convicted felons, illegal aliens, people of no fixed address, the dead, and the never having existed, Big Tech joined the forces of older media in censoring and denouncing them.

The whole idea that this “cabal” was a “cabal” rigging the vote was a conspiracy theory spread by QAnon. Given that the sibylline utterances of Q were bat-crap crazy and that nothing Q had ever predicted actually occurred, the identity of Q came down to one possibility—Q was someone who was dedicated to making Trump and all of his supporters look like idiots. That left the following possibilities about who came up with Q: either someone having a laugh at the expense of the small band of deplorables with unlimited gullibility, or a Democrat, or a never-Trump shill.

It may well be that the reason so few journalists had so little interest in genuinely investigating why half the United States did not think like they were supposed to think was sheer laziness—for finding them would mean going and talking to people beyond the bars, clubs and restaurants frequented by journalists from New York, Washington, Portland, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. It would have required journalists going to very unpleasant places and hanging out with a bunch of weirdos and white supremacists—yuk!

Given the way the word “racists” was thrown around so frequently as the answer to the question, who actually voted for Trump, it is only reasonable to think that if laziness were in the mix it was ideologically induced laziness. The same question arises about Q. Is it because of laziness that none of those intrepid reporters, who turned up to all those press conferences to give Trump a good piece of their mind, were interested in finding out who Q was? Or, was Q an ideological gift that just kept on giving, something that only completely came to the fore after the election, when anyone who called for an election audit was said to be just repeating that crazy election conspiracy theory invented by Q?

In a world where an ideological trope—racism, sexism, Islamophobia, transphobia et al.—explains all the great social and political problems of the day, and hence is ever ready at hand to tie a story together, it all made sense that if people were crazy enough to support Trump they must be crazy enough to believe in Q; and hence if they are crazy enough to support anything Q says then they are crazy, though even if they have never heard of Q, they are still stooges of Q, who is a stooge of Trump, who was Putin’s stooge. And if you don’t believe that, you believe in conspiracy theories. It is a serious question: how much recreational drug use contributes to this way of thinking amongst our educated elite?

Or, to put it another way: why would the media-entertainment, sport and big tech moguls, celebrities, academics, global financiers, wall-street brokers, captains of industry, trade-union officials, journalists, and other societal and economic “leaders”—in sum, the “cabal”—who ranged from those who openly called for Trump’s assassination, to those who just wanted him beaten up, to the moderates who just wanted him impeached and banned for life from social media access or ever holding political office—tolerate Trump’s deranged supporters having their vote counted?

But lest anyone think that any of the “cabal” were thinking along such logical lines, Molly Ball (our intrepid reporter) set the record straight: “They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it.” Yes indeed, democracy was fortified by a raft of changes to voter eligibility, the process of voting, as well as the security protocols surrounding voting. Most significant was the easing of conditions of mail-in votes, with a number of states changing early voting and voter deadlines rules, and “simplifying” or scrapping altogether requirements for authenticating voter ID and ballot signatures. All of which just happened to make it much easier for a third party to tamper with a ballot. In some states the security around voting was less than is needed to buy a beer in the USA. “Fortifying” the election would also explain the videos of the unsealed boxes of ballots being found or delivered at all those weird times, and the multiple tabulation of ballots performed in the wee small hours when scrutineers had been sent home. To such non-evidence, journalists, in unison, repeated the immortal line of that great metaphysical rationalist Chico Marx: “Well, who ya gonna believe? Me, or your own eyes?”

Let us, though, imagine for a moment that the above survey results came from the 1950s: in light of the very different values that most people in the USA shared then, would the journalists of today think such widespread mistrust in the media had been a bad thing? For the values that most journalists and other urban professional groups supported back then were pretty much the values Trump and his supporters defended in 2016, viz.,

  • that citizenship was not the right of someone who entered the United States by illegal means;
  • that the national partnerships, especially between labor and capital, and the national interest had to take priority over global partnerships and global capital and the economic well-being of other nations;
  • that the key to the nation’s welfare was an environment in which access to employment was a major priority;
  • and that citizens of the United States could and should peacefully resolve their problems rather than treat other Americans on other aspects of their being, such as, race, gender, or sexual preference.

That is, it is hard to argue that the progressive journalists of the 1950s, who generally thought that most other journalists were mere mouth pieces of America’s ruling class interests, that is, the journalists who went along with the Soviet depiction of the United States as a cauldron of racial and working-class oppression and hatred, would have been anything other than heartened to see that the population did not accept the ideological propaganda of their bourgeois colleagues.

Leaving ideology aside for a moment, one might reasonably argue then—as now—that there is something else that one might consider in more normal times, if one were seriously interested in whether people should believe what journalists tell them. And that is the question of the competence of journalists to investigate a story thoroughly. I hardly think it would be a bad thing for the majority of the population to suspect that journalists are not particularly trustworthy, because, said people recognize that journalists like most people take short cuts, and soft options, and generally are neither overly bright, nor overly industrious.

I think most of us find that if we want a good tradesman, a good doctor, a good dentist, a good lawyer, it is better to ask around than take pot-luck—because we regularly come across people in professions and trades who are not very good at what they do. Why would journalists be an exception? I doubt that most people have ever thought that journalists are naturally wiser, smarter, more industrious or less prone to error and prejudice than other people. When it comes to political reporting, it is also obvious that most political journalists think like their colleagues and people who have had a similar education to them. And they nearly all think they are entitled to set the agenda for how the world should be.

As for their education, journalists are just as likely to have been taught by people who are also not overly bright or thoughtful. By bright and thoughtful I mean someone who is not only naturally gifted, but someone who is really hungry to know stuff, someone with a wide range of interests and curiosity, someone who looks at issues from vastly different and contradictory viewpoints, someone who is not only open-minded, but who is willing to be, and who admits to being, wrong. Such a person is far better placed to identify connections and associations that others fail to notice because they are not prisoners of their own vanity, nor of a consensus, whether that consensus be disciplinary or ideological in nature.

In the fifty or so years of my life spent as a university student and university teacher, I encountered plenty of naturally gifted minds, but I met very few bright or genuinely thoughtful people who taught Humanities. Most that I met read little outside of their area of “expertise,” were far stronger in conviction than in curiosity, had not significantly changed their minds on the issues that they taught and studied since their graduate days, were prone to vanity, loved to “critique,” but hated to be criticized, and generally enjoyed being with people who thought just like them.

For most of them being a good teacher amounted to them being enthusiastic in encouraging their students to think just like them. It can hardly be expected that those who prepared to be journalists by going to college would end up being particularly bright—their chances of even getting a degree requiring that their ideas generally conform to the narratives of their teachers, just as their chances of getting a job also required a conformity of values and social and political outlook with their fellow journalists and editors.

In so far as the class (covering a range of occupations) that crafts, instructs and monitors narratives which have social and political efficacy are almost universally subject to the same norms and processes of socialization, it is not surprising that those who have gone to college and received their information from the media, believe what they read or hear and watch when it is prepared by people who think just like they do—all of which conforms to the ideas and associations that they identify with, routinely discuss, and have reaffirmed in almost every social setting.

This is no less the case in my circle of friends, most of whom have been fairly well educated, have firm political convictions (which I do not remotely share) about how to make the world a just and fair place. Most of them, like other well-educated Western peoples, receive their information from such seemingly “reliable” and professionally run outlets, such as, the New York Times, the Guardian, or (here in Australia) the Australian ABC.

I realize that I have been very fortunate in that my political teachers have been people like Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Tacitus, Augustine, Hobbes and such like (who mean nothing to most of my friends), rather than Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, or the writers at BuzzFeed or Mother Jones and their Australian equivalents. But even when I am with fellow academics who are reasonably well read, when it comes to politics, many of them sound much more like Maddow and Lemon than Thucydides, et al. And I rarely meet anyone who is remotely interested in thinking what would a Thucydides have made of this event—anyway he was just another white guy.

Like most of my friends, most academics I know do not think that there has been anything wrong with the behavior of the media, or Big Tech, or universities, or schools, or publishers, or human resource officers, or celebrities, or sports administrators, or high ranking figures from intelligence agencies and the military, who have routinely denounced, “de-platformed,” silenced, sacked, harangued critics of ideas that have become part of the contemporary consensus of the class that instructs and informs the rest of us about ideas and values.

My suspicion, though, is that more than half the population—that is the people who expressed their mistrust of journalists—think that our social and political elite are rotten, and not just victims of natural human failings, such as, laziness, incompetence and arrogance. They think this because they see that there is no area of their life that the state and corporate world has not conspired (I use the word deliberately) to politicize and make subject to some authority or other that can destroy one’s reputation and livelihood. That is to say, more than half the adult population of the United States believes they are now living in an increasingly totalitarian society—and the rest of the West is not far behind. Sure, they know the difference between the USA and a country that harvests the organs of their criminals, but many would also point to the harvesting of body parts of the unborn to say, make COVID vaccines, as something equally horrifying and unimaginable a couple of generations ago.

What is not as clear is the exact moment at which all the main institutions of the nation were controlled by an elite that chose to sacrifice freedom of thought and freedom of expression for a program, which they represent as justice. What, though, can be said with certainty is that the moment was the outcome of the victory of ideas that had some, albeit very minor, support in the United States amongst intellectuals even prior to the Russian Revolution, but by the time of the 1960s had swept up a great part of the student body at its most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

By the time Alan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, the radical ideas of the 1960s about human emancipation, how power is constituted and how it can be transformed to achieve greater emancipation had not only changed the university curricula within the Humanities, but the entire mindscape of a generation who now typically thought in terms of identity and diversity (understood as group identity which being a fundamental characteristic to be considered when employing or judging people). Bloom had identified what had become known around the same time as political correctness within the universities. What was less obvious then was the extent to which other institutions had succumbed to the same set of bad ideas.

As someone who observed the Trump presidency from very distant shores, the one thing that I thought his presidency had achieved was not only the exposure of the complete corruption of the media, and its willingness not only to lie, but to suppress the truth (the Hunter Biden lap-top was simply one egregious example of the media’s conspiracy of silence to get their man up), but to take the media head on. It may have not been as exceptional as we might wish to think, for media owners, and editors, prior to Obama taking office, to kill an investigation that might uncover a scandal that harmed their own political interests and investments. But when Obama became the commander-in-chief, as Jack Cashill has detailed in his Unmasking Obama, it became routine for what he (picking up on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) calls the “firemen” to protect the president from unwanted facts by “defaming opposition journalists, mocking their work, exposing their past sins, trivializing their information, and twisting their facts, among others.”

And while the media repeatedly said Obama’s presidency was scandal free, the fact was that just as he had firemen to burn the news, he was, as Cashill writes: “Like England’s Henry II, who reportedly said of Thomas Becket, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest,’ Obama seems to have led by way of suggestion. His henchmen and women did the dirty work. They sent Nakoula Basseley Nakoula to prison for making a video. They watched in silence as Lt. Col. Terry Lakin was dispatched in shackles to Leavenworth. They had James O’Keefe and David Daleiden arrested for undercover reporting. They cyber harassed reporter Sharyl Attkisson. They used search warrants on reporter James Rosen and several Associated Press reporters. They punished whistleblowers. They helped frame George Zimmerman and Officer Darren Wilson. They used the IRS to crush the Tea Party. They turned a blind eye to the New Black Panther goons. They conspired to clear Hillary Clinton of criminal charges. They discouraged all serious investigation into the death of Seth Rich. And even before the election, they breached Obama’s passport file and probably doctored it.” And they could do all this because the media was cravenly abetting in its silence and “fact-checking” to ensure the dreamer-in-chief was presented as the great unifier; and when Trump won the election, the same firemen and enablers had to breathlessly report on fires that more often than not were of their own manufacturing. And they thought that the public would not notice—and, to be fair, their public didn’t.

Some thirty years ago I realized that journalists were not that bright, tended to be ideological, and rather lazy – which is to say I saw them as much like the academics I knew (don’t get me wrong I am fairly lazy and pretty slow—I just hate ideology). But I had not equated the New York Times with Pravda. That was my mistake (being slow, I am also not that bright).

I only wish that as I was starting what would become my academic life, I had read and had had the wherewithal to really absorb an essay published in 1976 in the American Scholar, by a Polish émigré, Leopold Tyrmand, entitled, “The Media Shangri-La,” which exposes how corrupt and pernicious to US democracy the media was even in the mid-1970s. To my shame and regret, I had not even heard of Tyrmand till my friend, Zbigniew Janowski, who regularly shakes me out of my tendency to sloth, suggested I should read it and reflect upon.

Before discussing the essay in a little more detail, I should mention that two brilliant and important books by Tyrmand. One is as perceptive a book on life within communism as has ever been written—The Rosa Luxemburg Contraceptives Cooperative: A Primer on Communist Civilization. The other, Notebooks of a Dilettante, is a fascinating and brilliant series of observational vignettes on American life. One observation from Notebooks is particularly pertinent:

“Even among trained Kremlinologists in this country, there persists a common belief that the upper class in communist society is made up of party members, government officials, high-ranking military people, and industrial managers. Nothing could be further from the truth; these people are the rulers; those overburdened with work, gross, coarse, very limited, “half-or-quarter intelligent (as we call them), undemanding where a better life is concerned. They live modestly, work fourteen hours a day and are early victims of heart disease. The real upper class are those who serve them—the cynical intellectual, writers, artists, journalists who sell a preparedness for every lie in return for money and lack of responsibility… They get in exchange material prosperity, extensive travel to the West paid by the state, intensive sexual dolce vita, made possible by their exceptional social position.”

Communism and its mutation of progressivism was the invention of what Tyrmand calls the real “upper class”—those who live off the making and monitoring of narratives which the rest of us should live by. I don’t think the “rulers” in the West today have quite the grim life that Tyrmand ascribes here to the communist “rulers” he describes, but his depiction of the group he identifies as the “upper class” is very accurate—it is the class of people who talk, write, play, and want to be renumerated for telling others what and how to think and what and how to behave in the world.

  • They are generally not interested in the hard sweat and compromise of policy and diplomacy;
  • they are largely averse to risk;
  • they do not wish to spend their time doing anything as boring as orchestrating and overseeing the productive deployment of material resources;
  • they like reading, writing and gas-bagging, especially with people who think just like them;
  • they are happy to morally condemn capitalism whilst designing (albeit without any detail) a new society in which capital would not exist; yet their interests align with those who do know how to attract massive amounts of capital and generate great wealth.

These are Nietzsche’s higher men and women, who (unlike Nietzsche) have discovered that if they purport to make the world equal, they will ever be served by clients who depend upon them—hence they are post-Marxists, and being post-Marxist means that they divide the world into oppressor and oppressed, and they receive the resources they need to live how they wish by instructing us all how not to oppress each other.

This conveniently fits the interests of that class of entrepreneurs and investors who want a compliant work force to produce what they think will be most profitable. This is the class of people who ensured that Trump and his goons did not destroy democracy. Of course, one only has to look at how the same people not only spoke about Ronald Regan, the Bushes, and a man who became a real sweetheart to them, John McCain, to realize how vicious they become if anyone stands in the way of their plans and interests.

Trump should have been the easiest of targets, and should have folded long before the 2016 election: he was a philanderer and cad; he was crude; he was vain; he was loose on detail; he was thin-skinned and petty, given to vengefulness over the most minor of slights, and seemingly incapable of circumspection. He constantly brought people into the administration who betrayed him and his program, and he frequently lost or turned against people who either loudly supported him, or were even brought onto the team with great fan-fare. This, though in large part, has to do with the class nature of the swamp problem that Trump had been elected to deal with.

Ann Coulter, who had supported him with such enthusiasm but was furious about his treatment of Jeff Sessions, called him out for being lazy, though—as someone who understands a thing or two about laziness—I doubt if sloth would really be brought up against Trump on Judgment Day. I think a more impartial observer might just note how many fronts Trump had to fight on because he could not find a supportive administration. In any case, for all Trump’s human flaws—he was no media pushover. At every opportunity, he called out journalists for being liars. And his supporters loved him for it. And as that happened the journalists and Democrats became ever more hysterical—they quite literally preferred to watch cities burn in “mostly peaceful protests” than have Donald Trump restore law and order.

The thing about any real democracy is that no one really gets what they want. When, though, people are unprepared to sacrifice what they want on behalf of a good that has been reached through contestation by accounting for differences in interests, then democracy itself is simply an impediment to an interest. Naturally, an elite of educated people think their interest is irreproachable. Hence, nothing is more evident to our elite than the “fact” that they are the incarnation of the good, the true, and the beautiful; and their mission in life is to guide the rest of us in ways in which we can all benefit from their goodness, truth and beauty.

Along with universities and schools, the media are our great saviours. And, as it so happens, they have managed to almost all line up as members, or outspoken supporters of a political party, which provides the program, policy platform, and plenty of jobs, and government funding for those who share its interests. Which is why Trump supporters have been saying for four years, the media is now simply the mouthpiece of the Democratic party—and, again, no wonder more than half the country does not trust the Media.

Workers in the Media claim to represent the public interest—when I first wrote this sentence, I had used the term the “national interest,” but it is incorrect to think that journalists care about the “national interest” when they are no longer in favour of national borders and hence of national sovereignty. The idea that there is a public interest which can be discovered and represented by anyone other than an elected representative, or, failing that, someone appointed by elected representatives, is very dubious indeed.

Though, one of the most dubious ideas that has, with the acceptance of the narratives and norms of identity politics, been presented as self-evident is that a person who shares a particular feature with others—gender or sexual identity, skin colour, etc.—is ipso facto a representative of others with that same characteristic. Thus, a presidential victory for a woman, say Hilary Clinton, would have been a victory for all women. Apart from this line of thinking being very self-serving—you should vote for me, Hilary, because I am a woman and am able to express policies that are beneficial to all women, etc.—it is obviously so silly that it was only believed by those women who shared the same values and wanted the same political things as Hilary Clinton did—as was obviously the case when Sarah Palin was mercilessly mocked by women and men who did not share her politics, and never hesitated to think for a moment that her gender made her a representative of women’s interests.

Conversely, we know that even the people who insist upon representation based upon identity are quick to jettison the primacy of identity when someone who is a black, woman, Muslim, gay—whatever—departs from the normative script about how a black, woman, etc. should behave. It is, then, understandable why a US citizen would say that the policies or pronouncements of the president do not represent what they think or feel, or their interest. But journalists are no more representative of the public interests, than butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers. Indeed, the one thing that is glaringly obvious is that their life-experiences have nothing in common with a large section of the public.

The larger media organizations also appoint the people with the best educational pedigree, which is to say, and to repeat my earlier point, that they appoint people who think like the people who trained them in how and what to think about social and political issues. And although academics generally claim they encourage independence of thought—they rarely do. From the perspective of an academic, whose bread-and-butter commitment and economic renumeration are built around identity, someone who argues against the idea that women or blacks or LGBT or Muslims or whoever, experience the world as an oppressed group is simply not thinking.

Given that much more than half the population do not think like “identitarian” academics, bureaucrats, or activists indicates that at least half the population are not thinking—which is why, amongst other things, incorporating critical race theory into the training programs within public institutions and private corporations, having policies on pronouns, ensuring that hetero-sexuality and cis-gender-ism are de-legitimized within the school system are so important for making the rest of society get with the program. Thus, too, any journalists who do not go along with the various ethical proscriptions against values, which are now “obviously” conservative, white-supremacist, sexist, etc. must not be employed, and if presently employed, they have to be fired. Journalists, though, are only part of the “cabal”—to use Molly Ball’s phrase again—students, and indeed anyone with a moral conscience, is required to report on anyone who might say or think such things.

But the progressive sense of morality is as haphazard as it is bizarre as it is self-serving. Our journalists feel it their duty to scout out and destroy any non-black (they do not like—double standards are rife, of course) who somewhere, sometime used a word, irrespective of context, which is endlessly spouted in rap or street talk, while having no interest in the role that our Hollywood moguls, the super-rich, celebrities, rock stars, and well-heeled urban professionals play in supporting an illegal product, the production of which is predicated not only upon the murder of tens of thousands of people, including women and children, but the corrosion and corruption of states.

The journalists, who joined the celebrities who made such a moral to-do about open borders, rarely (if ever) connected the refugee problem with the recreational drug issue and the class of people who it involves—to be sure, not only, but primarily, its audience. The moral line, though, whilst haphazard in terms of content, is consistently self-serving—the greatest moral enemies, who must be hunted down and destroyed, are those who speak out against the progressive spin and program.

This too is why Big Tech had to get in line with universities and other corporations, who have an ethical brand/image to protect and ensure that none say things that are hurtful and harmful, whether it be racist, sexist, Islamophobic, etc. Journalists play their role by identifying anyone who is caught saying or doing something racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Thus, the never-ending daily stories outing “Karens,” racists, homophobes, etc. It does not matter whether the culprit is famous or not—they will soon be infamous, and have their life pulled through the media, so that they will in all likelihood lose their job.

Though, given that celebrities and sports stars belong to the good, true, and the beautiful, the program benefits drastically by discovering that sometime, somewhere, some high-profile figure did something, or said something contrary to the speech required of the program. Of course, people being what they are, some get more chances than others. Biden and Bill Clinton were held to very different standards on the matter of sexual harassment than various other characters who lost their reputation and livelihoods for deeds far less nefarious than these two presidents were accused of doing.

In a previous age, accusations alone were not generally seen by journalists as adequate for destroying someone’s reputation and livelihood (though the press has always been willing to use this in exceptional circumstances, now it is commonplace).

So while the media has always had its nefarious tendencies, those tendencies were more easily mitigated by its more limited reach. That reach and media scale, though, have expanded over the decades to fill in the gaps left by a world where in the larger cities people’s daily lives are increasingly confined to smaller areas of “thick” social connections. Thus, the disparate levels of trust in the media are connected to the kinds of daily social interactions people have in larger urban centres in comparison with those of people in regional and rural areas. The urban centres are full of people who think they are very intelligent because of what they read, watch, and repeat to others who share the same sources of information and make the same associations—”How could you distrust The New York Times?” they think, shaking their heads in disbelief, when they watch some redneck say things they have long since branded as racist, dumb, or part of a conspiracy theory?

But those who don’t spend their free time watching movies, tv, or reading the newspapers because they think they are garbage, having little to do with reality draw upon a very different set of life experiences. Their experiences make them think: “How can those people push their heads so far up their own behinds they do not see the obvious craziness of what they are saying?” And, as much as it is a surprise to the city slickers, they don’t much care for people who don’t know them, calling them racists and rednecks and imbeciles.

They also don’t roll over and lie down and grovel when a wealthy group of people who have gone to the best schools, earn very good money, and are mostly white, berate them for being white privileged, even though most of them are struggling to meet their mortgage, car payments, kids’ school tuition, etc. They could not choose their colour and most of them have done their best with the far more limited choices at their disposal than the smarties who have gone to Yale or Stanford and speak of them as human trash. They put in to their communities, they are generally good mannered and friendly to strangers, and do not bear people ill-will without cause.

Of course, they know they have their share of bad eggs; but they generally know right from wrong, and don’t dream up smart phrases so that they can no longer tell one from the other. Calling killing a baby “planning one’s parenthood” takes real sophistication and does far more danger to one’s sense of reality than merely taking the sting out of one’s conscience—as is evident when the serious moral dilemma of sacrificing a child to save a mother’s life is put on the same moral plane as the argument that a growing creature in the womb is nothing more than a finger nail. But that is where our “learning” has taken us.

The deplorables might not have gone to these palaces of learning, but they know a con when they see it—they know the people who mock and belittle them can no more have gone to the best schools and been oppressed than 2 plus 2 can make 0. So they also are perfectly able to recognise that when someone says that any member of an oppressed group should be believed, he doesn’t really mean it. They know that the people who say this are habitual liars, who have so lost their moral compass that they do not know they are habitual liars. Hence they do not even notice how haphazard they are in applying their moral standards—if you have the right politics and if you have the right friends your past manslaughter (for the young Ted Kennedy), past black-face (Trudeau) won’t count any more than your sexual harassment.

As night follows day, moral violations become increasingly stupid—cultural appropriation, micro-aggressions join the kind of offences that Lenin, Stalin and their henchmen had to dream up to clear away the old elite to make way for the new. To know what is expected, thus, becomes impossible to consistently maintain. Likewise, the equivalent to the once good old Bolshevik has been discovered to be an enemy of human kind—they may think biology matters, they may have thought it was funny to display their lack of rhythm or inability to do black street talk, they may have dropped a wrong word in a joke. They will all be denounced—or if too important, the media will ensure that their past crime will disappear—all who are found out will publicly repent, hoping they can maintain their career and fame and/or status—and if they do get a second chance they will be at the front of the queue at the next public denunciation. Some will be cast into oblivion and their past deeds will go the way of Eric Coomer’s anti-Trump Facebook posts.

Again we can all see this; but one group has enabled this and thinks it is the way to making a better world; while those who have not lost their minds wonder what planet someone is living on who thinks that good grammar or wearing a sombrero to a fancy dress party is racist. And again, the fact that journalists as well as the rest of the cabal cheer along with this, only shows people who have real connections, relationships, commitments and concerns that they are completely devoid of any understanding of real suffering and real humanity. The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” might have simplified the matter; but when kids were taught it and chanted it in schoolyards around the country they were reminding themselves and each other that they were resilient and need not wilt when someone said something mean about them.

There is, though, no wisdom in believing that people are so fragile that they will be shaken to their very core and might never recover from a mean or stupid slur. Contrary to what the average journalist and college teacher now seems to believe, people do not need an endless set of protocols, laws, and punishments to stop everyone saying mean or stupid things. People are generally very capable of telling people who are rude to shut up. But an elite who live off instructing people in how to behave need to amplify the pain and sorrow along with the scale of meanness so that it includes entire groups. They target groups by promising to deliver them from the pain of humiliation, and they offer careers to a small number who they can get into the club; but most of what they deliver are words, dependency, family break-down, and impoverishment at an economic and spiritual level.

What I have just described is familiar to everyone—the program is articulated and pushed by all manner of people in all manner of professions and though it is paid for, and backed up by punishment, its success come from the fact that the class which aims for total control of information, normative narratives and associations is every bit as socially powerful as the clergy were within Christendom (the blogger Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug, speaks of its core ideational commitment being akin to the Cathedral). Just as the Church was both the expression of the faith of its members, and a vast employment agency, the political success of the new clerics of the new faith has been in not only creating ever more employment opportunities within the public and private sector to expand their faith, but increasingly ensuring that people who do not embrace the faith become unemployable, and denounced (indeed it is telling just how often the word “denounced” is used today).

There is no real division over the facts about some people losing their careers for saying or doing certain things. But people are deeply divided over whether this control and suppression of speech is a good or just thing. Likewise, people are deeply divided over the key tenets of social justice, including the idea that a specific aspect or personal feature constitutes an identity. That idea, in turn, has becomes central to the demand about how to think about people who share the same features. But if one thinks this is a really bad idea, then none of the attempts to distribute opportunities and resources, based upon that essential feature (that essence), amount to anything other than bad outcomes.

Likewise, no matter how much one bullies or denounces them, many people simply cannot accept that the way to solve certain social problems has been best laid out by critical race theorists, queer theorists, post-colonialists, et al. Likewise, many people simply do not accept, in spite of being told repeatedly that they are stupid or evil if they don’t see all women, or blacks, or LGBT, etc. as more or less all the same because they are women, etc. One does not have to be a poor white to think Oprah is full of it when she identifies herself with the most oppressed people in America because of her race. One does not have to be white to think that not all whites are racists. One does not have to be a man to think not all men are rapists.

Likewise, one does not have to be gay to think gay people should not be persecuted. And people may disagree with the rights of a gay couple to be parents without wanting to harm gay people—whether rightly or wrongly they can provide reasons for why any child might be better prepared for life by having a mother and a father. On this, and everything else besides, people see things in very different ways; and lots of people do not like being told how and what to think. But for those who not only like being told what and how to think, but who like telling other people how and what to think, these people are the problem. And they should go and get a good education, and if they cannot get into a college, they should watch the tv shows and movies which tell them how to behave, and watch, listen to or read the right (I mean left) media.

All of this which is clear now to anyone who does not like the program, nor much care for screaming youth burning down buildings in the name of racial justice, nor journalists telling them that the looting and arson they have been watching is mainly peaceful, or telling them that Antifa members smashing windows in the Capitol as they marched with MAGA supporters were not Antifa people, was obvious to Tyrmand back in 1976. He wrote then that the media in the USA had not only “appropriated, and mastered all the potentialities and subtleties of contradiction,” but had “monopolized” them so that “nobody will be able to effectively contradict the media.”

By the 1960s, he observed, the media, had already “transcended the traditional areas of influence—politics, for one. Larger targets were sought, perhaps the American soul or the totality of American life, so that either of these could be encompassed and shaped according to commandments that were never made clear, but no doubt existed.” To this the only qualification I would add, is that politics had been redefined in the 1960s to coincide with the personal.

The divide taking place in the United States was between those who were controlling narratives, and the ordinary people who smelled something very fishy going on in the stories they were reading and hearing. Given that there may be readers who cannot access this essay, I quote at some length:

“In the democratic ethos, we try not to hate but rather to despise, scoff, disbelieve; bigots hate, but normal people are disgusted by something or can’t stand it. In totalitarian countries, normal people hate in ways that denizens in democracies are unable to comprehend. It is a dark hatred rooted in the necessity to live at the unmerciful mercy of those who hold an unassailable monopoly on governing, informing, and, speaking out. Sometime during the sixties, a similar revulsion sneaked into the feelings of many Americans. The suspicion that “that you can’t beat them whatever you do,” which seemed to have been forgotten since the pre-labour union subjugation to the company store, made its reappearance as the people took a stand against the gemmating power of the media. Vietnam, student unrest, the Black Panthers. Permissive mores, and Watergate—coupled with the absence of any serious and sustained expression of opposing views—triggered in many people something stronger than disgust. The official beatitudes of the freedom of the press were trumpeted as articles of faith and key to Americanism. And the more these were preached as our common good, the more obvious it became that not everyone can bask in them; that among all of us who are free to express ourselves, some are freer than others, and to such a degree their freedom becomes out enslavement. Against this accusation, the editor barons would understandably reply that nay limitation they imposed must be looked upon as. a technicality, such as not enough space to present contrasting views, whereas any demand for checks and balances from them would signify an eventual collapse of liberty. It became clear that if truth is the victim of censorship in the totalitarian state, in America it falls prey to the manipulations that breed bitterness, a sense of bondage, and finally, hatred. Of course, the hatred can’t be ascribed to too many—only those who care about accuracy and equity and are tormented by it.”

I think it fair to say that since Tyrmand wrote this essay, the hatred expanded along with the sense of self-righteousness of journalists, which had, in turn, grown along with the self-righteousness and certitudes about the obstacles to emancipation and justice within the universities. Then came the Internet and cable TV. Millions turned away from the traditional media to find a platform. Trump was not only far savvier than any other politician about how to use social media, but he also gauged who was using it and why.

Trump-haters and Democrats seem to have never understood the extent to which people turned to Trump simply so that they could think independently, simply because they were sick of friends, family and everyone else in their circle telling them X, when they themselves were curious enough to get onto the Internet and discover if what was being said about X was truth or lie. People discovered there were lots of lies—lots of fake news. Or as Tyrmand said back in 1976: “All in all, the idea of information has been reduced to the attitudes of modern liberalism.”

Thus, when the gay New Yorker and former liberal Democrat, Brandon Straka, put up his story on Youtube about how he was ostracized and bullied by his liberal friends when he could no longer reconcile what he saw and heard with his own eyes and ears with some of the claims being made about Donald Trump, his video went viral. Hundreds of people quickly followed and made similar videos telling their stories—some were gay, some were trans, some (quite a lot in fact) had voted for Obama or been strong supporters of Bernie Sanders in 2016 (some had even worked on his campaign). To be more precise, they all told the same story: as soon as they reported back to their friends and family that they had discovered on the Internet something which indicated that what they were all accepting as a fact was not a fact, they were bullied and ostracized, attacked on Facebook, or Twitter. They just needed a platform to connect with people who had been ostracized and bullied in the same way; they wanted to be reassured that they were not mad.

BuzzFeed quickly informed its readers, in all seriousness, that the videos of the Walkaway movement, as it became known as, were created by Russian bots. And as much as BuzzFeed, CNN et al. wished to brand as fake-news, the narratives, information and even experience which they wished to discredit, it was the extent of their own collusion in the Russia election interference narrative and such eagerness to find Russian bots as BuzzFeed had found that was pivotal in people refusing to read or watch fake-news, and dive deeper (the term “deep dive” became commonplace, along with such terms as, “go down the rabbit-hole,” “red -pilled”) into the seemingly endless investigations people were conducting from basements where they would interview people and find audiences from all over the globe.

What was becoming apparent, is that the Media had followed the universities in losing any authority with well over half the country. And again, anyone whose livelihood and prestige were based upon the status of where they had received their education or where they were working was directly affected by this rebuke. Naturally they would get angry and bite back. They were losing clients.

The theme of client loss was astutely and repeatedly and very vocally picked up by black youtubers like Candace Owens, Kevin from Kevin’s Corner, Karen Kennedy, Jericho Green, Anthony Logan, Diamond and Silk, the Conservative Twins and many more—their common message is that the Democrats are the plantation party, that they make permanent clients of blacks, and that the way to a better life for black Americans is not to be found by black men not taking responsibility for their families, turning to crime, becoming a crack addict or selling drugs in the neighborhood. Nor is it to be found in welfare money or other freebies and white leg-ups, like easier entrance conditions for college, which all cement one into a clientelist position. They know that the reason why anyone—except the lucky few, whose inherited fortune may cost them their soul—gets ahead is by behaving well, putting in an effort, going to school and working.

Generally, they don’t like white college kids urging on rioters to loot stores owned by blacks as well as whites. They don’t like poor blacks being the means by which some white or even black college kid gets credit in their social justice class. They don’t like seeing black neighborhoods destroyed, and creating the conditions of gentrification for people from elsewhere to later capitalize on by swooping up cheap property. And they also do not like what they see as the genocidal culling of the black population by abortion becoming a key plank in the Democrats’ social policy.

Thus, their refrain is: white liberals deploy the narrative of systemic racism and white privilege to beef up their own privilege, and they are prepared to sacrifice everything about America that has made it a wealthy and relatively free nation to achieve their ends. They do not think that the expanse of blacks into the middle class is insignificant or bad—what astonishes them is how ignorant so many white ostensibly educated people are who have no idea of the demographics of the blacks in the middle class or even below the poverty line.

In sum—they smell a rat—they call it (as anyone knows who listen to these pods) the “DemocRat.” No wonder they are called Uncle Toms—if too many blacks thought like this, the game would be up. In fact, the game would be up if too many people of any color, ethnicity, shape, or sexual proclivity just happened to think more along the common sense lines of Mum or Pop who work in a café, or a gas station, or run the corner store, than along the zig-zags and spaghetti-rationales coming out of the educated places which cost you a hundred grand or so to learn what to think.

Again back in 1976, Tyrmand asked the simple question: “Why should a tidy old lady who does not believe in welfare, and feels that democracy ought to defend itself against dictatorship, be called ‘pig’ by a mob of untidy wild-eyed detractors with hackles up?” The same mob, though now far more poorly dressed, were out in full force over last summer burning stores and looting in the name of George Floyd.

One image around that time, I found particularly arresting: it was of a young, white woman, possibly late teens or early twenties, yelling at MAGA supporters who were trying to protect their neighborhood from being burned to the ground, screaming, “I hope they rape your children and kill you.” It was the kind of derangement that the most of the media did not bother reporting, because there was nothing strange or wrong about it: she was fighting for the same things as “the cabal”, unlike that schoolboy with the MAGA hat who was hateful to a native American (the ethnic identity was very important) dancing around playing a loud drum and staring him down: the hateful act consisted of—looking back at him!

BLM’s call for defunding the police and opening up the prisons as the race riots (mainly led by white college kids, or the feral off-the grid dropouts who think the way to freedom is to burn the lot down, while waiting for blacks from the underclass to up the ante and be the visible face of the looting) was but a repeat of the refrain from the 1960s and 1970s. Their social vision was the legacy of 1960s and 1970s anti-establishment radicals who are now establishment educators, such as Angela Davies; she supplied the weapons that killed three people in the attempt to free her lover George Jackson from prison, and she is now a Professor at the University of California; Weatherman founder Bill Ayres—he was a partner with Obama in the 1990s in the education foundation he had initiated, the Chicago Anneberg Challenge, and it was from Ayres’ house that Obama launched his first senatorial run; and, one last example, Eric Mann, also a Weatherman leader, who had been imprisoned for conspiring to commit murder, and is now a full time activist and speaker whose star “pupils” include Obama’s green energy “czar,” Van Jones and BLM founders Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza. The list goes on and on.

Again Tyrmand’s observation about how the journalists of the 1960s had sided with the criminal class, and prison rioters, by blaming social conditions for their existence is perfectly apt for today’s journalists: “They would never mention that the prison rebellion by now an American folklore staple, is an offshoot of latitude and permissiveness…Over the last quarter-century, the liberals and their press have had their way with crime in America, but neither expanded welfare nor the most lenient judicial and penitentiary procedure have brought anything but the wildest proliferation of violence.”

The following passage by Tyrmand encapsulates what he calls “the deviousness of the factoid” of the contemporary journalist when it comes to the matter of race in a story:

“Time once reported how a black man in Detroit, in a fit of rage, killed his factory foreman and two other men. The story was peculiar in tone: the magazine did not condone the killing, but its social conscience extended to a comprehensive discussion of why this would occur in a racist sweatshop. Shortly thereafter I met on Broadway a Time editor I knew. When I conveyed my doubts to him, he replied: ‘The most amusing thing is that one of the victims was black too.'”

In sum, Tyrmand realized that the liberal position in the 1960s was already being shaped by radical journalists, writers and hip philanderers who lionized terrorists, prisoners, and murders, including those of your more garden variety thug, such as, Jack Abbott, as well as ones with a more far reaching-social program, like Huey Newton. Since then, though, that view of the world has now become the norm among the elite. Thus it was that Trump voters were only showing their ignorance when they took Antifa’s existence and destructiveness seriously. Antifa, as Joe Biden astutely noted, was not an organisation but an idea—which is, by the way, straight from Antifa’s own program.

Though the powers that be at CNN, NBC and Australia’s ABC unwittingly confirmed, when they paid for camera footage from an Antifa activist’s “live shooting” of “the insurrection” of January 6, that Antifa has human members and not just ideational ones. Indeed, had they been interested in finding out how Antifa is paid, or who is in it, and which journalists go along with it, they might have bothered to interview conservative youtuber and business man, Joe Oltmann who had done the kind of thing one used to associate with journalists: he went undercover to get a story about which journalists had connections with Antifa.

In that meeting he stumbled onto an even bigger story that the media would only ever refer to as a conspiracy story, if ever it was even mentioned: the director of product strategy and security of Dominion voting system—yes, the system used in over twenty-four states in the 2020 election—had been merrily posting on Facebook Antifa’s program, along with his vitriolic hate toward Trump and his supporters. They have since been disappeared. Oltmann says that he heard that director—Eric Coomer—say at that meeting there was no way Trump could win—he had, reported Oltmann, made “effing sure of that.”

It is possible that Oltmann may not be telling the truth, though having watched hours and hours of him on Youtube, he strikes me as far more believable than most journalists and politicians, who want to tell us what we must think not only about the election of 2020, but pretty well everything from the weather to geopolitics, and how to solve problems of race and poverty (which amounts to, believe what we say and vote Democrat).

But of all his many masterful insights, the one point that Tyrmand makes which speaks so much to our time is the way in which Media has set itself up as the Ministry of Truth. I could not agree more with Tyrmand’s observation that governments “in democracies are disposable.” This indeed is the very reason why democracies as such are more important than the government within them. Policies can be right or wrong, they can serve this or that interest, and they can be changed—which is not to say that changing them will always be easy.

But when the press supports a government or some set of policies which are no longer beholden to democratic processes, then this an altogether bigger problem.

There are many policies which have long since become unhinged from any democratic input, but the one that had most impact in so far as it led to Trump’s election and the compete upheaval within the Republican Party was, of course, immigration. (There have, though, been plenty of Republicans who have no idea of what has occurred and think they can continue to remain in power by being the diet version of the Democrats).

The battle over illegal immigration is really a battle over the power of demographics. Just as it is commonplace for states to engage in ethnic or religious population shifts, to dilute the political power that flows from a particular group’s demographics; an elite that has lost its base must dilute the power of the old one by recruiting a new base. This is as much an occurrence in Western Europe as in the USA. And just as multiculturalism was an elite consensus policy rather than a party plank in an election platform, the widespread tacit acceptance of illegal aliens within the country and the workforce was never subjected to electoral decision—and this was as true for the Republicans as for the Democrats.

After Trump’s election, though, the tactic was vehemently defended by the elite and the media by calling those who wanted national sovereignty, racists. Thus, too, the substitution of the word “migrant,” a word whose meaning contains the tacit ring of legality, for what had long been the descriptive term for people who refused to comply with legal entry requirements to the country—”illegal alien”—was orchestrated by the media and Democratic Party. It was a typical elite tactic—and it is seen as such by the base, who are not so stupid that they cannot see that their displacement is a major piece in the elite’s program. This is also why it was the most important reason for people who wanted to retain what little socio-economic power they still have and who have suffered from the destruction of their communities, the rising crime caused by a great influx of people with nothing to lose or little to fear from the police and legal system (which tacitly and often overtly condones their presence) to ditch the old Republican-style elite politics for Trump.

The media has always been mendacious and duplicitous and journalists lazy, and pretty sure that they know best—but the monumental lies the media has engaged in the past four years were simply more rabid because Trump’s base was fighting back. But as Tyrmand observes, the monumental lie was part of the media’s arsenal fifty years ago:

“As of now simplisms are secondary; monumental fallacies get erected; The managing editor of Time says coquettishly in an interview: ‘We could never quite figure out whether we were part of the Establishment, and if so, how to deal with ourselves.’ An absolutism firmly in the saddle begins to mince and simper, The Democratic Big Brother longs for love and camaraderie.”

I would just add that none any more is in doubt whether the media represent the Establishment. And as the Establishment, it knows that its job must be to ensure that certain truths never see the light of day. Yet fortunately for those who think that being brain-washed is having a moral conscience, is it a lie if the person ensuring that a truth does not see the light of day simply makes sure that no one actually investigates it because it is beneath them? (The sneer, the snoot, the guffaw and the eyeroll are the ever-ready-to-hand responses to anyone who thinks that they can quote any old conspiracy theory that has not been sanctioned as newsworthy by real journalists). Such was the key response of the media to the Biden family’s interests in Ukraine and China.

There was no shortage of evidence about Burisma, or Hunter Biden’s qualifications, or the family connections with China, or Joe Biden’s role in the show. It just wasn’t to be found in CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, Washington Post, etc. and none of the journalists who worked in such places were interested in following up on the kind of information that Peter Schweizer or the Duran were regularly digging up—it was far more important to find out if someone else might have used the “n” word somewhere sometime.

Reading Tyrmand, whilst watching the moral and intellectual collapse of Western institutions, is a bracing affair. It reminds one how long the collapse has been going on. I very much doubt that even five or six years ago almost half the country would have thought that a coup could have taken place via election fraud. In spite of the media and Big Tech and academicians insisting that this is crazy talk, half the population believes it, and the question of which “evidence” is to be believed has been shut down, along with the de-platforming of ever more people from social media companies. The fact that the New York Times could publish an op-ed piece calling for the government to appoint a Reality Czar to eliminate “disinformation,” or that journalists say without blushing for shame at their own stupidity that millions of people need to be “deprogrammed” illustrates why the moral and intellectual collapse in the US is from the head down.

The biggest problem of all, though, is not solved by knowing how dumb and dangerous the ideas that are now the bread-and-butter beliefs of the elite in Western democracies generally and not just the US. The biggest problem is that all elites are bred over generations, and that the bad ideas that have been accumulating for more than two generations are now so instantiated in the universities, media, the schools, business, in legislation and political parties, and have become central to the way so many people speak and think, it is hard to envisage how they can be undone without it playing out to the bitter end.

Unfortunately, the bitter end also involves the geopolitical advantage that is created for enemies of the Western world who are the real beneficiaries of Western liberal democracies tearing themselves apart. Our species pays heavily for its sins—we think we are building a tower to heaven, but we fail to see all the pieces of what we are making, and by the time people can all see that what we have been making and are now using is a giant scaffold, it is too late: the propaganda merchants, the informants, judges, prison guards, executioners, et al. are already stakeholders in a system that they service and which pays their wages.

It is a great tragedy that our university teachers and journalists, and the elite, as such, think that their simplistic principles and programmatic solutions will solve the “problem” of oppression and thereby fortify the bonds of communal solidarity—and they really think they can achieve this globally. They are so arrogant and ignorant, they seriously think that Africans, Indians, Chinese, Central Asians, and Muslims—almost everyone outside the USA except Western Europeans, and other “satellite allies” such as Australia—love them and what they are doing. Communal bonds, though, are not the expression of abstract systems of ideas, but ultimately of human hearts; and human hearts, being susceptible to pride, sloth and the other deadly sins, are far easier to corrupt than to nurture and nourish through love, charity and forgiveness.

Were our ideas-brokers more attuned to the fragility, endless mutations, tragic colliding contingencies, and shreds and shards of decency and conviviality, and were they less sure of their own intelligence, far more skeptical of their ability, and more willing to reign in their ambition, they might just be a little better in understanding how vastly complex the forces of evil are, and how little any of us know, and how rarely our plans turn out the way we think they will.

Gaetano Mosca’s magnificent book Ruling Class makes the compelling case that all societies have a ruling class. The problem with our ruling class is that while they relentlessly screamed and shouted that a real estate mogul and reality TV star, who at least knew what half the country was thinking, was unfit to rule, the last four years have proven that they are the ones who have shown to that same half of the country at least how unfit they are to rule.

Their unfitness is all too evident in that the best candidate of their preferred party was someone:

  • who had pulled out of an earlier run because of plagiarism;
  • someone who had sung the praises of Democratic senator and one time KKK member Robert E. Bird (if the Democrats were consistent in accepting that we all make mistakes, this might not be seen as so egregious);
  • whose own Vice-President pick had implied was a racist during the Democratic run-offs – actually Fact Checkers provided the appropriate nuance for all the idiots who could not gather the sophistication of her criticism, which did not actually amount to racism: “Contrary to claims in viral internet posts, Sen. Kamala Harris did not call former Vice President Joe Biden a ‘racist’ or a ‘rapist.’ Rather, she has been critical of Biden’s position on busing to integrate schools and comments he made about segregationist senators, and she has said that she believed women who accused Biden of making them feel uncomfortable.” She did not call him out, though, for the sheer stupidity of statements about racial groups he seemed to endlessly conjure up to no specific end;
  • whose creepy hair sniffing and age inappropriate wink-wink banter with children could easily have made him tabloid mince meat;
  • whose claim to believe all women did not amount to a woman who accused him of sexual assault.

And that is before one even starts on the family corruption. The media have tried their best to cover up the China, and Ukraine money trails – but for anyone interested they might also want to look into “S.Res.322—A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate on the trial, sentencing and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev” and wonder why he was doing the biding of Russian oligarchs charged with tax avoidance. Normally one would not need to point out that Putin being an autocrat does not make these two plutocrats “good guys,” but with the successful rebooting of the Cold War it would seem that any opponent of Putin is on the side of the angels, irrespective of how much blood money is on their hands.

And, finally, there is the whole question of his mental state. Although the media made much of the question of Trump’s mental health, some half of the country could see that one guy could speak seemingly endlessly off the cuff to large crowds which had a party atmosphere, whereas the other conducted a campaign from the basement, and when he did go somewhere, one wondered where was everyone. And when he did something, the problem for his minders was not so much that he might babble something not coherent enough to do the grammatical damage that a sentence of Trump’s might do, but that he just might end up saying something grammatically correct, such as: “We have put together, I think, the most extensive and inclusive voter fraud organization in the history of American politics.” I am sure that many people did not know which was more hilarious—him saying that or that Fact Checkers had to say that, yes, he did say that, but the context indicated that that was not his intention and that he had misspoken.

All of this amounts to the fact that if the election were merely fortified and if Joe Biden was seen as the savior not only of the nation but the global order, then the USA and the world were in deeper trouble than anyone had heretofore imagined. Nevertheless, the media band played on and saw to it that we could all get behind “our Joe,” as if he knew exactly what he was doing – surely, the media line went, he had proved himself by his more than fifty years of public service by doing… apart from making himself rich, and bragging about his biff ability, none of them—or the rest of us—seemed to really know. The way the media spun it and even people way down here in Australia bought it, it was a choice between Trump and preserving everything good about everybody’s way of life on the planet: back to Paris, closing down coal mines, stopping fracking, boys being girls competing in school sports with girls and using their bathrooms, critical race theory shoveled down the throats of public servants, China back in the saddle as the chief beneficiary of US trade mishaps and geopolitical stuff-ups, getting those employed minorities back into their client position and the whole caboodle of what had been all going so swell until that Hitlerite orange turd stuffed it all up by wanting to get all Americans to work, get a better trade deal with China, apply the kind of immigration policies that are pretty well standard in every Western country, provide cheaper pharmaceuticals, avoid foreign military interventions, provide better support for the widows of veterans, and generally better pay for the armed forces, and greater support for the police, and defend traditions, such as, standing for the national anthem, and having the temerity to want to protect statues and the names of military bases of people who fought on the side of the confederacy.

And finally when “our Joe” won there was only one more hurdle: inauguration day. I heard a podcast from the American Mind where the discussants were saying how the spookiness of the image would be long remembered. Certainly the inauguration was unforgettable – an almost deserted Capitol, fenced in by razor wire and guarded by over twenty thousand (vetted) national guards protecting a masked inauguration from the great fear of another insurrection of those deranged Trump supporters, who all called for law and order, when the Democrats carefully explained why it was just and righteous that people express their rage against racism, why it was constitutionally wrong to use the national guard to stop looting and burning, why the party should defund the police, and provide more community education left-wing blah blah blah. And yet again at least half the country simply could not believe this was America; those who wanted this outcome saw only good things. Fox journalist Chris Wallace gushed it was “the best inaugural address I ever heard” – it was “part sermon, part prep talk.” The religious character of the whole show was a pretty common theme among the journalists—who gave the impression that they were as knowledgeable about authentic religious experience as Joe Biden seems to be about his own Church’s take on abortion.

So, while almost all the journalists were deliriously celebrating their victory, and while victors were soaking up and sniffing up the spoils that lay before them through their fashionable masks, relieved that all could now proceed according to the right way history should go, with them doing the driving, millions of people who would never have made it through the razor wire and guardsman, not because they were itching for a violent insurrection, but because they belonged to the other side—the outside—saw a greedy, self-serving, deluded bunch of grifters, bag men/women and non-binaries, liars, sycophants, and know-alls, prepared to do and say any and everything to get their way.

More charitably, and in some ways more importantly, they saw an elite who had lost touch with their support base. In part that is something of a consequence of the kind of elite a modern democracy produces: it produces an elite whose members do not especially think of themselves as an elite – they can have enormous wealth and influence, can go to the best of colleges, and yet because of a specific feature they may have – it all comes back to the same basic list: who they like to have sex with, or their skin colour, or religious heritage, etc.—can represent themselves as victims of more powerful forces. Indeed, it is almost a prerequisite of being an acceptable member of the elite to have some feature of one’s self which is on the “disadvantaged” list.

Being blind to oneself is the first step on the road to a completely fantastical view of reality. And that is what separates the elite as much as anything from the support base whose life-world is built upon day-to-day practicalities like putting food on the table for one’s family. Of course, everyone has to have food, but the elites are elites largely by virtue of assuring that the food will be there for them first.

Just as societies all require elites (contrary to the nonsense that the elite itself endlessly writes about the “common,” the “democracy to come,” or, “fortifying democracy”), the issue is whether the elite actually provides a service to its base. When it doesn’t, it may hold onto power for a substantial period of time, but to do so requires permanently surrounding itself with the equivalent of razor wire and the national guard, and doubling down by persecuting those who see them for what they are. When though the opposition is at least half the country that is quite a difficult trick to pull off. Communist countries managed it for two or so generations.

What also makes it difficult are the surrounding geopolitical forces which gravitate to the weakened state like vultures to carrion. These invariably unsettle the best laid plans of a group determined to control its internal opposition so that it either has to make diabolical pacts with, and/or errors of judgments about, its enemies. In either case it seals its fate. The USA had been a masterful practitioner of taking advantage of its enemies’ internal turmoil; but now its elite have ensured the continuation of that turmoil. One only has to note how the Muslim Brotherhood, whose end-game is a universal caliphate, had been rebranded as “moderates” under Obama’s watch.

Generally the success of the present elite has gone hand-in-hand with a complete overhaul and politicization of the military, intelligence and local policing agencies. The brazenly partisan justification given by officials and former officials from the FBI and CIA for the surveillance of Trump and members of his team in the presidential run showed anyone who believed in the old USA that non-elected officials believed they were the true representatives of the will of the people; and as such the people should comply with their will. Meanwhile the media had done everything it could to support its “deep state,” regularly feting officials and getting them to write op ed pieces or give interviews justifying why they were the real protectors of democracy and hence were largely operating against the president’s interests and orders. As bad as the press were back in the 1960s, journalists could at least see that non-elected state officials should be beholden to the electors and constitution.

The account I have given of what the media have enabled is dire. But it would be remiss not to note that half the population or so recognize that this America and its elite are rapidly destroying the great achievements of old America—independent mindedness, initiative and inventiveness, and the formation of solidarity across racial (an achievement to be sure that required a civil war), class, and religious lines, an America, that is, where people from so many hells-on-earth would do anything to share its blessings and fruits. They do not, as the elite insist, wish to denigrate or humiliate or confine to servitude black or any other people, who live by the law and contribute their energy to making a nation which used to be the beacon on the hill.

The success of the elite in capturing all the major institutions of the nation is serious. Though, perhaps not hopeless. Institutions naturally deteriorate over time, and either they are rejuvenated or die. Within the media, when AM radio was all but dead, Rush Limbaugh discovered an opportunity, and created a power-house that gave voice to millions who thought they had none. Youtube has also provided all manner of opportunities that provided an alternative to the lazy hacks, liars, and “firemen.” Though its success has bred reaction, which in turn has opened up new platforms. There can be no doubt that monopoly interests will use the present state to shore up not only its own economic power, but its social and political power.

It is not the job of authors or a member of the “intelligentsia” to tell people how to act; but it is evident that the university was the first site of almost complete cultural capture, and that those who believe in the old America will continue to lose their children to the elite that is doing all to destroy their liberty, if they wish their children to study in its elite (and even most of its non-elite) universities. Given the role of universities in being an indispensable site for the social reproduction of the professional classes, it is unlikely they can just be avoided. And those that have been lost have been lost. I see little chance for those who want a restoration without a sizable increase in the number of new universities which are as resolutely determined to provide a curriculum that will cultivate a generation that has not been ideologically brainwashed, and taught that their sexuality, or identity is the most fundamental aspect of their being.

Such a new university must cultivate the qualities of humility, appreciation of our limited knowledge, our tragic, error-prone, our “sinful” nature, whilst also engendering devotion to the tried and trusted institutions and forms of communal life which need rejuvenation—the family, and our places of worship. It must teach people how not to think in large (and quick-fix and ultimately vacuous) abstractions and formulae, but how to be attentive to the kind of practical details which need to be viewed with an open-minded understanding of the various possible outcomes and trajectories of any innovation or policy, legislative intervention. It must foster a spirit of genuine dialogue – though not with the dead and lost souls and ideologues who can only be attracted to a better place by it simply being so much better that they themselves renounce “the devil.”

This, though, also requires employers not employing people who think “woke” and have been corrupted by their “woke institutions.” The political success of the left has come through its culling of its opposition for employment opportunities – that is a smart move, and if the non-progressives do not do this, the progressives will continue their strategy of capture and destroy. On the other hand, what the left has done is lie and cheat; and their monuments are their ruins.

I think unless there is a willingness to build new universities, new schools, new tech platforms etc. That is, if there is not a willingness for people to build anew, this cultural revolution will not simply peter out, at least not until there are many dead. All the builders are taking a giant risk and of course, there are many doing this right now.

The risk might even lead to the break-up of the USA, which would be terrible, though less terrible than having it ruled by people who are ensuring mass destruction. Such a change will take at least a generation, probably two—which is how long it took to make an elite who have taken control and draped the Capitol in razor wire, as they protect themselves from figments of their own imagination with politically vetted troops.


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured image shows, “The Yellow Press,” an illustration by Louis M. Glackens, October 12, 1910.

Liberal Totalitarianism: Mill As Founding Father?

1.

It is a serious question whether the values of political liberty, freedom of speech and tolerance for other points of view on matters of religious and political faith have a future. These values were associated with what its educated elite once considered to be the greatest achievement of Western Civilization. Certainly, the consensus today among ideas-brokers of the West – academics, journalists, teachers, celebrities et. al. – is that such values are merely one more cover for oppression and the entrenchment of privilege of a certain class, race, ethnicity and sexual preference.

Today oppression is considered to be everywhere in the Western world: it is in capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism, Christianity, the family, heteronormativity, cisgender-ism, and white privilege/ white supremacy. It also lurks in the hallowed halls of the ivy league universities of the United States whose professoriate, administrators and student body now agree that social justice must be protected from the privilege that poses as free speech.

Moreover, as our educated elite also teach, the oppressive religious, political, social, economic, sexual, racial and ethnic institutions and values all systemically connect. Thus, the catch all program of Black Lives Matter (BLM) which swiftly segues from stipulating that its “mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes,” to “affirm[ing] the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.”

A previous, and more radical version of the BLM website stated: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”

If today race is the most inflammatory of the various tropes of oppression marshalled by progressives, the fact is that race is only of importance in so far as it fits into a larger narrative norm, i.e., an ideological representation of what constitutes emancipation and oppression.

Thus it is that when a Thomas Sowell or (the recently deceased) Walter Williams discuss such basics of black poverty in the US as welfare dependency and political clientelism, the break-down of black families, ghettoization, exceptionally high rates of criminality and incarceration, widespread domestic violence, and the widespread use of abortion to facilitate, what black conservatives increasingly identify as racial genocide, they can be dismissed as conservatives, who are now synonymous with protectors of white privilege.

Black or Latino conservatives, as NYU Professor Christina Beltrán writes in the Washington Post, are dupes of “multiracial whiteness.” In other words, they are race traitors because they do not think about race the way that countless white college students and white academics do, who find their critical race theory leaders in Robin DiAngelo, and Peggy McIntosh – who are as white as Rachel Dolezal, even if not brazen enough to black-face. But today, black can be white and white can be black, it all depends how you want to spin it.

We have reached a state of affairs where anyone who does not accept either the diagnosis, claims, or tactics of a politically progressive movement such as BLM dedicated to emancipation must be an enemy of the human race.

Critics who point out that BLM is an off-shoot of the 1960s Marxists and terrorists do not deserve their voice, nor employment – and hence companies and universities and schools have been at liberty to fire people who express their disagreement with the BLM formulation, by daring to say, “all lives matter,” while social media tech sites can de-platform them for being perpetrators of hate speech. In spite of BLM and Antifa and other progressive movements calling for defunding of the police and freeing prisoners (today), the logical next step will be heavy prison sentences for those who do not get in step with the program – as Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post sums up the situation: “there are millions of Americans, almost all white, almost all Republicans, who somehow need to be deprogrammed.”

I write this as those who have expressed public support for President Trump by merely being at the rally on January 6 have lost their jobs, while some 25,000 national guardsmen (whose political credentials have all been vetted) were called into Washington to ensure that the inauguration of President Biden will not be disrupted by the supposed millions of insurrectionist white supremacist terrorists.

I write this as all the major hi-tech social media companies operating out of the USA have banned the recently departed US President for life from making posts. Anyone alleging electoral fraud, or whatever is deemed an explosive talking point that could lead to violence or hate or prejudice, unless it is the kind of violence that calls for the killing or imprisoning of Donald Trump and his supporters, must also be fact-checked and then de-platformed.

I write this in at a time when all (but parts of one) major media outlets in the US reported anything that looked like evidence that supported the claim that the Russians had stolen the 2016 election, while repeating endlessly that all claims about widespread and illegal ballot-harvesting and ballot forging, the lack of rigorous controls over Dominion voting machines, and the bizarre string of events on the election night of 2020 that occurred after ballot counting had closed, including videos of ballots appearing in suitcases and being counted multiple times, are nothing but “conspiracy theories.”

In short, I write at a time when the United States can no longer claim to be the “land of the free.” And the predictions made by the former KGB operative and Soviet dissident Yuri Bezmenov in 1984 about how ideological subversion within the USA in its colleges would play out over a generation have come true. Also true is Huey Long’s prediction that fascism in America would come, and it would be in the guise of Anti-fascism.

If progressivism of the sort that has given birth to BLM, Antifa, the right of children to choose their sex organs, corporations and state agencies the right to employ or fire people on the basis of their identity and narrative commitments is a Western and not purely US phenomenon (“taking a knee,” for example, has become encouraged by sports administrators in Australia), the question arises: how did this situation arise? (What to do about it is, of course, the more pressing problem, and one that is far harder to solve).

There are many people asking that question, and like any historical phenomenon there are many facets to it, and hence, unsurprisingly there are many answers. Some think this is the end product of relativism – this view popularized by Allan Bloom (who follows Leo Strauss in seeing Nietzsche and Weber as core culprits) in his best-seller of 1987, The Closing of the American Mind is mentioned in Zbiegniew Janowki’s arresting, provocative and important introductory essay – “Liberalism and the New Opium of the Intellectuals” – to this collection of J.S. Mill’s writings.

Although, it is true that those espousing the emancipation of “minorities” are claiming freedom from the totalising narratives and institutions of their oppressors, there is nothing relative about the appeal to emancipation that drives the anti-oppression narrative: emancipation is an all or nothing affair, and anyone who complicates narratives of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality – and whatever other all-pervasive element of identity becomes woven into the narrative dyad of emancipation and oppression – by drawing attention to other features of social being is obviously too privileged to be allowed a platform.

2.

Everything I have just written about above is grounded in paradox and dialectic, not the least of which is that this narrative is supported by – to use a word that circulates widely without the least shame attached to it – the world’s “global leaders,” present and future: hi-tech billionaires, global financiers, corporate heads, managers and human resources administrators of public and private institutions, military leaders, intelligence operatives, professors teaching in the world’s most well-paid illustrious universities, as well as the youth who attend them, school teachers, and journalists, entertainers and athletes.

In sum it is a position held by those with money, political power, social influence, those who broker in ideas, and those who fabricate stories and provide the festivities which forge the social “imaginary” of modern Western Liberal societies.

However, by ever ignoring the cultural dimensions of geopolitics, these so-called global cultural leaders quite falsely assume they not only represent the right side of history but they are the saviours of the entire planet: from the climate to ensuring the protection and preservation of every indigenous, non-Christian culture, from the right of gays to marry and raise children, to the rights of Muslims in the West not being subjected to the insult and injury of living in a country which celebrates Christian holidays.

Its critics – and I am obviously among them – see that the only people to triumph in the long run will be the enemies of every Liberal cause these global leaders are foisting upon the West through legislation, corporate funded agitprop (the anti-capitalist BLM has been funded by the Ford and Kellogg foundations as well as numerous businesses such as Airbnb), media control and censorship, strategically staged riots, the replacement of history with fantasy, and so on And to re-ask the question in a slightly different manner by drawing upon the common cognate term of progressivism: how has the most Liberal country on earth contributed so much to a state of affairs that it is tearing its social fabric apart in a manner that will assuredly benefit its enemies, who more than ever have shored up their power by appeals to their traditional values? Posed thus, it would seem that one might well ask the question what is it about Liberalism itself that has led to this?

This is the question that is behind Zbigniew Janowski and Jacob Duggans edition of this collection of writings by the foremost theorist of Liberalism, J.S. Mill. As the Introductory essay by Janowski, and the Afterword by the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko (both of whom grew up in communist Poland) make clear, the purpose of this collection is to help people grasp Liberalism as an ideology and Mill’s thought as an ideological contribution. Thus, Janowski writes: Mill “is to Liberalism what Marx and Engels are to Socialism.”

This is a strong claim and it is perhaps the only point in this very fine essay that I do not completely agree with: for while Mill is indeed a significant contributor to Liberalism, he did not provide a theory that completely usurped and redefined the character and objectives of a political movement anywhere near to the extent that Marx did. That is to say, there is a good reason why, in spite of his considerable influence, we do not speak of Mill-ism as we do of Marxism. Though, I would add that it is precisely because Liberalism is not the brain-child of one authority, that the kind of detective work done by Janowski and Duggan is all the more valuable: for it discloses the paradox at the heart of the Liberal program that surfaces in a theorist who seems to be – and in many ways is – the most brilliant modern exponent of liberty to have argued for its importance in social life.

Having said that, we should also note that just as Marx did not invent the working class nor its party politicization, Mill is not the inventor of liberty’s importance as a social, economic and political value. But the distinctive feature of any ideology is that it takes an idea derived from a feature or aspect of social experience and “logicizes it” so that it mutates into a principle for the orchestration of a collective understanding of other phenomena and the cementing of solidarity around some core values.

The problem with all ideological thinking is that it oversimplifies socio-economic, political, and cultural problems by dissolving them into compartments so that they may be rationally/ theoretically aligned. And being so aligned the various actors who try and steer narrative, policy and legislation in accordance with their ideology avoid the far more difficult and pressing task of muddling along and sifting through the socio-economic-cultural contingencies and interests which in democratic societies have led to the kind of compromises that once typified this kind of regime.

Of course, what they do is spawn a reaction by those whose interests and placement have been completely occluded or distorted by the ideologues. That reaction may then open the door to the political brokering which a democracy evolved to deal with, or it may, as has happened recently in the history of the United States, simply lead to all-out class war.

The ideologue is ultimately a “know-all,” someone who believes that they know the essence of a system which they also completely understand. The world is thus not a messy, complicated, barely visible and not very well understood process of “emergent” and “fades,” but a clear system, an “idea” that can be identified and taught in its entirety to children, and others who do not know much. Ideology cannot only be super-imposed upon all that is living, but it is the key to solving all problems of the living.

What is all-important to a political elite who want to ensure their rule and its perpetuity by having subsequent generations think just like them is that their idea of the world, its problem and its solutions, are all very simple, simple enough to be understood by someone who is in their teens or early twenties. Given the expense required to have an elite profession, the sooner one can learn and apply the narrative that will be the source of one’s social power the better.

Of course, it is important to make the simple look learned, and the more one can make ideological simplicities look complicated and profound the more status one may garner amongst peers who do not want those they instruct to think they are dummies. In a world where the associations of most people are riddled with made up stories (entertainment), and information is increasingly shaped and filtered by ideology, we are increasingly drawn into a windowless world – a kind of political monad in which the elite-approved consensus is sovereign.

One’s credibility as a professional ideas-broker, someone who can serve as a leader in their information field, who can work in an ivy league university, report in an illustrious newspaper, make decisions about intelligence requires that one does not trust one’s own eyes, ears, or mind – because to do so would be to be a victim of the oppressive system that awaits those who are not “woke” to what is really going on with capitalism, patriarchy, white privilege et. al.

If it was the enlightened philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who held that the improvement of the world lay in the replacement of authority based in the shibboleths and privileges of tradition with authority subject to the stringency of reason, the nineteenth century was the century in which politics became an ideological affair.

Though just as the seventeenth century Enlightenment metaphysical “know-alls” could never actually agree about the specific features of what constituted the metaphysical characteristics of experience and the mind, the political know-alls of the nineteenth century also were unable to convince each other of exactly what would fix exactly what, and hence which ideology would triumph.

While Marx and Nietzsche remain the most philosophically acclaimed nineteenth centuries visionaries of the new socio-economic and political order (and, unlike in the earlier part of the 20th century when they were pitted against each other, those today who acclaim them are generally happy to merge their projects with their own requirements of social justice), the following from Mill’s Utilitarianism neatly encapsulates the conceit of Liberalism that Mill felt prone to, and which, inter alia, this collection of writings is drawing attention to:

“Poverty, in any sense implying suffering, may be completely extinguished by the wisdom of society, combined with the good sense and providence of individuals. Even that most in-tractable of enemies, disease, may be indefinitely reduced in dimensions by good physical and moral education, and proper control of noxious influences; while the progress of science holds out a promise for the future of still more direct conquests over this detestable foe. And every advance in that direction relieves us from some, not only of the chances which cut short our own lives, but, what concerns us still more, which deprive us of those in whom our happiness is wrapt up. As for vicissitudes of fortune, and other disappointments connected with worldly circumstances, these are principally the effect either of gross imprudence, of ill-regulated desires, or of bad or imperfect social institutions.”

Mill’s faith in education and wisdom (“The interest of the people is, to choose for their rulers the most instructed and the ablest persons who can be found” is as central to his program as his faith in liberty, is, say unlike Marx whose writings are full of invective and hostility to those who think differently to him, also supportive of open-minded inquiry. Thus, he writes:

“Scientific politics do not consist in having a set of conclusions ready-made, to be applied everywhere indiscriminately, but in setting the mind to work in a scientific spirit to discover in each instance the truths applicable to the given case. And this, at present, scarcely any two persons do in the same way. Education is not entitled, on this subject, to recommend any set of opinions as resting on the authority of established science. But it can supply the student with materials for his own mind, and helps to use them. It can make him acquainted with the best speculations on the subject, taken from different points of view: none of which will be found complete, while each embodies some considerations re-ally relevant, really requiring to be taken into the account. Education may also introduce us to the principal facts which have a direct bearing on the subject, namely the different modes or stages of civilization that have been found among mankind, and the characteristic properties of each.”

But it is not Mill’s open-mindedness and provisional qualities that are at issue if one is considering how Mill contributed to a doctrine that was founded on appeals to initiative, independence of thought, and liberty, but in its development comes to asphyxiate those very qualities.

Apart from the bipolarisation of the social world into authority and liberty (discussed below) is the general demeanour that is characteristic of so many of the essays in which Mill is the sage who both gives instruction about how to free the world from all its problems, and identifies the stages that lead to people like him perfecting their world.

That demeanour is now so commonplace among our contemporary moralising social elite that to even mention that this is a problem may sound strangely immoral. Closely related to this is the fact that while Mill in numerous places insists upon historical knowledge as important in the development of human society, his reflections upon the past are invariably moralistic and pay no real consideration to why and how people acted as they did.

It is enough for him to know, for example, that women were deprived of their liberty, but the important matters of the roles required for the social symbiosis of a group’s survival, and the different sacrificial components and expectations accompanying those roles are of little interest to him. It is, then, as much through his omissions as through specific principled commitments that we can see how Mill succumbs to the ideological temptations that accompany a surfeit of moral abstraction.

3.

Of the works that remain part of any history of political thought type course (to be sure a style of course that is far less frequently taught today than the slew of ideologically inflected courses devoted to identity and oppression), this edition includes Mill’s “masterpiece,” On Liberty in its entirety, and selections from Considerations on Representative Government – also a masterly work of political analysis – The Subjection of Women – the work that most survives as a testimony to Mill’s historical importance to feminism, and the fifth chapter of his Utilitarianism. The notable omissions of Mill’s “big books” are A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Method of Scientific Investigation and Principles of Political Economy and Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy. Of the former work, the economist Joseph Schumpeter has written that it was:

“One of the great books of the century, representative of one of the leading components of its Zeitgeist, influential with the general reading public as no other Logic has ever been. A less striking patch of color in our picture than is the Origin of Species, it is hardly a less indispensable one—although it does not stand out, as does the Origin of Species, when we look back on the historical sequence of performances and ideas that produced the situation of today in the respective fields, and although Mill’s book is dead in a sense in which Darwin’s is not.”

And that

“One has in mind the success of this book, as much as or more than the success of its author’s Political Economy, when one speaks of Mill’s sway over the generation of English intellectuals that entered upon their careers in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Abroad, part of the reading public was impervious to such influence. But the rest embraced Mill’s message with even greater enthusiasm. The book was found in the house of a peasant in Ireland. It was called the “book of books” by an accomplished Viennese woman (a Fabian and suffragist) who felt herself to be progress incarnate. It occupied a place of honor not much below Plato’s in the mind of at least one philological philosopher I knew as a boy—all of which I say in order to convey, first, that the book was a living force in bourgeois civilization.”

Both books, though, are mere footnotes in the developments of their respective disciplines. In the case of Political Economy, in spite of important insights about competition, and initiative, a refusal to fall for economic reductionism, a recognition of the historical diversity of the nature of property, a rigorous critical discussion of the different kinds of socialism, its opening emphasis upon productive and non-productive labour and its failure to place the problem of supply and demand at the centre of the discipline is indicative of why Jevons, who remains a pioneering figure in modern economics, saw Mill as a symptom of the problem that had to be overcome if economics were to become a science.

In the case of the two volume Logic, what may retain its interest for students of Mill is Book VI, that is the culmination of the work, “On the Logic of the Moral Sciences,” which lays out Mill’s reflections for thinking about society and politics. As that title indicates, and as I have mentioned already, Mill saw politics as primarily a moral problem, which is a common view today. Though one major problem with that view is that the person making the moral judgment rarely thinks it important to scrutinize the fit between his own moral purpose, diagnosis, and prescriptions and his socio-economic interest. I do think this not only a problem in Mill, but a problem within Liberalism that is generally rather good at exposing the interests of those who object to its objectives, whilst generally veiling its own economic aspirations as it represents itself as being the voice of the common or public good.

Coming in at 770 pages – and there is a second volume of Mill’s journalism, reviews and translations to follow – Janowski and Duggan are to be congratulated for having found a publisher willing to release a work of this size. As a collection it also does a most thorough job of presenting Mill’s political and social priorities and arguments.

The selections are grouped under the following headings: “Of Progress, Education and Future;” “Of Ideologies and Governments;” “On Religion, Liberty, and Freedom of Speech,” “On Women and Equality;” and “On America and Democracy.” Once the collection is considered under these headings, and when one also takes into account the accompanying introductory essays by Nick Capaldi, and Janowski, the Appendix by John Henry Newman, “Notice of Liberalism in Oxford” and “18 Propositions,” and the “Afterward” by Ryzard Legutko, then one should see how important this book really is.

For, at a time when Mill probably has very few readers who have not been assigned to read him in a college course (and while he might appear in some women studies courses, his student readership is mainly confined to the relatively small number of history of political thought courses), it provides a compelling case for thinking about Mill in the context of today’s Liberal totalitarianism. And this is the purpose behind the essays by Janowski, who has just released Homo Americanus: The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy in America, and Legutko, who has written The Demon in Democracy Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies and more recently, The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols.

For Janowski, it is Mill’s bipolar interpretation of history as a “struggle between Authority and Liberty” that has been so fateful. For once history is reduced to a Manichaean struggle between light and darkness, then disputes about authority and liberty take on apocalyptic importance, then if one’s cause is of the light, any objections one might raise to a position one is advancing, say not wanting a child born as a boy wanting to be a girl using their little girls’ bathroom, or not wanting to compete in female competition with a biologically born man is merely a voice of darkness – and hate.

Janowski thus picks up on the contemporary Liberal habit of bipolar struggles in which any aspect of identity, social role, or custom can be espied as a struggle for emancipation. Janoswki argues that the narrative bi-polarisations of Liberty versus Authority, anti-discrimination versus discrimination, reactionary bigots versus progressives confirm Plato’s observation that unconstrained democratic egalitarianism is corrosive to all authority and hierarchy.

For Janowski it is the egalitarian tendency in Mill that is ultimately decisive – “No other modern thinker,” writes Janowski, “was as inimical to the idea of hierarchy or authority as was Mill,” and “his entire philosophy rests on the premise that authority and power are ‘evil’ in themselves, and, as such, must be fought against and hopefully, done away with.”

The position advanced by Janowski is reinforced by Legutko’s “Afterword,” which introduces the dimension of tradition into the picture by noting that “[t]he final aim of the liberal agenda is therefore not to have a free and open society, but to have society in which everyone is a liberal and everything is subservient to the liberal dogmas.”

In Mill’s case it is the principle of his idea of the limits of liberty – the Harm Principle – that Legutko identifies as the tactic which enables liberal totalitarianism to capture the citadel of liberal democracy. In the first instance the Harm Principle can be invoked against any kind of traditional appeal to customary authority. Hence someone can claim that there is no harm, say, in pornography or polygamy or gay marriage. Though once the traditional custom has been “revealed” to be oppressive, the Harm Principle can be equally invoked to demonstrate that one’s feelings have been harmed by a traditional pronoun or customary expectation of role and behaviour.

Ultimately what Legutko is taking issue with is Mill’s simplification about the nature of human society and the kinds of human qualities needed to preserve a free but cohesive and capable society. Another way of saying this is Legutko sees that Mill has a rather naïve psychological understanding of human motivation and a very poor grasp of how the European tradition evolved in such a way to facilitate the kinds of liberties that Mill enjoyed and wanted to push ever further into a more “perfect” set of social institutions and relations.

Without going into the details, I think the general criticisms raised by Janowski and Legutko are amply supported by the selection of writings included here. Further, I think the writings on religion included here reveal the shallowness of Mill’s understanding of religion in the European experience.

I also think that if one compares Mill with the great psychologists of the human heart – from Sophocles or Aeschylus, to Augustine to Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, or to take the most diabolical but terrifyingly insightful figure the Marquis de Sade – Mill comes across as more than a little akin to Nietzsche’s blinking “last man.”

Thus, the editors have powerfully counterposed Cardinal Newman’s devastatingly incisive and prophetic critique about the shortcoming of Liberalism in the Appendix to this volume with Mill’s psychological naivety and rationalist approach to religion and society more generally:

“Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.”

4.

Given such criticisms it is easy to overlook Mill’s virtues, and indeed the virtues of Liberalism itself. Of Mill, Janozwski rightly observes that as “long as Western civilization exists and continues to exercise its influence on its own members and elsewhere, his name will shine brightly in the annals of European political thought.”

Given, then, the critical framing of the collection, the editors are also to be commended for having an “Introduction” to the volume written by Nick Capaldi. Capaldi is the author of the definitive intellectual biography on Mill, John Stuart Mill: A Biography, as well as a political philosopher of considerable gifts who has written much on the virtues and dangers confronting modern liberal democracy.

Capaldi’s Introduction draws attention to Mill’s fair-mindedness (Mill, he says, is “scrupulous in presenting arguments on both sides of every issue”). He also appreciates that Mill’s moral convictions emerge in response to the great transformation occurring in the nineteenth century as England was increasingly becoming a market economy, and the new social roles required of workers and women and their political articulation took on real importance.

Elsewhere Capaldi has argued that the two decisive driving norms of modernity are liberty and equality, and, whereas Janowski focusses upon the egalitarian tendencies in Mill, Capaldi has noted in his important book (cowritten with Gordon Lloyd) Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke versus Rousseau to the Present how Mill defends liberty from the onslaughts of egalitarianism.

In Liberty and Equality and elsewhere he also clarifies what Mill meant when he designated himself in his Autobiography as a socialist – socialism, for Mill is “any system, which requires that the land and instruments of production should be the property, not of individuals, but of communities or associations, or of the government.”

Capaldi has also noted how important Mill’s role was in attempting to mediate between the great forces of socialization and capital accumulation in the evolution of the modern state, as well as how careful he was not to stake the importance of liberty within the kind of rights narrative that came out of France and its revolution. As Capaldi also points out in “Mill and Socialism:” “Mill opposed the elimination of private property, the elimination of competition, central planning, and even a worker’s party. He most especially opposed a ruling class of technocrats as had been suggested by Saint Simon and by now arch-enemy Comte.”

And perhaps the greatest service Capaldi performs in his intellectual biography on Mill is his highlighting of the non-utilitarian and more organicist inspirations that informed Mill. Thus we can see how central creative autonomy and inspiration are to his social vision and political philosophy, and thus how his writings do serve as a bulwark against as the modern progressive tendency to merely assume that an elite can easily rectify social inequality by merely redistributing a society’s wealth, without paying sufficient attention to what are the requisites for the creation of wealth and the kind of commodities people like.

It can also be argued that it is Mill’s esteem for human spontaneity, initiative and diversity of opinion (as opposed to diversity of essential identities as today’s Liberal Woke do) which when closely tied to his understanding of economic activity in a way that makes him far more relevant to understanding the kind of contradictions that engulf modern Western societies than Marx.

For while I think it would simply be too far-fetched to hold that Mill rather than Marx had seized the imagination of the radical students from the 1960s onward who would go onto become the educated elite driving the modern Liberal project, Marx’s shortcomings outside of the closed environment of the radical bookish mind was his (and his students) utter failure to understand what drives people to produce exchange-value: he thinks people will spontaneously cooperate – and without state direction – on a large scale to produce what they need as consumers, without the need for those with private property to pool resources to draw labour into performing the productive tasks that consumers want and that will yield profits.

The fact that there is zero historical examples of that occurring is wiped aside as of no consequence for Marx because he believes that once the means of production have been sufficiently socialised under bourgeois society that they will still be developed and deployed – even though the monetary signal of exchange, the price of something, will no longer be needed. The reality of Marxism in practice could only ever be a planned economy, in which producers would be forced to do whatever the state/ administrators decided they should do.

To this day defenders of Marx prefer to focus upon inequitable distribution of market economies, which is true – markets are necessarily hierarchical because they reflect the different value/ the price people place upon different things and talents, rather than the inability for a communist economy either to do away with a state elite directing economic performance or even to successful meet all but the most basic needs of consumers. Marx’s economics was based in a pre-utilitarian theory of economics, the labour theory of value which had zero interest in what it was the consumer wanted and was prepared to pay.

While, then, Marx has been the battering ram for the intellectual elite who wish to subject the entire world to their critical understanding of it and thus eliminate oppression which then opened the gate to other social critics who identified other sources of oppression that they could save us from, the fact was that Marxism was plagued by bad economics: the consequence of which involved communist countries jettisoning communism in one way or another (option A: complete dissolution of the politics and economy as the Soviets did it, or option B: keeping the politics and ditching the economics as the Chinese have done), and Western Marxists happy to be employed in institutions which merrily critique capitalism while serving the agenda of globalization

Liberalism has had many failures, including its combination of victim and identity politics with a tendency to see all values in economic terms, and thus to erode values that are literally priceless. Thus, we see in Liberal societies today the contradiction mentioned above, that corporations have become, along with entertainers, the public representatives and financial backers of Liberal virtues.

Liberal society, though, for all its censorship and wokeness, still depends upon the liberty required to enter into productive/ exchange relationships involving property – including savings and talent. But this is precisely why it is the nexus of a Liberal economy with narratives demanding conformity because they are built upon victimhood and suffering, which the elites know how to cure, that threatens the survival of the West. And whereas economic communism could not circumvent the wall of necessity and impoverishment, the Western world is economically wealthier (though spiritually impoverished) than any previous society. It is so wealthy that it can pay people who are actively destroying it.

Liberalism was ever globalist in outreach, and thus its failure to take culture seriously, that is to treat it as anything more than one further opportunity to tear down the pre-conscious traditions of Western culture, has gone hand in hand with a failure to see where the West figures in the greater geopolitical tensions of our time. Its elite still think in terms of the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights that have little backing outside the West.

At the same time, they have readily sacrificed the right of freedom of speech to social justice so that they may preserve their own role as social critics and educators, so that they may have clients who they will permanently represent.

Western Liberalism presently seems to be engaged in a tragic comic replay of the Jacobins sacrifice of the Gironde in pursuit of true virtue and public safety. Mill himself might be astonished to think that Liberalism has turned against liberty, though when he expressed his wish that England might undergo the kind of revolution that occurred in France in order “to give that general shake-up to the torpid mind of the nation,” he might have considered the fate of the Gironde as a warning of what readily happens in the pursuit of abstract absolutes.

And yet those of us who see the demon in Western democracy, and the totalitarian character of the modern Liberal mind might nevertheless agree that the following words of Mill from On Liberty are worth defending and remembering: “…only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair-play to all sides of the truth. When there are persons to be found, who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence.”

These words convey the best of Mill, what Janowski and Legutko remind us of, though, is that for Liberalism to flourish it requires social characteristics of the sort that precede and range further into the expanse of the human heart and its history.

Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.

The featured image shows, “Salome with the Head of the Baptist,” after Guido Reni, by Mariano Salvador Maella, painted in 1761.

The Sacrifice For Civilization: A Conversation With Wayne Cristaudo

This month, we are highly honored to have a conversation with Professor Wayne Cristaudo, philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books. He speaks with Dr. Zbigniew Janowski about the predominance, in the West, of idea-brokers, metaphysical rebels and triumph of ideational narratives over life itself. Professor Cristaudo aptly points to the great malaise of the West – its fervent addiction to bad ideas.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Let me begin this conversation with something that my Canadian colleague said to me when I arrived to teach in Canada—in Halifax—20 years ago. “We are Americans without being arrogant and British without being boastful.” Having never been to Canada before, I was under the impression that Canada is very much like the US.

Then I discovered – or at least what I discovered in Nova Scotia, which is very patriotic, somewhat provincial and certainly less cosmopolitan than the rest of the country – that they value their British roots, which defines their national identity. Most of my colleagues were educated at Cambridge, are Anglican, the system of education – tutorials – is much more like in the UK than in America, the city looks like small British towns, and Canadian flags used to hang on many houses, probably to stress their “independence” from the US. In this part of Canada, Britishness is still, or used to be 20 years ago, part of their identity.

As an Australian, someone from a former British colony, can you say that Australians feel like my Canadian colleague?

Wayne Cristaudo (WC): When speaking of Australians, the same kind of cleavages that are occurring elsewhere in the West between tertiary educated elites and more traditionally minded people, plus demographic changes due to immigration, make it hard to generalize.

David Goodhart in his The Road to Somewhere – largely an attempt to explain Brexit, but also the election of Donald Trump – speaks of two classes today: the “Anywheres,” – i.e. those who are largely free to work and live anywhere and whose sense of identity is bound up with their global opportunities and their own “progressive” values; and the “Somewheres,” those whose location and sense of place and national heritage matters, as they see their localities and values undergoing radical transformations.

This later group also sees itself as having lost the cultural and economic wars. My friend Bob Catley, in response to Goodhart, added that this is something of a misnomer, as the “somewheres” are now the “nowheres;” that is, their world is being destroyed daily.

In Australia, I think those who strongly identify with Britain are now in a minority, as the number of immigrants from non-British backgrounds has risen dramatically in the last few decades. When there was a referendum on Australia becoming a republic some 20 years back, the republican model was rejected. But this was not because of love for the “old mother country,” but because the majority did not like the proposed model that had come out of a publicly funded (ostensibly) representative “elite” forum.

Nevertheless, it is true that Australians would probably rather lose to anyone (New Zealand not included) besides England in any sporting event. We are, though, a deeply fractured society and so appeals to unity tend to ring hollow – as hollow as our terrible national anthem which almost no one can sing through to its bitter end. Like most other Western countries, Australian identity is secondary to some other feature when it comes to political disputation.

ZJ: Canada is part of the Commonwealth, just like Australia. On the Canadian dollar one can see a beautiful image of the British Queen. On the other side of the Canadian dollar, we find a loon. I used to tell my liberally-minded Canadian friends, jokingly, don’t think of seceding from the Crown. Why – they would ask? Because you will have to replace the Queen with another loon, a bear, or a bird.

Australians have the Queen, too, and a kangaroo. This sounds facetious, to be sure, but it touches on the problem of national identity. Cultural identity cannot be rooted in nature. Even Thoreau, who lived in the wilderness and praised nature, was a cultured man, who loved the Classics. In his Walden there is a beautiful chapter on education, in which he urges Americans to read the Greeks.

Do you see any similarities in the cultural and political predicament between Canada and Australia relative to your attachment to the British Crown? Or does the geography of Canada (as a U.S. neighbour) and yours – a continent – and different history (no Royalists [or, United Empire Loyalists] who fled to Canada after the 1776 rebellion) make a difference? For one, you do not seem to feel the same pressure that Canadians do to be more “American,” and thus, having your cultural affinities imposed on you.

WC: While I really have no idea if French Canadians feel any particular cultural connection with Britain, Australia does not have the American neighbour syndrome. As for being free to choose our identity, I think that while Australian tertiary educated people are frequently anti-USA – the USA being seen as the imperialist country which creates wars wherever it goes – it seems to me that the same class of people, especially those who are Australian ideas-brokers, take up every liberal-progressive position that is pushed by, and invariably formulated by, US ideas-brokers in the same professions. That is, our academicians, journalists, teachers, et. al. can be relied upon to repeat and vociferously defend any idea that has gained narrative traction amongst progressives in the US. Ultimately this should not be surprising.

Any collective is a collective because of the stories and experiences it shares. The U.S.-led globalisation of stories through Hollywood, Netflix etc., and the normative appeals that are characteristic of those stories, plays a huge part in how people now understand themselves. So, I don’t really see identity as a matter of choosing or not choosing, but as what people identify with, and presume. And what is occurring is that where narratives are shared and replicated, as part of daily social reproduction, common ways of talking, similar presumptions, expectations, habits (i.e., similar features of identification) are formed.

For example, the elite in Australia see Donald Trump in exactly the same way as the readers of the “New York Times” or humanities students in elite universities in the USA. At the same time, the people who voted for Brexit and the people who voted for Donald Trump have a great deal in common because they have experienced a very similar kind of loss with respect to their more traditionally based social and economic place in the world.

Interestingly, though, early nationalist theorists such as Herder held that the nation was commensurate with a more tolerant and (dare I use this term) enlightened and cosmopolitan world. Membership of a nation meant that one could connect with others through initially bonding around shared stories, experiences, sentiments, tastes, loyalties and commitments, and only after that would one be in a position to form further bonds of solidarity with others. The older notion of nationhood takes for granted that members of a nation are very different in the roles they must play and the sacrifices they must make. So, a nation bonds the different into a greater unity.

The contemporary anti-nationalist, on the other hand, sees identities as based on the will, and the body itself based on the will (sexual/gender fluidity, for example); and what really matters – indeed the only thing that matters – is that the principle of emancipation is adhered to.

Conversely, one has a stake in the future because one can demonstrate that one is of the oppressed and hence a contributor to the great emancipation. Of course, this is the triumph of the abstract – there is absolutely no need to understand people as complex characters in order to think like this. And indeed, most people I know who think like this are completely lacking in psychological acumen, historical and genuine cultural sensitivity.

ZJ: When I taught in Canada, part of the program was WWI poetry. I vividly remember teaching a poem by Wilfred Owen, which I would like to quote here: It is a poem you know: “Dulce et Decorum Est:”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. -
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The poem is very timely in a perverse way. We live in times when nationalism is under attack, thought of as evil; patriotism is ridiculed; globalism is the new faith – but it is a faith of someone who is attached neither to his country, his religion, his civilization, or his culture. In fact, it is a faith of someone who has neither fatherland nor culture. All kinds of semi-ideologies, like climate-change, vegetarianism, etc., have become an ersatz for cultural identification.

The last line of the poem seems to ridicule or question the idea that goes back to the Romans and the Greeks.

When I taught this poem in 2001, the Canadian students were somewhat divided about the idea, about it being a lie to die for one’s country. However, one student – whose parents I knew rather well, a very old Nova Scotian family – blurted out: “I have no intention of going to war and dying for American IBM or the Canadian Postal Service; we had Royal Post and now we have a big nothing that does not even deliver mail on time.”

I thought it was an interesting answer. It expresses a deep human sentiment – the need to be attached to national symbols, country. Even death has cultural ramifications. People want to have a reason to die; they do not want to die as cogs in some global machinery – needlessly, senselessly. What is your take on it? Are Australians similarly minded, or are they going to go to war to die for Starbucks, and dying for Starbucks or Amazon is the new truth, whereas pro patria mori to gain glory is “The old Lie?”

WC: I think my last answer anticipated this question somewhat. So, let me leap ahead again and address what I think is the really important aspect of your question. As you have gathered, I am not at all comfortable trying to speak about Australian-ness as if I were somehow a representative of it, or as if it were some sort of essence. Its meaning is very loose and mutable. And, as far as I can tell, in so far as it exists today, I think it is largely limited to the “somewheres,” though the “anywheres” might support their one national team in sports such as cricket, rugby, soccer, the Olympics, etc.

The following example is pertinent. Recently, a Christian rugby player (one of the few star players in our national team) lost his contract because he tweeted that liars, adulterers, drunkards, homosexuals and others were going to Hell and he called for them to repent. He had violated some ethical code that the sponsors (Qantas) had dreamed up. Of course, it was not the adulterers, liars, drunkards who were offended, but the gay lobby group. The country was deeply divided – and the irony was delicious.

Most of the “anywheres” wanted him sacked because what he said was “hateful,” yet few of them actually believe in “Hell;” most of those who supported him were “somewheres,” and many were not Christians, but simply did not like a corporation having so much power, and they also don’t like the idea of their jobs being reliant upon not being allowed to express their opinions.

The “anywheres” present themselves as defenders of the minorities and marginalized, which means they put gays, “people of colour” (so all non-whites can be treated as oppressed), and Muslims all in the same box. I very much doubt that if the rugby player had been Muslim, he would have lost his contract. It would have gone into the “too hard to deal with” basket.

The globalist or elite understanding of identity requires simplifications which fit the larger narration of their idea of a better world, and that is somehow (inanely) supposed to bring together (non-European, and non-Christian) traditions and culture with modern sexual freedom and gender (now non-binary) roles. But the more archaic understanding of identity was based upon more primordial aspects of collective suffering and sacrifice, founding and forming.

The ancients knew that life is sacrificial – and the ritual of sacrifice is a figurative display of one of the most primordial truths of human existence – collective life requires of people that they yield something of themselves to the collective, and each member plays a role – those roles are not equal, of course. How could they be?

Equality is abstract; our original divisions of labour are driven by real problems not abstract ones – someone must grow the food, someone must stop others from making raids, someone must pray that the gods support us, someone must judge and so forth. Each kind of sacrifice has a specific value, and pay-off – warriors have weapons and extract from the food supply, but they risk their lives; food producers have security but are vulnerable. Life is not a geometrical puzzle composed of equal parts.

ZJ: So are you saying that the pre-modern understanding of the sacrificial dimension of social life has been replaced by a more abstract understanding that makes life more manageable?

WC: Exactly. The abstract nature of modern appeals goes hand in hand with an approach to social life generating leaders/elites who have to justify their authority: they are moral paragons who know all that needs to be known, and they will “save” us all by educating us to think just like them. But who wants to sacrifice themselves for a world that is part Brave New World (sex/ drugs/ infantile distractions and self-absorption) and 1984 (complete conformity down to what one thinks or thought twenty years ago)?

The world that is supposed to be totally emancipated will become the most slavish society ever; and the irony is that it will do so largely because the modern elite have no understanding of the sacrificial nature of existence – for our contemporary ruling class, sacrifice always means oppression.

The archaic and pre-Westphalian “people” or nation was a collective formed across generations, in which roles enabled different groups to operate upon, and open up, different “fronts” of the real: it identified with a certain history and destiny, and hence is as apposite as it is for tribes, cities or empires.. The nation in this sense is a source of collective sustenance; and as such it commands sacrificial service. To be sure, because something is held together by its sacrifices does not mean that those sacrifices may not be in vain, nor that there was never cruelty, or “oppression.”

Let me also tie this together with the point you make about what the young may be willing to die for – not, say, Starbucks, or a bank. We know that humans are quite ready to throw their lives away for something they believe in. And as I said, people generally seem to need to serve something higher than themselves. For a lot of people today it is climate – and there is a faith in the earth as our mother; and if we but treat her well she will treat us well.

This is a good illustration of the polytheistic nature of the modern – but this is all concealed because we use what Vico identified as demotic, rather than poetic language. And hence we make issues around climate a matter of “science,” reinforced by ideology and mechanisms of political authority.

So, the way I see it is that it is the spiritual hunger that is driving the various progressive/utopian narratives – and these are, in turn, shored up institutionally and economically, so that those who learn the narratives and share the spirit will become the priests, and their narratives become the prayers that the rest of us are meant to live and swear by.

But those whose economic agency and social existence is not at all nourished by this god, and this priest-class, look back to what has provided nourishment from the past – and that is the more traditional forms of communal solidarity: family, workplace, church, and the nation. But, sadly, for them and perhaps for us all, the fracture is so great that I do not think repair is possible.

ZJ: Let me ask you a related question about death. Albert Camus wrote the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which opens with a strange idea: There is one, and only one, philosophical problem – that is, suicide. I was always puzzled by it. Here is someone in the middle of the 20th-century, who claims that the entire effort of Western civilization was pointless unless it addressed this one question. Accordingly, only a few thinkers would qualify to do philosophy in this sense: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, particularly his Dream of a Ridiculous Man. None of them, let’s note, figure in history of philosophy books.

Camus goes on to say that the question is whether it makes sense to go on living. In other words—Does life make sense? And he answers by saying that there are only two ways, of which the Don Quixote way is the only solution. What he means by it is that we have to invent sense. I like the Don Quixote metaphor. What happens in the novel is that Don Quixote wants to revive chivalry, an ancient, medieval way of life. He fights with windmills, glorifies a woman from low background by elevating her, in his imagination, to the status of a lady. Everybody is laughing, thinking that he has lost his mind, and to indulge him in his insanity; everybody plays the game. However, as they play the game, they get caught up in living in his world – the world of imagination.

One way of applying it to Camus is that only by elevating our status as human beings through imagination which creates values. Can we elevate ourselves without thinking about dying a senseless death? Do you think that what I said can be translated into contemporary social or political categories of national culture, patriotism, of defending oneself against the onslaught of globalist ideology, which leaves people helpless and contemplating death because they see nothing to live for? The suicide rate in the US went up 30 per cent or so in the last 10 years, and it is highest among young people.

WC: I love Camus – and it was very wise of him to make suicide a central issue, though the importance of collective suicide is something, I think, he addresses in The Rebel, a book I admire even more than the Myth of Sisyphus because it provides one of the most important diagnoses of the rise of totalitarian philosophies and politics.

At the heart of the book is the idea of metaphysical or cosmic rebellion, which I think is his greatest idea. Metaphysical rebellion is the defiance of life itself that involves resorting to absolutist abstract ends such as freedom, equality, justice, identity (the Nazis) which can never be actualized but which pull us ever further into violence and murder.

Camus compares this with rebels who make a pact to improve their specific lot and know that sacrifice and murder will be part of the deal – but in the knowledge of what they are doing, they bond together around the limit of their pursuit for overthrowing a specific group of people who are doing very specific acts of injustice. This is very different from someone saying that an entire system is unjust and that one must destroy the system/totality and replace it with a new one based upon perfect principles.

Metaphysical rebels – which is what the modern intelligentsia largely are – do not own up to their murderous incitements or deeds, and they find their absolution in the perfection of their ends which exist in such stark opposition to the world that they make.

I think it is also pertinent to your observation about Don Quixote. Cervantes is another great critic of modernity, who sees essential features of it and hence consequences for the modernization of humanity at the moment of modernity’s birth. His imagined world has a depth of meaning that the mundane world has lost – and it has lost it because it has sapped the inner resources of the imagination by constraining them in such a way that they are either directed to technique or technology, or entertainment and art.

Nietzsche saw the problem of nihilism, but he thought he could manufacture a myth that would make life for the strong worth living (“the eternal recurrence”). I think this is another symptom of the insane hybris of modern thinkers who think their scanty and threadbare ideas – their little bit of learning suffices to make a world (again, Descartes springs to mind, with the World being the title of his posthumously published magnum opus, though he limited himself to the natural world).

It would be a very good thing if people stopped revering intellectuals and operated from the basis that none of us know very much. One reason I like monotheism is that it accepts our need to divinize and serve, but also restricts it to one power. I am astounded, for example, by how little Marx and Nietzsche knew, compared, say, to Herder, who seems to have never stopped finding out stuff – not that I know that much, but my point is that none know that much compared to the infinite quantity of what there is to know.

ZJ: Since you mentioned Descartes, the question arises – his mechanical model of the world and man, his nature, whose operations can be explained in scientific terms, does not make room for values?

WC: Modern myths are really “make believe” and they are predicated upon conscious decisions. I think pre-modern myths work exactly in the opposite way, which is why pre-modern myths are so fecund and modern ones so narrow and limited in their social appeal. This also relates to the other part of your question about national culture and globalism. National culture was a name after it was a fact, or rather an amalgam of practices, commitments, processes, appeals, symbols etc. long before there was such a thing as “nationalism.”

Thus, it was that when nationalism became a coherent ideology, it required retrieving a past and its symbols as powers for intensifying the solidarity that was already there in a particular collective formation – people felt part of something before they gave a name to what they were doing and had been done. The nation was actual before there was nationalism; nationalism, though, was invoked to overthrow powers that could be identified as serving other national or imperial interests. (Of course, the modern nation and modern nationalism also introduced novel political elements which were part of the great transfer of power between political elites).

Typically today academics see something like the nation as a confirmation of their belief that societies are constructed – the presumption being that they can create/ construct the kind of society they want. I think they confuse what it is they are doing and want to achieve with what other people before them have done. They focus upon intention, and completely miss the vast array of world-making that simply happens and is neither conscious nor intended.

ZJ: Once, in our private conversation, you mentioned Allan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind. The Great Books Program, of which Bloom was a great defender goes back a hundred years. if I am not mistaken, Harvard University Press or the University of Chicago Press were the first to introduce a set of readings – books – that every American should read. The Great Books Program became a standard of education in the US.

Bloom’s Closing started a furious debate over Western civilization in the States. Even Jesse Jackson, not known for his learning of Western Classics, said, “hi, hi, ho, ho Western Culture’s got to go.” It’s gone. The consequence – serious education disappeared from American college campuses, which became a mecca of cultural barbarism.

Here are a few questions. What kept Americans together, what formed national glue, was the reading of Great Books—the European Classics, which kept them close to Europe in the 20th-century.

What kept, or still keeps Australians (culturally) together? How did you ensure the sense of European identity in Australia?

WC: Let me first say something about Great Books in general, their importance and Bloom, then the US and lastly Australia.

I have taught the great books ever since I started academic life. One course that I taught for many years at the University of Adelaide had the title, “Great Ideas of Western Civilization;” another “Great Ideas in Literary Texts.” (Though the problems that have come to light with Australian universities wanting to stop, or undermine, the attempt to introduce courses in Western Civilization by the Paul Ramsey Foundation, indicates that, in many campuses, I might not be able to run courses with such titles today).

The reason I taught these books is that for a book to be considered great, it has to have had a great impact. The greatest, say, the Bible, the Koran or the Iliad have been people/nation-forming. The next greatest have been human-type forming. And finally, less impactful, but still important, the genre or subject forming or developing. Socrates and Plato formed a new human-type (the philosopher). Of course, the Pre-Socratics are their precursors in this project. Aristotle does not do that, but he certainly improves and contributes to philosophical ideas in a “great” way: One simply cannot talk about the Middle Ages without talking about the Medieval university and scholasticism – and as soon as one talks of them, one must speak of Aristotle. For Aquinas, Aristotle was simply referred to as “the philosopher.”

A great book is not just a matter of quality. This is where I think Harold Bloom got it wildly wrong and why his book on the Western Canon ends up as a list that exponentially increases because there are more and more people writing and a lot of it is very good. In some cases, the literary quality of a great book may have nothing to do with its greatness. Goethe’s Faust is a great book in its depiction of the modern predicament. But as a work of literature it is terrible – poorly cobbled together (over a life-time), haphazard, and containing episodes of very uneven quality, ding-dong poetry, etc. But none of that matters. To be greatly crafted and even imagined does not mean a work is canonical.

While Harold Bloom makes too much of literary qualities when it comes to great or canonical works, Alan Bloom makes another kind of mistake – though he is so much better than most of his critics who were just ideologues. Alan Bloom (in this he is just like his teacher, Leo Strauss) treats the great books on the basis of their perennial character. Like Strauss, he detests relativism and historicism. I don’t want to go into the grain of the arguments concerning historicism. And as for relativism, I think it is just a very unhelpful word, and I am suspicious of the way that disputes, where the details matter, become cordoned off into an “-ism.”

But what Alan Bloom and Strauss (to those who read German, this pairing of teacher and student is pretty amusing) tend to do is make of their student homo perennial as well as the book. So, once they start engaging with Plato or Machiavelli or Rousseau, you also find yourself caught up in the American constitution as well as arguments that ultimately require you to give yourself over to how Alan Bloom or Strauss see the world, which is ostensibly very reasonable, and which ostensibly owes so much to Plato or whoever. All sense of “growth,” of collective engagement and lessons that transpire over time and across the ages, that arise from very different kinds of circumstances and ways of world-making is simply brushed aside as “historicism.”

I don’t like this at all, because I think their students are usually very weak in their ability to enter more closely into other worlds and deal with problems that are not their problems, but which if they took seriously might considerably broaden their horizons, and their imagination and their capacity for empathy as well as their appreciation of human and collective nature and development. I have always found Straussians somewhat like Marxists. Girard tends to attract similar types: they all think what they know is essentially what they need to know.

So, Great Books – yes, great. But their point – for readers of today – is not merely to draw us into one person’s take on the real – no matter how brilliant. Rather such works serve as entrances into worlds far beyond what we think we know. They are revelations, founding acts of creation, as well as entrances into the creation of a new “world.” And one must realize how much contestation is going on within them, and how they are an opening to a great array of circumstances and problems and points of view, and they do not spare us our own tribulations and need for resourcefulness. There is no human master whose feet we can sit at while supping forever off their words. Life is one great trial after another.

ZJ: How does it relate to Australia, your sense of identity, and can one claim, as Americans did, that identity can come from reading certain books?

WC: As for the US and Australia and great books, as far as I know, the curriculum in the Arts and Humanities in Australia (up until the 1980s and 1990s) generally included works that would also be considered great. At the same time, I think already in the 1920s and 1930s, a scientistic spirit had entered into the university as behaviourism, and positivism took hold of the social sciences. Philosophy was beginning to focus upon problem-solving and moving away from a knowledge of the history of its subject.

But it was really the 1960s politicization of the curricula that led to the disciplines and their founding/core texts (great books) undergoing such a transformation that the minds of the students who entered them were left in tatters, only glued together by ideology. The same process, more or less, happened in Australia.

I think the identity that was cultivated had far less to do with universities, which were for the relatively few, and far more to do with schools and churches, and also clubs and associations. Here the Bible mattered a lot. As for Plato or Rousseau, etc., not that much. I suspect, but am happy to be corrected on this, that Montesquieu and Locke mattered far more for the historic moment in which Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton et. al played their part (and because they are founders, their ideas and reading really matters) than in times when the creation, diffusion and variety of ideas and practices are implicated in events that don’t have overly much to do with humanities subjects in universities.

Indeed, my criticism of Alan Bloom and Strauss is apposite here, in trying to figure out the values and collective decisions that were important in the U.S. and Australia. In the second half of the nineteenth century, or much of the twentieth century, I would not be primarily looking to universities, certainly not primarily to the study of Plato, Hegel, etc. when thinking about the US or Australia but to larger events and more variegated narratives, and the insights of journalists, writers, clerics and other well read cultural figures: the cultural unity was not primarily philosophical because it was not an ideational/ ideological fabrication. The importance of the Bible I just mentioned confirms the point I wish to make: the Bible is not a book of “ideas” – indeed it confounds rational explications of human behaviour or ethics. It is a book of stories, events, mysteries, relationships, trials and failures, broken and kept promises, sin and redemption. It is a story, a love story between the Lord and His “servants,” told across many ages, involving many people and events – not a philosophy. It spawns countless interpretations because it is full of contingencies – which is the way life is; philosophies, on the other hand, smooth out contingencies to make them align to what we or someone can rationally think about them.

However, in the 1960s, I think this changes because there we can definitely recognize (a) that the rise of mass education will impact upon those who go into professions and (b) that the ideas which were part of the social revolution of the 1960s have gained increasing social traction – in part again because teachers, journalists, etc. go to universities where these are the narratives and ideas they get trained in. This also happens to occur at times when the other sites of social induction (the church and clubs and associations) decline in terms of influence.

So, the attack upon authority coming out of the universities, which then enters schools, newspapers, tv shows, movies, etc. changes the entire culture and aesthetics of appeal and value, and indeed the moral economy, so that now being hostile to tradition is affirmed by one’s grades, employment opportunities, moral status.

To put it bluntly, the destruction of national identity, which is common to the entire Western world, is a direct corollary of the creation of an elite group of educators that is essential for the social reproduction of professionals who are needed to run the private and public sector. It was this class that created the Russian revolution, and it is this class that is creating the global revolution. And in both cases what was being thrown away was the features of identity and solidarity that are not the results of elite manufacturing.

Unfortunately, our elites can only think in terms of elite manufacturing. This is our tragedy – that our social and economic dependencies are dependencies of destruction – conscious attempts to rip up ways of life in which many people still have a stake, and replace them with new ones in which the stakeholders are mainly paid for words, ideas, and enforcement of those words and ideas, and practices that fit them.

ZJ: Several years ago, the Polish philosopher, Ryszard Legutko, published The Demon in Demon in Democracy, the book you read and liked. It sold 16,000 copies within a year. It may not be Bloom’s million, but it is totally unprecedented. It was translated into German, French and Spanish. It provoked good reactions for the most part. How do you explain its success? What is it about Legutko’s book that explains why so many people read it?

WC: When Closing of the American Mind came out a lot of people could see there was a kind of madness coming out of higher education, especially, but by no means only, in the USA. That book gave an explanation for it, and it also offered hope that there was a better cultural way. Sadly, I think that way has no institutional support.

Having said that and perhaps to offset my pessimism, it is also the case that institutions are bearers of spirit, and spirits die; and then it is up to us to give birth to new institutions that better enable us to carry on across the times, as we gather and transfer our powers to future generations. So, what I am seeing in its destructive throes is also the occasion of new unpredicted responses and creative acts that may well help us outrun these diabolical stupidities of the modern mind and heart.

Legutko’s book, which I learnt about through Nick Capaldi, is about the diabolical nature of over-politicization and the tendency of that within democracies. One should bear in mind about democracies that they have never endured for very long; and that while they solve problems, they also create a problem for any class or group that wants its way. This is the problem being faced now – democracy is taught as a good thing and is defended by journalists, etc. until the moment when the electorate do not want what their elites – especially those who live off narrative formation, instruction, etc. – want.

The EU is the model of the Western post-democratic future, though it may just fall apart. Again, I think there are many people who agree with the diagnosis provided by Legutko of how liberal-democracy is proactive in forming a totalitarian mind-set – confirmed, of course, in practice, by the hostile student attempt to stop him speaking at Middlebury. Again, it only showed how desperate our ideas-brokers are to preserve really bad and fragile ideas.

ZJ: What I find surprising, and I do not say it to diminish the originality of Legutko’s book, is that we do not find anything shocking in the book, and yet it became a philosophical bestseller. When I read it, I thought, it is very good, persuasive, very well-written – but he says things that should be obvious to everyone. Yet he infuriated the professors and students in America, at Middlebury College, for example, to the point that his lecture had to be cancelled because the college could not guarantee his security.

Under Communism, we would have loved to hear a speaker who said things which were controversial. In today’s America, we shut down people who even dare to think differently. Is the situation in Australia the same?

WC: Identical! Again, it has to do with class rather than culture; or, more precisely, class can also affect culture. The Left thinks it is making such great strides in human emancipation when it is just ensuring that we are replaceable, that we are resources to be managed and directed by those who have the ambition to rule, manage, and control the future on the basis of their certitudes about the nature and purpose of life. This is why global corporations can, and indeed do, ally themselves with socialist or “woke” “radicals” and causes – BLM, Antifa, etc. Forgive me being bleak again – but this is why the faith I have in humanity comes from spontaneous, unpredictable acts of loving kindness, friendship, etc.

Those people who booed and shut down Legutko showed that they are the real enemies of creative freedom and are the enemies of a more convivial future. But they cannot see themselves. If, as they get older, and they wake up a little from their “wokeness” and look back upon what they have done, and if they have any spark of soul left, they will be ashamed of what they have done. The millennials are just re-enacting what my generation did some fifty years back; and so a number of us also look back in shame at our younger selves.

ZJ: Let me go back a bit. You do not have, and have never had a Great Books program; nor did the Canadians. Only Americans did. All three of you were former British colonies, yet only in America’s case was the national identity guaranteed by “pumping” European heritage into the students’ minds; not in Australia, not in Canada. How do you explain it? Is the presence of British heritage stronger there than in America? Or is it connected with the idea that the U.S. had become much earlier a country of immigrants from all over the world, rather than from Europe or Britain?

WC: As I mentioned, I did teach Great Books, and for a long time. Although people did not teach subjects called Great Books, parts at least of the curriculum of the BA was steeped in Great Books. English literature students studied Paradise Lost, some Shakespeare, Blake, etc. Philosophy students some Plato, or Hume and Locke, and so on. So, I think the kind of “pumping” process was occurring. But as I said earlier, I think, the Bible excepted (and even that spreads through rite and ritual), the cultural formation should not be understood solely through books.

The British heritage was strong in Australia – but not so much now, though the other cultural forces are more diffuse. But the American influence (music, television, film, books, ideas) is huge. I don’t want to segue too far into American identity, but I will just say that I think Americans tend to see the world as themselves writ large, and Australians also tend to do this. There is, in my opinion, too much blah-blah about identity. Where real identity exists, one often doesn’t talk about it; one just carries on a certain way. Where people insist upon identity for political gain, it is usually because they want to dictate how people with certain features or interests must behave. It is very self-serving, and has little to do with any reality. It is true that if one’s world is under threat, then identity may be important. Context matters – there is a big difference between identity being appealed to from the ground up to bind people together because they are genuinely under threat and are treated as identical by enemies wishing to harm them than an elite defining what constitutes an identity so that they can make clients and dependents of a group with certain common features.

ZJ: Americans are obsessed with their founding. Each year we have another book about the American Revolution, and how great it was that we separated. One of the myths is “persecution” and “freedom” – which from European and particularly British perspective, sounds strange. It was the dissenters – the troublemakers – who fled, colonized the continent and, as a distinguished English historian, Jonathan Clark, sees it, 1776 was the last war of religion, and the unfolding of European history in the New World.

This is not so in Australia (or Canada where the Royalists fled [and known as the United Empire Loyalists). You do not have the same national myths, and your relationship with your “mothership” does not seem so stormy. Where might such a difference come from? What is Australia’s relationship to Britain now?

WC: We were settled by convicts, though not South Australia. The Australian myth is one of rebellion, mistrust of, and refusal to kowtow to, authority. Our founding myth is the Anzac defeat at Gallipoli. We are a nation of losers, so to speak. But there is also a sense of betrayal by the mother-country, of us being sacrificed in a larger game which we did not control. The other part of the myth was the Outback. But Australians largely live on the coast and most are urban dwellers.

Now the tertiary educated, who dominate our ideational narratives, see Britain as a colonial power wreaking destruction on the world, so we should distance ourselves from it. (They are so historically ignorant that they do not see the relationship between resource competition, the scale of territorial power, military conquests and alliances, the need to find resources to maintain military power, and hence the logic of empire as expansionary but also cross-cultural).

Thus, we went from having a bit of a chip on our shoulder about the British, to seeing ourselves as their moral betters – though we still have bits of shame and guilt to pour on ourselves with respect to the treatment of indigenous people. Given that the British, like the Americans, are also caught up in their own guilt and past shame, this too is a more global phenomenon within the West – Chinese and Muslims certainly are not using their own sense of shame as a means of moral, economic and institutional opportunity or gain. What matters for them is pride in their past – and their shame comes from the power they have lost, not the power they inherited!

Our old myths really have little leverage in Australia today. And all myths to the contrary, we are, in fact, a terribly bureaucratic country. The urban/regional split also means that those Australians who are more like the mythical Australian (laconic, irreverent, more given to practical action than talking) tend to be seen as stupid by urban Australians.

One only has to tune into our national public broadcaster to see that our tertiary educated urban population are a nation of groupthink. Try questioning climate change in any public forum, or within a university – good luck! So, we are a torn country. Presently, many argue we should not celebrate Australia Day because it is celebrating conquest, if not outright genocide. Our professional classes are as given to moral absolutes and hyperbole as the Americans and other Western European professional classes – on very similar issues. Once again, it is symptomatic of the globalisation of industry and ideas, and the divide between the old national members and the new globalized elites.

ZJ: Let me recall a historical fact that few people remember or know of. In 1975, the Australian Parliament got dissolved by the British Queen because it suffered from gridlock. In other words, it became dysfunctional. We cannot do this in the US. In fact, we cannot do it anywhere with full democracy. In your case, it worked and it proved that a mechanism like that is needed because a parliament or congress cannot dismiss itself. Monarchy – however limited – seems to work. Look at Brexit… Parliament is helpless.

WC: Well, in that instance, it was the Queen’s representative that broke the gridlock. Many still call this a constitutional crisis, even though the election quickly followed the sacking of the elected Prime Minister. In a sense you have answered your own question. Britain is a monarchy; but parliament is helpless in times of a crisis. A political system is ultimately only as good as the political culture which sustains it. Thus, our crises are cultural crises played out within systems – and tearing them apart. A system does have a fair amount of cultural capital stored within its practices, but that cannot last forever where the wills of its opponents are powerful and unified.

It is probably obvious from the answers I have already given that I think Western democracies are in serious trouble. There are structural and cultural aspects of that crisis. Structurally, the crisis has come about through the elevation of a class who see themselves – and indeed have become – global and national leaders. They are like Nietzsche’s higher men – except they actually achieve their elevation by deploying narratives of equality and identity, narratives Nietzsche associated with the herd.

This is actually cleverer than Nietzsche (and it is not even the kind of clever that was consciously decided; rather, it is clever in terms of the interests it unifies through self-serving decisions), because Nietzsche failed to realize that the new elite would need to be seen to be serving the mass, even if they were creating a scaffold for their own in-breeding (the elites don’t generally marry down) and taste.

ZJ: 1492 – for centuries now, the date was associated with Columbus’ discovery of America. Today, in the US, it means genocide! Genocide of the Indians. Several cities in the U.S., including Washington DC this year, renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. You, as Australian, probably have views on the question. But before I let you answer, let me make a few remarks.

First, even if one would grant some validity to the objection, the problem is of judging the past by the standards of today. Second, it is a childish way of looking at history, thinking that it would have been good, but bad people made it evil, which is a demonstration of lack of knowledge as to what happened everywhere; that people would conquer other lands; and, as the philosopher you know well, Hegel, said, history is a slaughter bench on which millions have been sacrificed. This is not to say that we should continue slaughtering each other, but since it was a mechanism of history, people who claim it was genocide, do not seem to know how anything operates.

WC: This is exactly the problem. A knowledge of history that also takes into account social formation and transformation, and where conflict and resource competition fits into the picture, should cure people of utopian idealism – though there are plenty of historians who still read history as if they were God presiding over the Day of Judgment, and hence relate history as if history were a morality tale, and that its actors could and should have done differently.

History is neither a metaphysical nor a moral problem, but the accumulated experiences of decisions, actions and circumstances that have created the world we have to dwell in. What we also know is that our political moralists of today have what they have because of their history – which is our history.

To want to create a better world may be admirable, but one cannot forget that one is part of a world in which sacrifice, strife, competition for resources and group survival were primarily existential choices, not purely moral ones. This is as much the story of the ancients, of tribes, cities and empires, as it is of the moderns with our civil and world wars.

But genuine social betterment requires genuine alignments of solidarity, common loves and commitments, not the enforcement of principles and ideas. Having an idea that humans are basically good, or that we actually have rights that were not derived out of political and social experience, or that we can just apply a set of axioms about human behaviour, is the opposite of helpful. We have to work on the little bit of reality before us; and if we do not see forces that threaten to extinguish a group as we are focussed only upon our ideals, then we will go under.

ZJ: A few years ago, in Vienna, where there was a monument dedicated to the Polish king, John III Sobieski, who stopped the Turkish forces from invading Europe, in 1688. It was desecrated and a sign attached: “Genocide.” The king who was celebrated as defending Europe from Muslim invasion stands condemned for the very same reason – as the defender of the West, just like Columbus, stands condemned for bringing the West to the New World. Do you see a similarity, and what exactly, in your opinion, stands behind the two so different occurrences?

WC: When Columbus first arrived in the Bahamas, he thought he had found a new world free from violence. He quickly learnt otherwise. The idea that the Europeans created violence in the new world is a fantasy. Think, for example, of how the enemies of the Aztecs assisted Cortes. That Europeans brought a new kind of havoc that had really terrible consequences for the indigenous peoples of the “New World” is not something I dispute. I simply note that imperialism is a very ancient modality of social and political organization, and that scale and technology matter.

In part, though, I do see the hostility to certain founding myths as a fair enough response – up to a point. That is, the 1960s generation and their more left-leaning professors from a previous generation were not wrong to expose peaceful foundational myths as untrue. But this does not mean that the “New World” did not have its own survival strategies in which violence was a common enough occurrence.

I would also qualify this by saying where resources are spread widely and groups are small enough and can stay out of each other’s way, then it may be avoidable – at least up to a point. But anthropological finds of grave sites do indicate how common violent death generally was amongst tribes. The city and the empire are also, in part, a means for walling out violence. But, of course, as groups grow and empires subsist alongside each other, violence again enters into the picture on an even larger scale.

The problem is not that we should not be honest about conquest and violence – and once the United States was formed and the land expansion drove out the native Americans in the 19th-century, it was really shocking, though not altogether unlike how other tribes within antiquity had acquired land. A case can be made that, had the U.S. remained under the British crown, its history may have been far less bloody.

Of course, counterfactual history is only partially helpful. But that so many Western educated people believe that the West was somehow unique in its deployment of violence for securing territory and resources is silly – and, I repeat, making moral judgments about the past is meaningless, especially when the people making them are the beneficiaries of the bloody deeds that are their own history: What was unique was the technology and accompanying systems of commerce and administration which created greater opportunities for power enhancement and expansion.

But the idea, to take your second example, that Islam was not an imperializing enterprise from the very beginning, or that Muslims were pacifists and innocents, and Christian nations uniquely imperial, is historically mad (those poor Turks attacking Vienna!). But once you simply treat Muslims as a minority, you will project all sorts of virtues onto a group because they suit the narrative that you live off of and define your place in the world by.

Likewise, those Muslims who have aspirations to really fulfill the injunction to bring the world to peace through all submitting to Allah, will gladly support this narrative, and will gladly represent themselves as victims of genocide in Vienna, as if they were in solidarity with native Americans, whose people were subject to genocidal levels of violence. But, unlike the Westerners who fall for this, they at least know what they are doing.

ZJ: Given the logic of the genocide argument, we should conclude that neither conquest nor colonization should have ever happened – which means, no Persian Empire, no Greek colonization, no Roman Empire, no Mongol, Ottoman, British, Portuguese, French, Spanish Empires. What I have enumerated is only a tiny portion of what history looked like, which does not give much support for politically correct claims and visions of history, let alone human nature. But given all the PC activists’ ignorance of history, the question emerges: Does PC behaviour stem from ignorance or something else?

WC: I think I have already made clear what I think about PC anthropology. It is, as others have rightly labelled it, “Disneyfication.” As you know I am a great admirer of J.G. Herder, who unfortunately is usually just viewed as a “romantic,” when he is a complicated and a very profound thinker.

Herder made the point (one which you can also find in Augustine) that a group’s survival depends upon it having something lovable about its world. So, just as I cannot accept the romantic view of indigenous life, a life that like all social forms, has strict and often brutal means of enforcing group survival,

I do not deny that it was a dwelling place on earth with its own rewards and sacrifices. Hence, too, I also do not want to underestimate the cost of civilization. Our conversation is largely about the sacrificial component of civilization and how precarious our circumstances are right now.

And, as much as I disagree with the liberal-progressive view of life, I also acknowledge that it exists because of all manner of problems (including the last World War) which provided the backdrop for people wanting to “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” a better world. So, I think, one may well have important discussions about different life-ways; and what is won and lost as one world is destroyed.

Now the indigenous worlds were destroyed because they had found ways to survive that ultimately (and I do not mean this in any disparaging way) curtailed the need for the kind of human inventiveness that developed with empires, and at their most sophisticated levels with the crucible of the West and its wars and revolutions.

I have said it many times now: Inventiveness is forged in the furnaces of war and horror, which is as true for the scientific revolution as for the formation of the modern nation state. The experience of the West was such that one crisis after another led to a certain kind of “advancement” – specifically, technological, administrative, socioeconomic and even political.

Fortunate were those (at least relatively) who could stave this off, until, that is, they found themselves in competition with outsiders over their resources. History cannot be unmade, and so any strategy of solving our problems which requires cultural romanticism is doomed to fail. Worst of all, it condemns the living to a lost past, so that they themselves become like ghosts and more like pieces in the imaginations of those who wish to dictate their own narratives and future for the living.

Culture, like everything else, is not an essence but an adaptive process. So, pretending that the powers of the modern world can be simply blocked out by a romantic retreat is to condemn people to powerlessness in their world. Although policy and public narrative commonly romanticize the past, imagine a government that said: “Sorry we did wrong, so what we will do is give you back a vast amount of territory, then build a fence, and leave you alone. No phones, cars, roads, hospitals, medical supplies, TVs or anything else that modernity has made will be available to you. You are free to return to a past world. We will not mine there or allow any of our people to enter. But once you go back you are not allowed to return.”

Can you imagine the outcry of indignation? Being in a world comes with a price. Our freedoms come at the cost of widespread depression, anomie, ennui, isolation, medication, infantilism, and so many other afflictions, including romanticism and utopianism and their institutional ensconcement.

The reason I am an Augustinian when it comes to human nature is that we all live off the violence and crimes – the sins – of our forefathers. Real dialogue is impossible, if we start with a mythic idealisation.

ZJ: Are the contemporary problems of the USA, Canada, Australia those that the Britishness of those countries created, by which I mean Protestant religion, common language. Again, to be clear, many of the problems that feminists see, such as the use of pronouns (he and she) are laughable from the point of view of someone who knows languages and knows that gender (masculine, feminine and neuter) is grammatical; it is not social categories. But in the English-speaking world, precisely because English no longer uses gender in its grammar, these problems have been created, which could not have sprung-up elsewhere. Yet, these English-language problems, because of American dominance, have become global problems.

WC: I think it is Europeanness rather than Britishness (and I would refer you to one of my favourite books, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s Die europäischen Revolutionen und der Charakter der Nationen – a different version of that book for an American audience was, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man.

If I think of the suicidal tendencies within the West today, it seems to me that they do come out of the appeals to freedom and social equality that are the outgrowth of the European experience and responses to their circumstances, including, perhaps most significantly, wars and revolutions.

That the European experience is predicated upon Christian culture, as well other sociological and geopolitical contingencies, seems to me very obvious. Calvinism, in particular, though not of British influence plays a decisive role in helping shape what will become modern republicanism. It will also play an important role in generating a moral and aesthetic orientation to personal and social life that will then become secularised.

I really like John Cuddihy’s book on the Calvinist influences upon the USA, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste. A certain sensibility, which combines a sense of (divine/ moral) election, the overcoming of all evil, the doctrinal (moral) transparency of all souls within the community (see, Joseph Bottum, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America) has prevailed within our elites (and this is as much the case in Canada, the UK, Australia, as the USA) – which is manifestly Calvinist in original form. but with the kind of content that comes out of the atheistic socialistic, progressive mind of the nineteenth-century.

This sensibility simultaneously combines guilt and a desire for the “kingdom.” So, without Christianity, it is pretty impossible to imagine this modern elite and our narratives of emancipation. But they are also anti-Christian and heretical, diabolical even – total faith in human knowledge, the human will, and the self/identity. The Islamists, the Chinese, the Russians, etc. think the West is killing itself. That is what I fear as well – and I hope I am completely wrong.

ZJ. Thank you so much for this conversation, Professor Cristaudo!

The image shows, “1807, Friedland,” by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonie, painted 1861-1875.

Roger Scruton: A Scapegoat For Our Times

I briefly learnt of and met Roger Scruton some forty years ago when his colleague, the philosopher Ruby Meagre, invited me to sit in on a lecture and tutorial he gave on Kant. From then on Roger Scruton has been a constant presence in my life, due to the seemingly endless parade of his writings on all manner of subjects that appeared in the new books section of my university library, or were reviewed in literary magazines, or journals, and through the outpouring of his opinion pieces in British newspapers and magazines, and the stream of radio and television interviews, and more recently Youtube lectures. Almost as numerous were the denunciations and attacks that were regularly launched against him. And although Scruton had carved out an enviable reputation for himself as a philosopher, he is, I think, most likely to be remembered for his role as a public intellectual and public gadfly irritating the progressive cause.

While The Meaning of Conservativism, which had appeared shortly before I met him, and which my friend Ruby assured me was ‘reactionary tosh’, had already put him in great disfavour with the academic consensus very early in his career, it was an essay in the Salisbury Review about declining education standards in multi-cultural Britain that rocketed Scruton, along with its author, the headmaster of a Bradford school, Ray Honeyford, into the public eye as a ‘racist.’ When I read the essay, I thought Honeyford had expressed serious concerns about what was happening in British schools, and that the response to him, Scruton and the Salisbury Review was a disgrace. But given that the Review was one of the earliest forums drawing people’s attention to the institutional damage being done by the elite ideological consensuses in the Western world, there was nothing surprising in the hostile reactions it generated.

It was around the same time I also learnt of Scruton’s role in helping Czech and Polish dissidents. And the magazine that was commonly denounced as reactionary bile by Western academics who earned their living by ‘critiquing’ everything about their society that did not follow their leadership by conforming to their ideas of what a just society and economy should be like, was treated by Eastern dissidents as a blast of freedom. In the East where the tacit and trans-generational accumulated social knowledge of tradition had been replaced by the ideology of the ‘know-all’ (i.e. for the party leaders, knowing their Marx and Lenin, knew all that was necessary about the objective laws of economics, society, and history), Scruton’s Burkean insights about collective life and tradition were a reminder of a more spirited life than that being made by the party.

In the West, though, where tradition had been defined as the enemy, and every pumpkin head who had read a few books on Marx or feminism knew how to bring about peace on earth, Scruton was a scapegoat who took on all the crimes and sins of the ‘right’ for academics, journalists et. al. that could be sacrificed to the god of virtuous abstraction that they faithfully served. Ultimately it was this scapegoat status that accompanied a general defiance of the consensuses of the elites of our age, rather than any single philosophical contribution that made Scruton one of the most important public intellectuals of our time. (The role of favoured scape-goat, however, even during his life-time would be taken from Scruton and passed onto the less philosophically, and less conservatively inclined Jordan Peterson).

In his role as scapegoat (and ironically enough René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoat would be a frequent point of reference in Scruton’s later writing), Scruton reflected back everything that is appalling about his enemies and the kind of world they are making, as they attempted to block his career and smear his reputation, often in underhanded and secret ways, and just as often with a megaphone as they purported to speak on behalf of a public good, that they ostensibly represented. The last “hit job” on Scruton, not long before he died, was when George Eaton charmed his way into Scruton’s confidence and then twisted and decontextualized his position in an infamous essay in the April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, a magazine for which Scruton had often published. It was a cipher of the manner of behaviour that our ideas-brokering class now engages in.

The work by Scruton that I have most enjoyed is Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (originally published as Thinkers of the New Left.) For it goes back to what is probably the most defining event in Scruton’s intellectual life (apart from hunting, farming, and drinking wine), the Paris revolt of 1968. Scruton realized then that this discontented youth thought they knew so much more than they did, and the book sets about exposing just how little the great bastions of the New Left actually do know.

In many ways this Socratic twist, that we all know very little, is the essence of Scruton’s conservative political commitment. For he held that we need to factor in that we dwell in processes about which we understand far too little, and hence we should take seriously the accumulated stock of social knowledge of previous generations that is our heritage instead of puffing ourselves up as ‘judges’ of history, and replace it with our relatively paltry intellectual principles and abstractions.

In that book Scruton also made the salutary point that the New Left view of politics as power fails to understand the very nature of politics, as a means of mediating between different interests, to achieve peace. In spite of the New Left presenting itself as the representatives of the oppressed, they were bourgeois who have not only wanted their narratives about past, present and future to prevail, but have wanted to ensure their economic advancement in leading the rest of us.

Scruton was a significant obstacle to that interest because he urged us to think more rather than think we know everything. Now that he is dead there is one less major obstacle to the intellectual, spiritual, and social suicide of the West.

Wayne Cristaudo is a professor of Political Science at Charles Darwin University. His books include Power, Love and Evil: Contribution to a Philosophy of the Damaged, Religion, Redemption, and Revolution, and Idolizing the Idea: A Critical History of Modern Philosophy.

The image shows, “The Mockers,” by Hannah Höch, painted in 1935.