Napoleon: Dictator, Or Political Visionary? An Interview With Thierry Lentz

In this “Year of Napoleon,” we are highly honored to present this exclusive interview with Thierry Lentz, who is the foremost authority on Napoleon Bonaparte. He has written over sixty books on the Consulate period as well as the First French Empire. He is the current director of the Fondation Napoléon, and a Professor at the Institut catholique de Vendée.

On the occasion of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death (May 5, 1821), Professor Lentz is interviewed by Arnaud Imatz, on behalf of the Postil.


Arnaud Imatz (AI): 2021 is the year of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death at Longwood on the island of Saint Helena, May 5, 1821. The historical figure of the Emperor of the French (although it might be more appropriate to say the “historical figures” of the Emperor) has inspired in the world, and not only in France, an infinity of novels, historical works, films (more than a thousand) and pictorial or musical works. The two legends of Napoleon, black and golden, are now firmly established. But why does Napoleon still remain so much in our memories?

Thierry Lentz.

Thierry Lentz (TL): Napoleon is present in our memories for all the reasons you have just mentioned. He occupies a very special place in French history and memory. But beyond that, he is also linked to our daily life and our habits. Our state still resembles the one he created, our institutions are his and, above all, our daily life is influenced by the Civil Code. Even though this Code has undergone multiple reforms, necessary to adapt to new times and mores, its framework is still the same. It influences our daily lives and even what happens after we die through inheritance law. We are thus aware of the importance of Napoleon in our history… without always remembering that he is indeed there, in our present.

AI: In 1815, the 15-year adventure ended in disaster; the black legend certainly seemed to have definitely won. Napoleon “the warmonger” deserved nothing but ignorance and oblivion. However, the situation did quickly change. How and why did he become the hero of the 19th century liberal romantics against monarchists and traditionalists?

TL: The defeat at Waterloo, and the Treaty of Paris of November 1815, were indeed a catastrophe for France: it was occupied for three years and had to pay a formidable war indemnity. As a result, the image of Napoleon was tarnished; and we can say that it is then that the black legend triumphed. Even his death, announced in Europe in July 1821, went almost unnoticed. The displays of mourning were sporadic.

It was two years later, with the publication of The Memorial of Saint Helena by Emmanuel de Las Cases, that things started to turn around. As Lamartine came to observe, while France was bored, and Charles X passed away as the restorer of the Ancien Régime, that the image of Napoleon, presented as liberal by the Memorial, “recovered” and came to permeate both the arts and politics. The accumulation of references created a somewhat imaginary Napoleon; at the same time as the struggle to maintain the achievements of 1789 was once again becoming a reality. We put the emperor at the head of these struggles.

AI: Should we consider Napoleon as the continuator of the French Revolution, or as its “channeler,” if not its gravedigger? Did he want to conquer Europe in the name of a kind of revolutionary internationalism, or did he paradoxically contribute, by his invasions, to the creation of European nations? Was his ambition to disseminate ideas, relating to the rights of peoples, the defense of civil equality, the “intangible principles” of the Revolution? Or was he quite simply the continuator of Louis XIV, the bearer of the hegemonic aims of France, which then wanted to be dominant in the world as Spain had once been and as England and Germany would be or wanted to be, not to speak of the United States, Russia and China?

TL: Napoleon was undoubtedly the stabilizer of the Revolution, in his own version of 1789. He was certainly not a liberal in politics. But in social matters, he established civil equality, the right to property, the non-confessionality of the state and civil liberty (which is therefore not political). At a time when the country aspired to restore order and enjoy the achievements, he was the right man on the inside. In 1802, he had already accomplished much of the task: the great reforms were launched and civil peace returned.

Outside of France, things were a bit different. He was indeed the continuator of the diplomacy of the Ancien Régime and of the Revolution, halfway between seeking to impose French dominance in Europe and intending to spread the revolutionary principles (of 1789) in Europe. This is why the evaluation of his work outside France is so difficult. This was his main failure. While there is nothing left of the “Great Empire,” a great deal of its political and social accomplishments yet remain in France and in Europe.

AI: Why was the French military superior to others at that time?

TL: The French military benefited from its modernization throughout the Revolution, mainly in terms of manpower through conscription. They were now fighting for ideas and every citizen was invited to participate. Napoleon reorganized everything again—his army corps, the doctrine of the employment of cavalry and artillery, the excellence of command, and the amalgamation of old troops and conscripts. He also benefited from the concentration of the army at Boulogne, where for two and a half years, the soldiers lived together and trained, while awaiting the hypothetical invasion of England.

This army would long remain the best in the world and would show this excellence in the campaigns from 1805 to 1807. It was finally led by a true military genius, with a unique eye and quick decision-making. Things did turn sour afterwards, with the war in Spain, which devoured ground-troops, prevented amalgamation and demonstrated that this Grand Army was not invincible.

AI: Until 1795, France had the third largest population in the world, behind only China and India. Isn’t this the major explanatory factor for the Napoleonic conquests, rather than the merits and faults of the emperor?

TL: Regarding French military losses, which were poorly understood, it was not until the 1970s to have scientifically established figures. They are essentially derived from the work of demographer-historian Jacques Houdaille. Making use of large-scale scientific surveys in the extensive records, he estimated that there were about 450,000 men killed in action and about as many deaths from injury or illness, along with a few tens of thousands of the “missing.” It can be assumed that the actual losses are in the range of 900,000 to 1 million fatalities.

As for the allies and enemies of France, they suffered, it is often said, but without knowing how to prove it, losses that were “slightly higher” than those of the Grande Armée. If we adopt this principle, the wars of the Empire cost Europe from 2 to 2.5 million men over ten years. While this death toll is significant, it is still lower than in many previous and subsequent wars.

What is more, Europe was not drained of blood at the end of the period, neither economically nor demographically. There was no systematic destruction of towns and villages, and even less of the means of production, except in the Iberian Peninsula where the responsibility was largely shared between French and English troops.

Regarding demography, specialists have shown that France had nearly 1.5 million more inhabitants in 1815 than in 1790. For the whole of Europe, population growth was greater for the 1790-1816 period to what it had been from 1740 to the Revolution. These results are of course due to advances in medicine and the decline in infant mortality. But this general finding will no doubt surprise more than one.

AI: Politically, was Napoleon a “classic” dictator, in the Roman sense, or a totalitarian dictator in the modern sense? Do you consider that despite his mistakes, especially in the choice of ministers, often traitors and incompetents, he remained an exceptional leader or even a political visionary?

TL: It goes without saying that from 1799 to 1815, Napoleon spent every minute strengthening and defending the reign of the executive, even if it meant showing himself to be more and more authoritarian. But to speak of a dictatorship and, moreover, of a military dictatorship, is to make fun of history and the meaning of words.

According to the jurist and political scientist Maurice Duverger—who has devoted a good part of his work to the concept of dictatorship—three simultaneous conditions are necessary to characterize it: 1) that the regime be installed and maintained by force, in particular military; 2) that it be arbitrary, that is to say that it suppresses freedoms and controls the decisions of arbitral or judicial bodies; 3) that it be considered illegitimate by a large part of the citizens. The study of each of these points for the Napoleonic regime leads to the rejection of any such peremptory conclusion. Under Napoleon, the establishment of a strong and embodied state was not accompanied by the systematic use of illegitimate coercion or indiscriminate force, much less for the benefit of the army.

AI: In economics, was Napoleon an interventionist or a liberal?

TL: In economic matters, Napoleon was more of a “liberal.” For him, the state did not have to intervene in the day-to-day economy, except for foreign trade which was carried out “for the grandeur of the state.” It was also important to him that the social situation be as stable as possible; and that is why he was able to intervene with public orders at the time of the crises, in particular that of 1810, which was extremely serious.

AI: Is he the “father” of the modern French state?

TL: Napoleon put an end to the trial-and-error approach when it came to the organization of the state and its administration. He simplified the grid into a pyramid model, at the top of which was the executive, not always himself in person, but those who represented the government, such as ministers. This has been called the “French model,” moreover adopted by most European states, with adaptations, even among its enemies.

AI: In his will Napoleon declared himself belonging to the Catholic religion. Can the leader of an army of soldiers from the Revolution, whose members were seen as dechristianizers in most countries of Europe, be presented as a Catholic? Wasn’t his Catholicism more of interest than conviction?

TL: We will never know whether Napoleon believed in God or not. What is certain is that he saw religions, especially the Catholic religion, as an intermediary body that should contribute to social stability and public order. This is why he “reestablished” Catholicism, organized Protestantism and Judaism, leaving them a certain dogmatic freedom, but subjecting them to the law of the state.

AI: What is the difference between the non-denominational Napoleonic state and the tradition of French republican secularism that prevailed from 1880 onwards, under the Third Republic?

TL: The Napoleonic non-confessionality, established in principle by the Civil Code, is a first step towards secularism. It proclaims that the various churches are subject to the state and to the law. But with Napoleon, this is expressed through concrete measures: public and civil status, acceptance of divorce, submission of faiths to the laws governing public order. He had no ambition to intervene in beliefs; but on the other hand, he left nothing to be organized outside of social and political necessities.

AI: Freemasonry lived fifteen extraordinary years under Napoleon, multiplying the number of lodges which went from 300 to 1220. Napoleon had many Freemasons in his family (including Jérôme, Louis and Joseph, whom the Spaniards nicknamed Pepe Botella); 14 of the first 18 marshals were Freemasons, as were a number of generals and most of the great dignitaries of the Empire. What was his relationship to Freemasonry? Was he himself a Freemason?

TL: Even if he himself was not (there is no proof of a supposed initiation in Egypt), Napoleon was surrounded by initiates such as his brothers, as well as Cambacérès, Lebrun, Fouché, Talleyrand, etc. In his Masonic policy, he relied above all on Cambaceres, who appeared to be the “protector” of the Order.

Initiated in 1781 in a lodge in Montpellier, Cambaceres climbed all the ranks and took this commitment very seriously, including at the time of the revolutionary interdicts. He then helped his friend Alexandre-Louis Roëttiers de Montaleau, grand master of the Grand Orient, to “rekindle fires” within the Directory. He thus participated in the first ranks in the meeting of June 22, 1799 by which, in the presence of five hundred masons, the Grand Lodge merged into the Grand Orient.

From that moment, French Freemasonry had almost regained its unity, further supplemented by the addition of the Grand Chapter of Arras to the Grand Orient, on December 27, 1801. It was not affected by the creation of a Scottish lodge, in 1803, an experiment immediately stopped by a new act of union signed a few days after the Imperial Coronation.

This unification of December 5, 1804, sometimes qualified as a “Masonic concordat,” confirmed the primacy of the Grand Orient which, in exchange, admitted the maintenance of several rites within it. Napoleon would have liked Freemasonry to constitute an intermediary body supporting the regime. But it was too plural for that; it crossed too many parties to be able to be a real support. It was never that, and continued its existence without problem under other regimes.

AI: It has often been suggested that after his military expedition to Egypt (1798 – 1799), Napoleon Bonaparte professed great sympathy for Islam? Was he sincere?

TL: Napoleon studied Muhammad, especially through the works of Voltaire. He admired his determined and almost warlike aspect. His sympathy for Islam hardly went beyond that. He did not convert, nor was he inspired by it for the Civil Code, as we can sometimes read on websites that are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

AI: Almost all European people had a place in the Grand Army (Dutch, Saxons, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Belgians, Austrians, Bavarians, Swiss, etc..). Allied strengths even made up between 20% to 48% of the total force, depending on the campaign, but only the Poles remained loyal to the end. How do you explain that?

TL: It has been said, and we have come to believe, that it was out of pure personal ambition that Napoleon made war. But this forgets that, at that time, peace was a state of emergency and that all states were primarily concerned with preparing for inevitable conflict. This is also forgets that history and geopolitics often made it inevitable. I have written dozens of pages on this subject to which I refer interested readers. I will just repeat here that Europe was not simply divided into two camps during the Napoleonic episode; otherwise, it would not have been until the fall of 1813 that a general coalition was formed against France.

Before that, the continental powers had come to terms with French dominance and tried to make as much profit as possible for themselves. It was the great success of British diplomacy to succeed in uniting all of Europe around its lowest common denominator (bringing down France and its leader), by playing on resentments and unfulfilled promises to some, and to others, on the economy and finances—much more than on the principle of a “liberation” of the Continent. This explains why many foreign contingents were placed at the disposal of the Grande Armée for nearly fifteen years, most often with the consent of their sovereigns.

AI: The controversies surrounding the figure of Napoleon have redoubled in virulence on the eve of the celebration of the bicentenary of his death. The exaltation of heroism and the spirit of sacrifice have now largely given way to victimist and navel-gazing ideology. On the other hand, the wave of political correctness and the nihilistic modes embodied in the woke spirit or the cancel culture originating in North America seem irresistible. As a result, the vast majority of the media see Napoleon only as a tyrant, an instigator of war, a misogynist, a supporter of patriarchy, a slaver (for having reestablished slavery eight years after its suppression and imprisoned Toussaint Louverture, a black separatist, who had been appointed general under the Directory). How do you answer these charges?

TL: I answer them at length in the book I just published, Pour Napoléon (For Napoleon). I think we are at an important time in the fight against the trends that you describe.

Our rulers are paralyzed by groups which have made a specialty of amalgams and historical untruths to impose their “agenda,” and to accuse their country of having “murdered” entire categories, and then defiling public places or calling for action and riot?

Nothing was done either to prevent or to combat the iconoclastic fever that came from the United States, after the tragic death of George Floyd. Even though we sometimes think that the famous “submission,” nicely denounced by Michel Houellebecq, is a bit tricky, it is all the same the first word that comes to mind.

If one believes Montesquieu’s warning that “oppression always begins with sleep,” one can only be frightened to see those we mandate to preserve national cohesion and unity sleeping soundly—or pretending to sleep so as not to see anything, which in the end comes to the same. As a historian and as a citizen, I thought that I could not remain inert in the face of this danger.

AI: Monsieur Lentz, thank you for this delightful conversation.


The featured image shows, “Napoleon I, crowned by the Allegory of Time, writes the Code Civil,” by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, painted in 1833.


The featured image shows a portrait of Napoleon by Andrea Appiani, painted in 1805.

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.

The Universality Inherent In Christianity

It has long been fashionable to regard Christianity as myth, no different in substance than many other ancient myths. Sometimes this is done to glibly dismiss Christ’s message; sometimes it is done in sorrow, viewing, as C. S. Lewis did before his conversion, Christianity as one of many lies, even if was “breathed through silver.” René Girard entirely rejects this idea, offering an anthropological, rather than spiritual, argument for Christianity being a true myth, and for the complete uniqueness of Christianity, as well for as its centrality to the human story. Girard’s appeal is that his framework explains the core of all human societies, and thus explains, at any moment, the present. Therefore, though he died in 2015, Girard says much about America in 2021.

Girard was a devout Roman Catholic, a Frenchman who spent much of his academic career in the United States. (He has gotten some extra attention from the fact that he taught Peter Thiel, who became a big admirer of Girard and who gave a eulogy at his funeral). Girard first published his theory of mimetic contagion in 1978, in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I was going to read that book, but was encouraged to start with the more recent, and much shorter, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. So here I started, although I glanced at Things Hidden from time to time, as well as at several other books Girard wrote. This edition of I See Satan Fall contains an excellent Foreword by James G. Williams, summarizing the basics of Girard’s thought on mimetic contagion, making it a good place for a novice to start.

Girard begins by announcing his intent to explore and highlight, rather than minimize as most devout people do, the similarities and parallels between the Gospel and pagan myths, and for good measure his intention to dismantle Friedrich Nietzsche. He then outlines his theory of mimetic contagion, using as his frame the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet. . . .” “Covet” for Girard means not an untoward desire, but simply any desire for what others have. He identifies this not as God’s mere prohibition on greed, but rather, far more fundamentally, as a unique early attack on the internal cycle of violence that is the basis of all human societies.

One of Girard’s purposes has nothing to do with religion, and that is to explain how human societies began, namely in violence, a specific kind of violence with a specific kind of purpose. But as can be seen from his dissection of the Decalogue, his other purpose is to prove that Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism) is unique among all human religions, able to release mankind from the prison into which the forms of violence the underpin all human societies have placed us. Christ’s death on the Cross was fully as meaningful as Christians would have it—even if Christ was not, in fact, as he claimed, the Son of God, his sacrifice upended the entire anthropological order of the world. He showed a path of redemption, both secular and divine (reflecting the hypostatic union) previously unknown to mankind.

Violence in human societies arises because we desire what our neighbor has, because our neighbor desiring it makes it desirable in our eyes. “Our neighbor is the model for our desires. This is what I call mimetic desire.” That is to say, despite our own perception that our desires are internally generated, in most instances they arise by imitation; we desire what others desire, not what we independently want. (A related principle is well-known in the context of how wealthy people feel about their wealth, but Girard’s vision is far broader).

My neighbor, however, by his possession of what I desire, thwarts my desire, at the same time my desire, in a reflection of my own actions, perceived by my neighbor, intensifies my neighbor’s desire for what he already has. Girard calls this “double desire,” and the rivals are “mimetic doubles,” very similar to each other but perceiving unreal huge differences. (This insight is part of why Thiel admires Girard; it has obvious applications in many human realms, including business.) We perceive ourselves as autonomous, when in fact we are “enslaved to our mimetic models.”

This spiral of rivalry and its consequences Girard calls “scandal,” and he says this process inevitably engulfs entire societies through a process of “violent contagion,” citing Matthew 18:7, “Scandals . . . must come.” The original rivalries are often forgotten entirely as new ones arise with blinding speed, eventually converging on one society-wide scandal. This violent contagion convulses a society; it will tear itself apart in mass violence unless something is done.

That something is to identify a single innocent on whom the concentrated fury of the accumulated rivalries can be directed, through the killing of the innocent by the society acting as a whole. This killing produces a superbly cathartic effect on the society, and peace is restored, for a time, as everyone in society congratulates himself on a job well done—even though this killing is invariably, in reality, utterly unjust. (Girard focuses on a “single victim,” but elsewhere suggests that the victim can be more than one individual, and just as easily a large identifiable group).

Girard thus sees social conflict as normal, not accidental. It is inevitable in the nature of man. Not for Girard fantasies of peaceful societies of the distant past; he would not be surprised at the evisceration of such silliness by Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization, and he would no doubt agree with Carl Schmitt’s thoughts on the friend-enemy distinction. But it is not any violence that is Girard’s focus, but this very specific kind of violence. At the same time, he sees mimetic desire, because it allows us to choose what we desire, as what makes us human, rather than animals driven purely by instinct, and therefore of itself intrinsically good. “Our unending discords are the ransom of our freedom.”

Girard then turns to the Passion of Christ, demonstrating that the behavior of the men surrounding Christ’s death, from Saint Peter to Pontius Pilate, and even the Jews who had so lately cheered Jesus, are examples of mimetic contagion, where the players are driven to give in to the rising violence even when that is not their intention, and in fact wholly contrary to their declared and actual intention. Neither Peter nor Pilate wants Christ crucified, yet they are swept up in the contagion. In this the death of Christ is entirely unexceptional, and it echoes a long list of similar episodes in the Bible, both of the persecution of various Old Testament prophets (and of the prefiguring Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah), and of, more recently in Biblical time, the death of John the Baptist.

From whence comes mimetic contagion? It comes from Satan. Now, it is never precisely clear, at least in this book, if Girard sees Satan as an individual and entity. It does, in fact, appear not; at one point, Girard refers to the Devil as “totally mimetic, which amounts to saying nonexistent as an individual self” (italics in original). Yet as a devout Roman Catholic he probably did (my guess is this is addressed elsewhere, perhaps in the several books of interviews of Girard that have been published recently). Maybe this apparent confusion results from Girard’s stated intention to make his book wholly scientific, rather than theological, in focus.

Regardless, Girard heaps contempt on modern attempts to write Satan out of the Bible and Christianity; in his view, Satan is the hinge around which our temporal world turns. Satan is responsible for mimetic crisis, by showing us what we desire and then blocking our acquisition of what we desire, thereby creating scandal. Girard cites the episode in Matthew 16, where Peter “invites Jesus, in short, to take Peter himself as the model of his desire,” and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are a scandal to me.” Jesus instead demands we, like him, avoid mimetic rivalry by focusing our desire on the desires of the Father.

But, in the words of Mark 3:23, Satan can cast out Satan. He initiates the cycle of mimetic violence, and also, through the catharsis that follows the killing of the scapegoat, restores order and harmony to society, a feeling of having been purified. This is the key to his being the prince of this world, for if he merely brought chaos and anarchy, he would have no power. Yet he continuously plays both sides of the game, thereby maintaining his power.

The Crucifixion is an exemplar of this process; “[w]hat makes the mimetic cycle of Jesus’s suffering unique is, not the violence, but the fact that the victim is the Son of God.” His sacrifice ended the rule of Satan—because it broke the cycle of mimetic violence that was the formation of all human societies prior to Christianity, founding an entirely new anthropology. Jesus is wholly different, because he invited his disciples to desire what he desired, however that desire was not a mimetic rivalry, but the desire to imitate the Father in all things. If accepted, this protects us from mimetic rivalries entirely, and is thus an upgrade to the Tenth Commandment.

After outlining this cycle, Girard proceeds to contrast myth and Christianity, what he calls a study in comparative religion. He does this by analyzing the hagiographical Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, a militant pagan. (Apollonius was a wonderworking guru of the first century A.D., a great favorite of shallow-thinking New Atheists, such as Matthew Ridley in his execrable The Evolution of Everything, who think that the parallels to Christ in the supposed life of Apollonius disprove the existence of Christ).

Girard discusses at length how Apollonius ended a plague in Ephesus by egging on the pagan Ephesians to stone to death a crippled beggar, overcoming their hesitation by enticing them to throw the first stone, whereupon the dead beggar was revealed to have been a demon, and the plague ended, with the intervention of the god Heracles. Girard believes this was a real episode, though certainly no demon was revealed and no god intervened, but the plague, one not of disease but scandal resulting from mimetic rivalries engulfing the city, was still by this blood sacrifice cured. Moreover, contrasting Christ’s defusing of the proposed stoning of the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Girard notes that even the process of killing itself is the result of mimetic contagion—it is difficult to get the stoning started, but once it begins, it becomes unstoppable.

From this jumping-off place Girard moves backward, to earlier myths, such as those of Oedipus and those surrounding the cult of Dionysus. Girard interprets various founding myths that involve a murder followed by the divinization of the object of the murder, often in a form of resurrection, as evidence of the universal pattern of mimetic contagion resulting in a crisis existentially tearing at the social fabric and its cure through the single victim mechanism. (His book The Scapegoat analyzes many more examples).

Through this mechanism false gods are often created, because it seems divine how the victim can bring society together, and these new gods underpin the creation of human societies. This is the “founding murder”; the story of Cain and Abel is one, as is that of Romulus and Remus. Girard takes these myths as representative of multiple cycles of mimetic violence surrounding the formation of societies and ensuring their stability. Religion forms the core of every social system; it is essential to humanity, not a parasite upon the real mechanisms of societal formation. Girard has no truck with theories of social contract, and no doubt thinks equally little of other theories of societal formation, such as Francis Fukuyama’s.

Turning back to Christianity, Girard analyzes passages from the New Testament that suggest the Gospel writers recognized, for the first time in human history, the “powers and principalities,” that is, Satan, as complicit in this process of societal formation. A key point of Girard is that Gospel passages that seem opaque or obvious are often nothing of the sort, but rather encapsulate enormous insights we typically miss. His book is filled with passages from both the Old and New Testaments that could be seen as banal but into which Girard breathes life. The passages Girard cites are often read as superstitious or magical thinking, but he rather interprets them as deeply insightful into human nature and conduct, and what is more, aware of how Jesus, true man and true god, upended this age-old human mechanism.

It is to this last point that Girard devotes the final third of his book. He directly attacks the view that the Gospels are just another myth. Anti-Christian apologists have long tried to show that the Gospels differ only in the particulars of myth; the broad themes are just the same as all other myths. In a jujitsu move, however, Girard entirely agrees with these critics—the Gospels are substantially identical in their form to other myths, because both the myths and the Gospel are part of a larger, essential truth, that of the cycle of mimetic violence. The difference of the Gospels is that that Christ completely inverts, and thereby utterly destroys, the universal pattern that existed before his sacrifice.

To demonstrate this, Girard steps back to the story of Joseph, comparing it to the story of Oedipus. There are a great many broad similarities—but the crucial difference, in which the ancient Jews prefigured Christ, is that Oedipus was guilty of the crimes for which he was punished, and Joseph innocent. In the Bible, the guilty are the accusers—that is, Satan; in the Greek myth, the righteous are the accusers. In other words, the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is unique, because it, even before Christ, attacks the standard mythic narrative. “The story of Joseph is a refusal of the religious illusions of paganism.” Similarly, the Psalms “are the first [texts] in human history to allow those who would simply become silent victims in the world of myth to voice their complaint as hysterical crowds besiege them.” And Job “not only resists totalitarian contagion but wrests the deity out of the process of persecution to envision him as the God of victims, not of persecutorsNo one and no tradition before the Bible were capable of calling into question the guilt of victims whom their communities unanimously condemned.” Judaism was the first religion to reject the mimetic contagion and the divinization of victims.

So what then of Christianity, which does indeed divinize the victim? It merely appears to follow the form of myth; but in fact is a complete inversion of myth. Girard here explicitly rejects Marcionism, the ancient heresy that the God of the Old Testament is a mere demiurge and entirely distinct from the God of the New Testament. Rather, the Old and New Testaments are not in any way in contradiction. Not only is Christ innocent, as Joseph was, but there is no violent unanimity in the community as to his death (though due to the process of mimetic contagion, unanimity is near complete at the moment of the Passion), and thus Christ’s death does not bring harmony—it brings not peace, but a sword.

The Gospel therefore reveals truths hidden since the foundation of the world, a crucial anthropological reality. “The Gospels reveal everything that human beings need to understand their moral responsibility with regard to the whole spectrum of violence in human history and to all the false religions.” In fact, Christ himself repeatedly cites passages from the Psalms revealing this reality, further showing the continuity of the Old and New Testaments. By the Cross, mankind escapes Satan, and thus the Eastern Orthodox view (largely disappeared in the West) that Christ by his sacrifice on the Cross duped Satan to his irretrievable detriment contains great insight and truth (although, Girard notes, it is perhaps less trick than simply “the inability of the prince of this world to understand the divine love”). Christ thereby subverts mimetic contagion, releases us from its hold, and redeems mankind.

Not that mankind often takes the opportunity to accept the redemption that Christ offers. Yes, Christianity has spread widely, and mimetic contagion is no longer the core of societies, or at least of Christian societies (though the entire world is influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the Cross). We still scapegoat, but we are ashamed of it, and try to hide our participation in any mimetic contagion in which we become involved. We accuse others of scapegoating in order to criticize them, in particular to stigmatize perceived discrimination.

This leads to the modern phenomenon of victimology. “Our society is the most preoccupied with victims of any that ever was.” Yet we often tell ourselves that we are inadequately compassionate and we must do more. What is this? Merely another instance of mimetic contagion. “The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about victims for whom they hold us responsible.” Nonetheless, Girard ascribes the modern concern with human rights “to a formerly unthinkable effort to control uncontrollable processes of mimetic snowballing.” This is the result of Christianity, of course, even though moderns frequently, in a bizarre error, scapegoat Christianity as the cause of victimization.

Finally, and crucially, Girard examines modern trends of thought that reject Christianity’s view of the victim as innocent, and attempt to reintroduce the pagan view of the victim as the justified target of mimetic violence—justified both by his supposed actual crime, and by the benefit to society that results, both cathartically and instrumentally, from his death. He ascribes to Nietzsche the rediscovery that pagan violent unanimity was an identical process to that taking place in the Passion. But Nietzsche falsely concluded from this insight that the pagan view was superior, and, famously, Christianity a “slave religion,” born of resentment, that hampers human flourishing by excessive concern for the victim, when in fact Christianity is “heroic resistance to violent contagion.” Nietzsche exalts Dionysus over Christ; this is a regression, not an advance.

Here, and really only here in the book, Girard enters choppy waters. He makes several claims that either make little sense or have been disproved. In the first category, he ascribes to the concern for victims “colonial conquests, abuses of power, the murderous wars of the twentieth century, the pillage of the planet, etc.” It is unclear how such a causal mechanism would work and he does not explain. In the second category, he denies that the West is decadent or (spiritually) aging; rather, it “seems to have extraordinary longevity, due to renewal and perpetual enhancement of its leadership and institutions.” No comment is necessary, although this book was published in 1999, so Girard’s apparent optimism is more understandable.

Regardless, Girard did foresee the logical consequence of excessive focus on victimization. “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition… The fact that our world has become solidly anti-Christian, at least among its elites, does not prevent the concern for victims from flourishing—just the opposite… We are living through a caricatural ‘ultra-Christianity’ that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by ‘radicalizing’ the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.” Yet at the same time Nietzschean influence grows, in part because Christianity is made the common scapegoat. Those on the Right can see the Nietzschean strain rising in reaction to the Left’s advances, most notably recently in the work of Bronze Age Pervert. Girard would not be a BAP fan.

But this rising Nietzschean influence is not the real threat; those ideologies that reject the concern for victims, especially National Socialism, never got much traction. The real threat, “the most powerful anti-Christian movement… is the one that takes over and ‘radicalizes’ the concern for victims in order to paganize it,” which “presents itself as the liberator of humanity . . . in place of Christ,” but is actually a mimetic rival of Christ. This ideology has brought back Satan, because it both creates mimetic contagion by “borrow[ing] the language of victims” and offers the age-old solution to contagion, violence against the innocent who are seen to oppose social justice. In other words, the modern Left (though Girard does not use that term, or identify this tendency by name) is literally Satan, the prince of this world, the accuser of the innocent, the tempter from the beginning, Antichrist.

Yet Antichrist is not an entity but something “banal and prosaic,” by which Girard means not inefficacious at creating evil, but something existing since the foundation of the world. “The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc. . . . . Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions.” This is not surprising. Christ did not imprison Satan when he defeated him; he fell like lightning, and he fell to earth, “where he will not remain inactive.”

Yes, Christ showed us how to resist Satan, but we have, more often than not, failed. The katechon, the power that holds back the Antichrist that Saint Paul mentions in Second Thessalonians (and a key focus of Carl Schmitt), only holds back Satan in part. Christianity can redeem the whole history of man, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (whose name in Greek, parakletos, means “defender of the accused”). But we must choose; for God gave us free will. And our record is not good.

Girard does not say what must be done, but it is obvious. We must break this renewed cycle of mimetic violence brought to us by modern neopagan philosophies, by our restoring the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, refusing to participate in mimetic scapegoating and rejecting concern for false victims.

This is easy enough to apply to 2021 America. To take only one example (there are many), Girard would see clearly that George Floyd was no victim; he is just a tool in a massive ongoing scheme of mimetic scapegoating by the Left/Satan. The real victims, the focus of the violent unanimity of Burn-Loot-Murder joined with a constellation of other powerful groups, are white people as a group, especially those who refuse to deny their supposed “whiteness” and join their persecutors, and most of all devout Christian white people. They are demonized by the Left as it inflates a Girardian scandal.

You only have to glance at the vocabulary of critical race theory with its core ideology of demanding the violent elimination of white people to see the truth of this. As I have been saying for some time, the result is likely to be violence when a leader arises to defend, and to focus the mimetic rivalry of, whites.

This social situation is, shall we say, extremely unfortunate, but Girard would not be surprised—white people are simply today’s Ephesian beggar, but with a lot more guns. This will not end well, but it will be their fault, not ours. Girard would ask, with Rodney King, that we all “just get along,” yet he would know that against this type of action of Satan, such a plea is unlikely to work—unless a society adopts the true vision of Christ, thereby breaking the mimetic rivalry.

I’m not hopeful that’s about to happen, because as Girard says, the Left is an ideology, a satanic one, and ideologies can only be broken by force. Maybe after that’s finished, we can try again to master the cycle.


Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.


The featured image shows, “The Last Judgment” by Jan Mandyn, painted ca. 1550.

What Is To Be Done?

A. No Closure

America is facing a serious national crisis, and it is not helpful to pretend otherwise.

In the wake of the contentious 2020 Presidential election, we should not expect that there will be any kind of national unity or that we should or can go about our business as if nothing fundamental has really changed. America is a deeply divided nation, and the sooner we recognize that and deal with it the better off we shall be.

There can be no closure. What I find most appalling is being told not to use one’s own eyes, ears, reasoning ability etc. but to ignore all contradictions, and basic methodical consistency etc. As a matter of “fact” I find it astonishing that anyone can still say there is no evidence of election fraud. But this “truth” has to be put alongside all the other “truths” that the mainstream media has dictated over the last 4 years and even prior to the 2016 election. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century” (Tom Friedman, “Our One-Party Democracy”).

The election was fraudulent, and no matter how much the Democrats and their allies spin it, the evidence continues to accumulate. The only way to satisfy the doubters would be to have a full and serious audit of the election results. The “winners,” namely the Democrats and Joe Biden would never agree to this. This is a tragedy since such a gesture would have gone a long way to achieving unity and healing wounds—either confirming the Biden “win” or elevating Biden to the status of cultural hero—perhaps deserving having his face put on Mount Rushmore. When winning becomes the “only” thing we have a culture in crisis.

B. The Futility Of Politics As Usual

There is a larger misperception about what happened. The 2020 election was not a case of Biden “defeating” Trump, or Democrats “defeating” Republicans. The expressions “Democrat” and “Republican” may appear on the ballot, but the names of the real “winners” were written in invisible ink. As I survey it, I am reminded that it’s not who votes or how many voted but who does the counting and how the votes are counted. Right now this process is controlled by an “establishment” (identified long ago by C. W. Mills, Thomas Dye, and most recently by Angelo Codevilla) that encompasses both major political parties—a bipartisan political elite. Under the false guise of social activism, a consortium of 21st century globalist robber-barons seeks to monopolize both domestic and international economies. The seemingly innocuous concept of Corporate Social Responsibility has morphed from a mildly leftist concern for equality into the idea that Social Media giants (a Technocracy—akin to Wittfogel’s identification of “oriental despotism”) and their allies have the duty to control the political process.

The Republican part of the establishment (RINOS – e.g., Peggy Noonan in the WSJ, Karl Rove, etc.), with a few notable exceptions, will continued to be run by lackeys who are corrupt careerists lacking in courage or integrity.

The Democratic Party has its own version consisting of a consortium of billionaires (who live in gated communities and whose children are assured entrance into the Ivies) aided and abetted by the spokespersons (who are also allowed to live in the gated communities) of the grievance universe (e.g., the civil rights industry). The latter will mobilize the aggrieved (the poor, the angry, and hyper-critical intellectuals about whom Benda and Schumpeter warned us long ago, the dysfunctional, etc. who live in the ghettos) to vote and to serve as shock troops whose job it is to intimidate (riot on cue) all those individuals and groups who oppose the establishment. Part of the national tragedy is that the “aggrieved” do not UNDERSTAND that THEY ARE BEING MANIPULATED.

An example of this commonality of interests among the bipartisan elite is the support for open borders by all members (both sides) of the establishment.

It strikes many as counter-intuitive that Billionaire globalists are allied with the aggrieved who advocate democratic socialism. Part of the reason for this is that many are not familiar with “globalism.” The main tenet of globalism is that nation-states (e.g., the U.S., or “Make America Great Again”) are passé. Global commerce requires and leads to the breaking down of borders and institutions associated with them. “Super-states” (the World Bank, IMF, the EU, China) or would-be super-states (U.S. Big-Tech, the UN or even the Vatican) vie to fill the vacuum.

What Big-Tech globalists and the aggrieved have in common is the destruction of the U.S. as a nation-state. That means removing Donald Trump and making sure he cannot run again, undermining the Constitution by packing the Court, destroying every vestige of traditional American identity (e.g. tear-down statues). Who are the people left out, the people who are to be marginalized or intimidated? They are the working class, small business, and anyone who takes traditional America seriously—in short, the middle class.

This model, in which the few at the top control and induce the bottom to undermine the responsible middle is an old one. It can be found in the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire overcoming the Roman Republic, immortalized in Mark Anthony’s reading of Julius Caesar’s will (which he somehow managed to have on hand). This state of affairs was later noted by Machiavelli. It is stated full blown by Henri de Saint.-Simon who envisaged a society guided by a hierarchical merit-based organization of managers and scientists (e.g., Wall Street, Big Tech, deep state, etc.).

It is a utopian scheme (the opiate of the aggrieved) that renders crony capitalism and crony socialism indistinguishable. In both cases, government is the servant/junior partner of Big Business. The only thing that changes is which particular vested economic interest groups get the government contracts and largesse and what politicians get in on the action. This is precisely why serious Marxists have always despised socialism. The object of winning is not to ameliorate difficulties but merely to gain riches and the power to protect and extend the riches. Donald Trump was the lone outsider who threatened to overturn all the apple-carts.

As a consequence of the above, political reform alone is irrelevant and ineffective. The political world is a carousel where the riders and the tunes may change, but progress is an illusion. The dereliction of duty on the part of the Supreme Court (a Court that arrogates to itself the definition of “life,” but cannot investigate a national election in which its own orders were ignored) was the last straw.

C. Prognosis

The following seems most likely to me. I pray I am wrong.

  1. Fascism triumphant. China’s combination of party/ market/ state is the new future.
  2. The future of the US is fabricated race wars and disintegration.
  3. China now replaces the US as the world’s hegemon—it, and radical Islamists, are in the best position to take advantage of Western disintegration.
  4. Western Europe becomes Muslim—and Erdogan is proven right. Central Europe will move Eastward.
  5. China and its allies and vassals versus Islamism is the geopolitics of the future. (farewell to the liberties that we in the West once treasured and took for granted.) Islamism at least will be localized by China, but that will not help Western Europeans preserve their freedom—they will be Muslim and subject to China’s persecution.
  6. The only good thing is that the world will not turn out the way the progressives think—Portland is the present future of the progressive world in embryo i.e. solar energy, vegan burgers, children choosing their sex organs, toppled statues and burning and looting; to be followed by seizure of white property—whites who are leaders of this anti-white movement eventually lose their property and lives too.
  7. Rise of white fascism (the academics/ journalists etc. successfully create, by way of reaction, what they misperceive as present reality)—all out race war in the US is an opportunity for new geopolitical powers.
  8. US becomes an extension of Latin America which will be a Chinese vassal.
  9. Another scenario is the break-up of US and the race war scenario limited to progressive urban centers, but the problem of depleted US power remains.
    The consequences of the big steal are terrifying. But the interests behind it are vast. If this sounds crazy—just ask: what would Queen Victoria have said in 1880 if told that by 1945 Britain would be a 2nd or 3rd rate power?

D. Centrality Of Culture

The different views of America held by the handlers and supporters of Biden and the supporters of President Trump are incommensurable. Nothing is going to change without a fresh reflection on our culture.

What is the inherited culture of the U.S.? As expressed in Locke and summarized by Huntington, it is the English language, the English conceptions of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals. Its religious commitment reflects the dissenting Protestant values of individualism and the work ethic. The “Creator” who endowed us with our rights clearly understood that “He” was speaking to Lockean “Protestants.”

Three things stand out: religious liberty, economic liberty, and individual liberty. As expressed recently by Oakeshott, the U.S. is a civil association, that is, there is no overall collective-common-good; there is only the good as understood by individuals who resolve their conflicts within the procedural norm of a non-collective common good of the rule of law.

The foregoing is an historical entity and achievement. It is not based on a set of abstractions or “theory;” it does not recognize an official state religion – the dissenting Protestants, given their experience, made sure of that by insisting upon the separation of “church” and “state.” This is not an endorsement of relativism but an affirmation of substantive moral pluralism held together by a common commitment to the procedural norm of toleration. If you choose to be different you do not have to justify yourself or prove that what you are doing is “good.”

In short, you are innocent until proven guilty. If it is alleged that what you are doing harms another, then the onus is on others to (a) show the harm and (b) establish that the remedy is not worse. None of us is required to endorse or to approve of what you do. You are entitled to “toleration” not “approval.” Moreover, others are free to criticize what you do and try to persuade you to do otherwise—but others are not free to coerce you (J.S. Mill). This is a non-utopian view espoused by those who understood that they lived in the world “after the Fall.”

Despite all the criticism leveled against this conception that a society can function with a commitment to procedural norms, this cultural entity has produced to date the most powerful, most productive, and freest culture the world has ever seen, and it has done so for 400 years.

Where are the fault lines in this culture? There are two: democracy and the neglect of public life.

From antiquity to the present, every profound thinker understood the dangers of majority rule. That is precisely why the Founders created a “Republic” that protected the rights of individuals through a Constitution. In order to “keep” the Republic, we have relied on educational institutions to convey this culture, many being run by religious foundations. What has undermined this reliance is a combination of teachers’ unions and a professional class of educators. I shall have more to say about this later, but at present the educational system from top to bottom is now run by second rate ideological left-leaning women and minorities who delude themselves into thinking they have some sort of expertise when all they have is a permission slip from the “establishment.”

Modern freedom (Constant) allows us to pursue our private dreams and agendas, to focus on minding our own business. It also discourages us from minding the public business. We have allowed public life to be articulated and controlled by “professional” politicians and celebrity journalists.

The greatest threat to the U.S comes from the latter reigning experts, the new theorists of utopia. Utopian views, understood as creating a heaven on earth, are perennial (e.g., the Tower of Babel). Eric Voegelin saw modernity as a reflection of “gnosticism,” the perennial Christian heresy of believing that paradise can be achieved on earth. To use Voegelin’s expression, it is the “immanentization of the eschaton.” Historically, it is found not only in the medieval period, but in the later movements of humanism, the Enlightenment, progressivism, liberalism, positivism, and Marxism. It seeks to reverse Augustine’s de-divinization of the state by creating a civil theology, in which the transcendent is repeatedly lost sight of in history. Voegelin maintained that gnosticism is internally incoherent both because it represses the truth of the soul and its ineffectiveness in practice leads to an omnipotent state in which gnostics cannibalize themselves. He instanced Puritanism as a case study. At the same time, he saw America and Britain as a bulwark against gnosticism precisely because they had maintained the Mediterranean inheritance (Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity). It is the explicit combination of philosophy and religion, not philosophy alone, that may be our salvation.

Contemporary utopianism is rooted in the Enlightenment Project. The EP rightly saw the great success of modern science in creating a technology for making the physical world our servant and not our master. However, the EP, as expressed primarily in the writings of the 18th-century French philosophes, went a step further in believing that there could be a social science, based on the “scientific method,” that would lead to a social technology for solving all of our social problems. The dream of such a social technology in which public policy is logically deduced from social theory is the common property of liberals, socialists, and Marxists.

As many have argued (Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Hayek, Oakeshott, Gray, Capaldi, etc.), the very idea of a social science is incoherent. Unfortunately, false hope has a larger market than sober reflection.

The present home of this false utopia is the contemporary university. It originated within the so-called social science departments but has subsequently seduced the humanities, the arts, business schools, professional schools, and even the physical sciences. Higher education has given way to non-stop indoctrination. Critical research, free speech and academic freedom are its latest victims. In this new Orwellian universe, “critical theory” now denominates what cannot be questioned/criticized. The contemporary university, enthroned by government subvention and politicized accreditation agencies, is now the commanding heights of our entire culture. It trains and licenses “political scientists,” lawyers, many clergy, journalists, K-12 teachers, in short, just about everybody. Elections no longer identify the current responsible leadership. Rather, elections now ratify what the experts have already decided and identify those whose education has been deficient and who therefore need to confess their sins and attend a reeducation camp as penance.

Does 2020 mark the death of American culture? Is there some way to claw back?

E. What Is To Be Done?

80 million people voted for President Trump. Given additional family members who are not of voting age or did not vote, we are probably talking about more than 100 million people. How significant is that number? By comparison, the entire population of the UK is 66 million; and the entire population of France is 67 million. What can 100 million people do?

  1. Rather than taking down the new behemoth (the vast education-media-entertainment-Big Pharma complex that controls all aspects of our lives because it has the best tools right now to build/enforce compliance), we just ignore it! We begin by establishing an independent context: social, economic, etc. not a separate political unit. We operate “within” the system but are not “of” the system. We return to Augustine’s notion of the two societies. We can fabricate symbols to show our membership (e.g., I like the flag at half-mast).
  2. Establish an independent currency (like bitcoin) impervious to governmental control. This currency can be exchanged for dollars but it retains its value and does not degenerate into toilet-paper.
  3. Establish a parallel non-politicized economy: our own social media, our own SEC, our own banks, etc. In short, we can duplicate a whole world that does business among its members who subscribe to the same principles – we do not censor or cancel! Imagine the appeal to entrepreneurs. We do not refuse to do business with THEM, but they do not define our business ethics.
  4. Establish a parallel education system – we already have one in home schooling and religious schools. We can create a whole new university system: use (buy) abandoned malls. There are plenty of retired faculty available (like myself who will literally work for free), semi-retired, about to retire, tired of participating in a charade, perhaps unemployed or employed otherwise. We need to break down the artificial barriers between practitioners and theoreticians, and we must surrender the conceit of expertise. The establishment will not recognize our degrees BUT that is irrelevant. Employers among our 100 million will. Our graduates will need to pass an exit exam showing they know the major opposing arguments of contentious public policy disputes. They will have met higher standards.
  5. Establish a parallel medical system (self-insured and nationally portable).
  6. Establish independent sports teams (whole new leagues and franchises), an alternative entertainment industry, etc. – all of it depoliticized.
  7. Establish an independent legal system that is based on mediation.
  8. Most especially, we shall need a huge legal fund to defend these proposals from the inevitable establishment lawsuits.
  9. The reader is invited to extend this list.
    IN EVERY CASE WE OFFER A BETTER PRODUCT AT A LOWER PRICE.
    Of course, I recognize that (1) all of these proposals need further elaboration; and (2) that all of these proposals are subject to corruption and hijacking. But we must start somewhere.

F. The New Politics

It is important not to continue to play the old game. Hence, there is no point in trying to reform the Republican Party. We need a new political party, one that invites former Republicans, as well as perceptive Independents and Democrats to join.

What will be its features?

  1. Political Reform Clubs everywhere – open to all –we might begin by meeting in private homes or on ZOOM and progressing from there.
  2. Within a national network of such clubs, new articulate and responsible leadership (candidates) will emerge on a continuous basis.
  3. We shall run candidates for EVERY office, Dog-catcher, school boards, district attorneys, judges, sheriffs, poll watchers, etc.—the aim is to take control of local communities and work from the bottom up.
  4. TERM LIMITS: we seek Public Service not careerists. Real achievement comes in the real world of careers, jobs, homes, schools, arts, etc. We reject the myth that politics is somehow some arcane practice. Buckley was correct when he suggested that we should prefer to be governed by the first 300 people in the “Boston Telephone Directory” than the faculty of Harvard.
  5. Litmus Test: you understand we were robbed. This is not a retreat, and it is not a surrender or form of escapism. Rather we are digging in our heels, and we are prepared to accept the burden, the responsibility, and the occasional joy of living in the Two Cities.
  6. Many are skeptical about the likely success of a third party. My reply is as follows:

    a. The Republican party was itself once a new party, replacing the “Whigs” perceived as no longer up to the task of dealing with the issue of slavery.
    b. Other third party movements failed because in the background was a shared set of assumptions—think Ross Perot as a better Republican rather than a new wave. There are no longer any shared assumptions.
    c. “Republicans” have rightly earned a bad name, and the party comes with baggage. Without the baggage, non-Republicans might be more receptive.
    d. Most important of all, we need fresh perspectives, new blood, an open invitation to change the political culture, buy-in from people who have abandoned active participation. We do not need a quick fix and then back to monkey-business as usual. “We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. . . Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task [that] challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. F. A. Hayek, The Intellectuals and Socialism.


Nicholas Capaldi is professor emeritus at Loyola University, New Orleans and is the author of two books on David Hume, The Enlightenment Project in Analytic Conversation, biography of John Stuart Mill, Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke versus Rosseau to the Present, and, most recently, The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law.


The featured image shows, “Hospice à St. Remy,” by Vincent van Gogh, painted in 1889.

The Minimum Wage Law Is Wrong

In the bad old days of outright, in-your-face racism, the bigots favored the minimum wage law as a means of destroying the economic prospects of black people. For example labor unions in the bad old apartheid South Africa explicitly favored such legislation in order to exacerbate the unemployment rate of this demographic. Blacks, in their view, were getting too “uppity” and had to be taken down a notch or two. Or three. They were daring to compete with more skilled white labor; the best way to nip this challenge in the bud was to price them out of the market. Raise the wages of black labor by government fiat so high that employers would no longer look upon them as a bargain.

Nor was our own country exempt from this sort of evil. Former president John F. Kennedy, when he was a senator from Massachusetts, favored the minimum wage law on the ground that cheap African-American labor in the former confederate states was too competitive with more highly-skilled New England workers. He thought, correctly, that the best way to deal with this challenge was, again, to end this through minimum wage legislation. He stated: “Having on the market a rather large source of cheap labor depresses wages outside that group too – the wages of the white worker who has to compete. And when an employer can substitute a colored worker at a lower wage – and there are … these hundreds of thousands looking for decent work – it affects the whole wage structure of an area…”

Give the devil his due, these vicious people were good economists. They faced a challenge: the competition of low-skilled black workers. They knew exactly how to obviate this opposition. Pass laws that seemingly helped them, but they full well knew had the diametric opposite effect.

Nowadays, matters are reversed. The people who now favor this legislation are filled with the milk of human kindness, at least for the most part. But their understanding of economics is abysmal. And this does not only describe Democrats such as AOC or Bernie or Schumer or Pelosi or Biden who are staunch supporters of this malicious legislation. It even includes Republicans such as Utah Senator Mitt Romney and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton who have just introduced a bill to increase the national minimum wage to $10 an hour over the next four years, in gradual steps. One would have thought that at least members of the GOP would be a bit sophisticated about economics, but in the event this just ain’t so.

The flaws in this enactment can best be explained starting with an analogy from the animal world. The deer is a very weak animal. This species would have long ago gone extinct except for its speed. In similar manner, the skunk and the porcupine would be greatly endangered, but for their saving graces, smell and sharp quills (How do porcupines make love? Carefully).

Now put yourself in the place of a young black kid who can’t find a job. (Before the advent of the minimum wage law in 1938 the unemployment rate of blacks and whites, youngsters and middle-aged folk, was about the same; at present, the rate of joblessness for African American male teens is quadruple that of white males aged 25-55). Young black teens have a poor reputation as workers, at least in the minds of many employers. What is their analogous secret weapon? The ability to temporarily work for a very low wage – or none at all.

Under free enterprise, this young black kid could march up to an employer, look him straight in the eye and say: “I know you don’t think much of me as a potential employee. But you’re wrong. Hiring me will be one of the best commercial decisions you’ve ever made. Just give me a chance. In order to take the risk off your hands, let me tell you what I’m gonna do. I’ll work for you for $5 per hour for a week. Then, if I pass this trail period in your estimation, you can raise my salary. Heck, I’ll do it for $2 per hour, can’t say better than that, can I? No, wait, I’ll go myself even one better: I’ll work for you, real hard, for zero, zip, nada, for free. Then, after a week, when you see what a treasure I am, you can adjust my wage accordingly.”

It is hard to see why this would not be a very successful statement in terms of (eventually) getting on the payroll. However, if this young enterprising person said anything of the sort, he would be breaking the law. He might not be put in prison for doing so, since, probably, an economically illiterate judge would view him as a victim; but, still, he would be in violation of the minimum wage law. In contrast, if the owner of the firm accepted this offer, woe betide him. He would be tossed into the clink, and the key to the prison would be thrown away (This is an exaggeration, but only a slight one).

The point is, the minimum wage law steals from the worker who is discriminated against his one “secret weapon”: the ability to impress the business firm with this type of offer. That’s the Horatio Alger story.

An analysis of basic supply and demand analysis as taught in economics 101 will demonstrate that when you impose a floor under wages, this does not necessarily raise them. Rather supply is now greater than demand, and the difference is a surplus; in the labor market this is called unemployment. No, a floor under wages does not boost them; rather it constitutes a barrier over which the job candidate must jump in order to obtain employment in the first place. If mere legislative fiat could really boost compensation, why stop at $10, or $15? Why not help the needy with a wage, or, oh, $100 per hour, or even $1,000? Then, we could stop all foreign aid, and just tell needy countries to institute, and/or raise their minimum wage levels.

Sophisticated advocates of this pernicious legislation will point to “monopsony” or “oligopsony” (one, or just a few purchasers of labor, in this case). True, according to neoclassical theory, there is in these cases a window in wages, such that they can only be raised so high before unemployment once again rears its ugly head. Even if this were true (it is not, but that is another story) it is simply inapplicable to relatively unskilled workers. If it applies at all, it is to workers with such specialized skills that only one or a very few firms can hire them. We are now talking about specialized engineers, computer nerds, physicists, etc. They earn multiples of the minimum wage levels being contemplated. Those who push brooms or ask if you “want fries with that?” have literally hundreds of thousands of potential employers, not just one or a few.

The minimum wage should not be raised. It should not stay at its present $7.25 level. It should not be lowered. Rather, it should be abolished, and those responsible for its existence be deemed criminals, since they are responsible for the permanent employment of people with productivity levels lower than that established by law. Suppose someone’s productivity is $3 per hour. Anyone hiring him at $7.25 will lose $4.25 hourly. He cannot be profitably employed. Case closed.


Walter Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University, New Orleans.


The featured image shows “Work,” by Ford Madox Brown, painted in 1873.

Education As Provocation: A Conversation With Konrad Paul Liessmann

This month, we are so very pleased to have a conversation with Professor Konrad Paul Liessmann, the renowned Austrian philosopher, essayist, and cultural critic at the University of Vienna.

The Postil (TP): Welcome, Professor Liessmann, to the Postil. It is a great pleasure to have you with us. Recently, your book, Bildung als Provokation (Education as Provocation) was translated into French as La haine de la culture. Pourquoi les démocraties ont besoin de citoyens cultivés (Hatred of Culture: Why Democracies Need Educated Citizens). The difference between the two titles is interesting. Could you speak to this difference? Is there a connection between education today and a “hatred of culture?”

Konrad Paul Liessmann. Photo Credit: Heribert Corn.

Konrad Paul Liessmann (KPL): There is this connection. Culture, in the sense of the great works of world literature, music and the visual arts, was banned from education. The only thing that now counts in education, therefore, is competencies; dealing with the great documents of culture is hardly relevant anymore. This is also the result of a “hatred of culture,” an attitude that wants to make it easy for everyone and denounces as elitist any argument that requires concentration, knowledge and effort. That doesn’t mean that this culture should be adopted uncritically; but without this culture all education is empty.

TP: How do you understand culture?” Do you think we have lost culture?

KPL: Of course, there are the most varied of provisions of culture. One can start from a concept of culture that turns everything into culture that people somehow do regularly, ritualized and in a formed way—in this sense one can speak of a culture of beer drinking as well as a culture of war. But one could also start from a narrow concept of culture that only accepts those forms of culture in which that tendency towards reflexivity and aestheticization has become independent. That could best be called “art.” Indeed, no one wants to reduce culture to art anymore. One would rather “expand” the concept of art and allow it to coincide with the expanded concept of culture. However, it was only the elitist concept of culture that was limited to artistic activity and associated with an exquisite quality standard that made it attractive for its expansion. The fact that even the stupidest TV show wants to be culture only makes sense if you want to peck at the aura of a term that you simultaneously negate with this claim.

However, the concept of culture also suggests other interpretations and differentiations. In its original meaning, culture has, strangely enough, three opposing terms that say more about it than laborious definitions of the term culture itself: nature, barbarism, and civilization. Culture can only be determined on the basis of these and in contrast to them. Culture is originally, in its derivation, from “agriculture,” that is, worked nature. Furthermore, culture is the work on human nature. What is still raw in people, i.e., na-ture, is cultivated and refined with regard to the actual purpose of the human: autonomy and freedom. Culture always has a strong aesthetic component. Culture is always freedom from necessity, a game of fantasy and imagination, and not the practice in the practical constraints of the digitalized competitive society. In this sense, it could be that we actually lose culture because we only see everything from the point of view of usefulness.

TP: Education, of course, is the primary focus of your book. But education now means so many different things. How do you understand education?

KPL: The beautiful German word Bildung has a wide variety of meanings. Of course, this includes essential aspects of upbringing (“Education”), but the imparting of scientific, cultural, aesthetic and historical knowledge is also part of education for me. And finally, education also has a lot to do with self-education, with the formation and cultivation of mind, body and soul, with the development of dispositions and talents.

TP: There is much talk about “skills” and getting students ready for jobs (which are non-existent). Do you think universities are betraying young people because they are training them to be obsolete?

KPL: Our dynamic world no longer allows precise predictions about the world of work of tomorrow. So it is hardly possible to train young people for a certain profession. Universities shouldn’t do that either. Universities should offer a scientific education that represents a solid basis for future prospects.

TP: You offer a very pertinent quotation from the German philosopher Peter Bieri, who also writes novels under the pseudonym, Pascal Mercier – “…the educated person reads books in such a way that they change him?” Could you speak about this “change?”

KPL: Well, Peter Bieri talks mainly about reading literature, novels, short stories, poetry. According to his thesis, the reader of literature learns how to talk about the way people think, want and feel. The reader learns the language of the soul. He learns that one can feel differently about the same thing than he is used to. He learns new words and new metaphors for mental events. Because his vocabulary, his conceptual repertoire, has grown, he can now talk about his experience in a more nuanced way, and this in turn enables him to feel more differentiated. Whoever feels more differentiated, who now has words for complex feelings, has changed through reading. Reading helps to better understand other people, other situations in life, strange worlds. Precisely because this is so important in a diverse world, I don’t understand why literature is disappearing from schools.

TP: Do you think education is secular redemption?

KPL: No, I do not think so. But very often it is pretended that all the problems of our world are solved if enough is invested into education. In no area of life is there so much hope set as in that of education; there is no authority that is trusted as much as education. Education is a sought-after resource for countries with few natural resources in global competition; education is seen as a medium with which girls, migrants, outsiders, lower classes, the disabled and oppressed minorities are to be emancipated, promoted, integrated and included; and education should protect young people from being seduced by drugs, the Islamic State, and protect them from the populists. Education is supposedly the means by which prejudice, discrimination, unemployment, hunger, obesity, anorexia, AIDS, inhumanity and genocide is prevented—the challenges of the future are met and children are happy, and young sdults should be made employable: But none of that is possible. There are far too many expectations placed on education— and that is why one is always disappointed in education.

TP: Technology has given modern man much leisure time – but modern man is also forever in a rush, never having enough time for anything. Could you explain this paradox?

KPL: I think modern technology is ambivalent: it gives us freedom and makes us dependent. This also characterizes digitization. Any relief will be undone by the variety of possibilities that this technology offers and that we want to exhaust. That’s why we’re constantly rushed because we don’t want to miss anything. And we don’t want to miss anything because we no longer have any idea what is really important in our life. I hardly exlcude myself from all this. Technology has a great seductive power—we forget how much it makes us slaves to our machines. The machines should serve us and not we who should serve the machines.

TP: Will technology make institutional education unnecessary?

KPL: I do not believe that it will. The current corona crisis in particular shows how important schools and universities are. Learning is primarily a social process; meeting people is constitutive for educational processes, not working through programs.

TP: You mention the term “pseudo-scientificization of pedagogy” used by the philosopher Julian Nida-Rümelin. Could you explain what this means?

KPL: We have a fundamental problem with the scientification of professions that could be viewed more as craft, such as education. A good teacher doesn’t have to be a good scientist, and a good scientist is by no means a good teacher. Nevertheless, I believe that in a modern knowledge-society, teachers in schools need scientific training, because the sciences are the basis of teaching. The fact that so much fake news and conspiracy theories are circulating today also has to do with the fact that we don’t know enough about how knowledge is produced and communicated.

TP: You make a very powerful statement in your book—“No, education alone cannot change a society.” What led you to this conclusion?

KPL: If you will permit: the historical experience. The current balance of power is reflected in every idea of education; the hope that the youth will do better one day has still been disappointed. Social changes result from social and economic tensions, from technological innovations, and, yes, also from wars. Education alone can do little here. And yet I do not give up the hope that educated people treat themselves, treat others, treat the environment a little more carefully than is currently happening.

TP: There is a very intriguing chapter in your book, entitled, “Europe Considered as Fine Art. Towards an Aesthetics of a Continent.” How should we understand this?

KPL: The idea was, based on the famous book “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” by Thomas de Quincey, not to look at Europe from an economic, political or bureaucratic point of view, but rather from an aesthetical one. How does a colorful map of Europe from the Middle Ages, the 19th century and the present affect us? What role do the great authors from Homer to Shakespeare to Flaubert and Dostoevsky play in our conception of Europe? What significance does “absolute music” have as a genuine European invention for European consciousness? Is it a coincidence that the “European Anthem” goes back to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? And what do metaphors from architecture, such as, the talk of the “common-house Europe” mean for our self-image? I wanted to pursue these and similar questions.

TP: You also make an essential difference between art and science. Do both exist for the “betterment” of “society?”

KPL: No. They do not exist “for” the betterment of society. Because art and science have to be free and autonomous, only then do they work well. If they are subjected to other purposes, no matter how desirable to us, art and science will be corrupted. Ideology and morality therefore have no place in art and science. But as an expression of freedom, art and science can also be a model for what a sovereign and self-confident human life could look like. But: art is not science and science is not art. Art is committed to imagination and aesthetic form, science to empiricism and rationality.

TP: In your invigorating discussion of revolution, you talk about Henning Ritter’s Die Schreie der Verwundeten (Screams of the Wounded). Why are revolutions cruel?

KPL: I don’t know. But they are. All. Every revolution has betrayed its goals and ideals. Perhaps this is due to a fatal logic: because revolutionaries believe they are on the right side of history, they consider anything to be permitted in order to achieve their goals. Whoever considers everything to be allowed because the end justifies the means becomes cruel, evil, inhuman. We must distrust revolutionaries of all shades.

TP: You call modern democracy “an administrator of poverty.” That is both a marvelous and a disturbing phrase, given the ease with which censorship is now applied and the strict control of speech (especially in English-speaking countries). Is this the result of the “mercantilization of society and life,” to use your apt term?

KPL: This question touches on several aspects. The modern, democratic state becomes an “administrator of poverty” insofar as we see it primarily as a welfare state that is supposed to alleviate the worst negative consequences of economic and ecological developments. The state is no longer a center of power, but a compensation institution. This can be seen clearly, for example, in education policy, which has actually become social policy under the keywords “equity of opportunity” and “equal opportunities.” And the state is increasingly understood as a moral institution that has to ensure that people speak correctly, think correctly, love correctly, eat rightly and act correctly. Sometimes nudging is enough, sometimes it leads to regulations and prohibitions. This undoubtedly restricts human freedom. In addition, we model our lives in principle according to the model of the market, according to the model of companies. Professors become knowledge-managers, lovers become people who invest emotions with the hope of high returns.

TP: The structure of the “political party,” you state, has fallen into a crisis as a political model. Do you think such political parties have a future?

KPL: Well, I am not advocating the abolition of parties, I just see how the traditional big parties—bourgeois parties, social democratic parties—get into a crisis and new parties emerge faster and faster, which can also quickly disappear. This has to do with the fact that people are no longer clearly defined socially and culturally. Changing interests lead to changing political representations. As the name suggests, parties correspond to a part of the whole; a democracy should be able to identify itself in the interaction of the parties. But you can imagine a democracy—as in antiquity—without parties, even without elections: you can also draw lots for important functions among the citizens.

TP: The idea of “limits” or “borders” is an important one in your thought. How should we understand these two terms, and is there a connection between borders and education?

KPL: Border in a double sense (“limit” and “border”) plays an important role not only in my thinking, but also in thinking in general. Without drawing boundaries, we cannot think; every “definition” is such a boundary. Boundaries teach us to differentiate, and boundaries mark differences. But limits are also an instruction to act: up to here and no further. And I could go on. Limits can therefore always be postponed, changed, exceeded. Borders therefore arouse curiosity; they refer us to the neighbor on the other side. This is also important for education: boundaries never divide absolutely, but they show what is here and what is there. And in a political and legal sense, borders have been invented to protect the weak. The strong do not need limits. “No borders” used to be the battle cry of aggressors. I don’t know if it’s really any different today. Of course, one shouldn’t draw rigid, inhumane boundaries. But without borders, our thinking and the world sink into chaos.

TP: “Anyone who thinks is fundamentally intolerant.” Could you explain this interesting phrase, and is the work of the intellectual still relevant?

KPL: The sentence sounds provocative, but it isn’t. The thinker is concerned with, arguable, justifiable insights, with the claim to truth. Tolerance is a wrong principle in science. As Karl Popper already taught, one has to do everything possible to falsify hypotheses and theories, i.e., to show that they are false. Theories only acquire a certain plausibility if this does not succeed. Thinking can and must be intolerant because it is not about the tolerance of other opinions, but about the search for truth. Tolerance would mean that we would no longer be able to recognize errors. That would be fatal. Intellectuals have the task of making that clear. Tolerance is only required in questions of religious belief, not in questions of scientific truth.

TP: In the final chapter of your book, you call for a “new Enlightenment.” What will this “new” Enlightenment look like?

KPL: My point is that the new Enlightenment should build on forgotten dimensions of the old Enlightenment. In this context I recall a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, the German-Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn. For Mendelssohn, enlightenment, i.e., science and rationality, was one aspect of general human education. The other side was culture, i.e., art and emotion. We have to learn again to think together the many dimensions of man. That also means that education has to educate itself about itself.

TP: Are you hopeful about the future of the West?

KPL: The philosopher Günther Anders, who spoke about the “antiquity of man,” once remarked: Hope is just another word for cowardice. If the ideas of European humanism are important to us, we should do everything we can to assert these ideas; that does not exclude criticism and self-criticism. But if we want to say goodbye to them because we are falling back into tribal structures, or want to submit to the dictates of the digital industries, we can do that too. In both cases there is nothing to hope for.

TP: Professor Liessmann, thank you so very much for your time. It has truly been a great pleasure and honor to speak to you.


The featured image shows, “Portrait of a Young Scholar,” attributed to either Jan van Scorel or Maarten van Heemskerck, painted in 1531.


Translated from the German by N. Dass.

Christianity and Immigration: Christianity Versus The Religion Of Humanity

A sort of shortcut, or short-circuit, has pervaded public opinion for many years, especially the Christian opinion, between the “Christian message” and “welcoming migrants.” As if welcoming migrants summed up the demands and urgency of today’s Christian message. As if “being a Christian today” found its touchstone in the welcome, if not unconditional, at least as broad as possible, of migrants. I would like to question the merits of this perspective.

I will first make a few very quick comments on migration. The dominant opinion, that which governs the rulers, maintains that it is fundamentally, if not exclusively, a moral problem, that the reception of migrants is a categorical imperative, perhaps tempered by the limited possibilities of the “host” countries. According to this view, we know what is good work, or a good deed; and the debate can legitimately only be about the appreciation of the circumstances. Yet this emphatically moral perspective rests on a political assumption that is rarely questioned, namely that migration is the major phenomenon of the times, the most significant phenomenon, and against which all others should be considered. This is the argument behind the Marrakesh Pact.

Moral Evidence Or Political Postulate?

However, migrants constitute a small percentage of the world’s population, which continues to live mainly in constituted states. Whatever the specific needs and wishes of migrants, no substantial reason has yet been given to subordinate them in principle to the needs and wishes of non-migrant populations, who are not necessarily less needy. By urging states to do everything in their power to facilitate migratory movements, we immediately deprive political bodies of this essential part of their legitimacy, which consists in freely determining the conditions of access to their territory and to their citizenship. Even urging them to monitor how their citizens talk about migration arrogates the right to regulate public conversation in every country in the world. Thus, in the name of a moral evidence, which is only an arbitrary political postulate, we weaken the legitimacy and therefore the stability of the constituted states, in particular of those which are most sensitive to this argument, namely, the democratic countries, which now host a large number of migrants, and who are by far the most active when it comes to bringing them assistance.

Our democracies provide a life of peace, freedom and even conviviality, which remains enviable for large populations, whose social condition, education, religion, opinions and lifestyles are extremely varied. This associative capacity, the fruit of great efforts over a long history, is not unlimited. No one knows how far a body politic can accept growing heterogeneity without breaking up. It is not only a question of “preserving” oneself, of defending what is one’s own, however legitimate this concern may be—it is a question of preserving and, if possible, improving the conditions of “the good life,” primarily from a common education.

Primacy Of Citizenship

Migrants themselves are no exception to this primacy of citizenship. They were active citizens of the country they left. They most often retain the rights of citizenship or nationality. They received a more or less complete education there, a human formation; in short, a form of life. It is therefore a very superficial view to look at migration exclusively from a humanitarian perspective, and migrants simply as “alike.” Undoubtedly, migrants are our fellow human beings and we are required, if they are in danger, to come to their aid according to our means. But they are also citizens who have been instilled with social or religious rules, which can sometimes be directly contrary to our principles of justice. The duty to help here and now the migrant who is in danger in no way includes a duty to facilitate his migration, let alone that of making him a fellow citizen. All this depends on very varied considerations and ultimately on a judgment that is not moral but political; or rather an ethical judgment in the old sense of the term, that is to say a prudential judgment in which the common good of the community of citizens is the main, although not exclusive, criterion.

What “Christian Message?”

I come to the second point. What exactly do we mean, or what do we mean seriously, when we speak of the “Christian message?” The answer is all the more difficult because over the course of a long history, the Christian proposal has found very diverse expressions, depending on the evolutions of the Church—of those of the world and of the interactions of the Church and the world. In particular, it appears that the modalities of the Christian proposal are very different depending on whether the Church is in a position of command or of authority, as she was during much of European history; or in a position of marginality or subordination, as she is today. I’ll proceed from there.

We constantly meet with traces, remnants or signs of the once central and commanding position of the Church. But, if we look at things as they are, it appears that the Church is increasingly rejected and lies at the margins of European society, including French society. The ecclesial institution, and Catholics in general, have long become accustomed to this diminished condition; but at the cost of increasing difficulty in carrying out the Christian proposal. How can the breadth and gravity of her appeal to humanity be heard without departing from the modesty to which her present situation obliges her? This proposal is addressed to all men, it concerns the whole of man, and the mission of Christians is to carry this call.

However, if the Church, through her liturgy and her sacraments, continues to fulfill this mission in the direction of her active members, she no longer really knows in what terms to formulate it in the public space. Indeed, the sovereign state has gradually imposed its point of view on all participants in common life, including the Church. From the point of view of the state, the Christian faith is one opinion among others, the freedom of which it guarantees, but which does not deserve any special consideration, as it hastens to let her know as soon as she intervenes in the public space. However, even though the Church today does not demand any special consideration, she cannot renounce her raison d’être. How to address humanity, and first of all the members of the civic body, when an increasingly rigorous interpretation of secularism leads the state to exercise increasingly precarious surveillance over any public expression that can be linked to religion?

It is therefore a great temptation in the Church to seek the ear of the public and to preserve its audience, by linking the proclamation, which is specific to her, to the prevailing opinion today, by confusing the Christian proclamation with this “religion of humanity,” which envelops Europe and the Americas, reducing charity to that “sentiment of similarity,” in which Tocqueville already saw the deepest and most powerful psychic spring of modern democracy. It’s a temptation, because like all temptations, it’s an ease, and it’s a lie. Indeed, the religion of humanity proclaims a human family, virtually united and healed. It invites us to perceive, under the still virulent separations, a humanity in which the similarity of men under their differences would be immediately visible and perceptible. One understands the attraction of a prospect that promises the unification of humanity through the contagion of pleasant feeling. We must also point out the cost. Once rooted, this point of view implies a relaxation of all our ambitions; a renunciation in principle of all our common actions, since there can be no ambition or common action without an effort to distinguish oneself from those who do not share this ambition, or have no part in this common action. A humanity which claims to unite by the contagion of the feeling of the similar, is a humanity which has given up acting, since, as soon as we act, as Rousseau explains, we must “take into account the differences that we find in the continual use we have to make of each other.”

The Religion Of Humanity

In the eyes of the Christian, in particular, the religion of humanity is superficial because it does not understand the depth of what separates men and where their enmity is rooted: how to imagine that men will find the healing of their divisions in that feeling of sympathy which, reduced to itself, has little strength and constancy? Moreover, it is because the human capacity for sympathy is naturally limited that compassion is prolonged, spreads and is distorted in political projects, which introduce new divisions by seeking new enemies. How can we fail to see the political and ideological passion behind the project of a world “without borders,” which presents itself as the necessary conclusion of the awareness of human similarity?

The humanitarian proposal is difficult to refuse because it postulates that it is enough for everyone to be aware of the evidence of human resemblance to enter into justice. The Christian proposal is difficult to accept because it affirms that all human beings are prisoners of an injustice from which they cannot escape by their own strength, and that in order to come out of it they must accept the mediation of Christ both man and God, mediation of which the Church in turn is the mediator. It is indeed a lot of mediation— when the religion of humanity offers the immediate feeling of human likeness; but it opens up an incomparably more instructive and demanding path of improvement, since its end is God himself, of whom every human being is the image.

It would be unfair to underestimate the virtues and the happy effects of humanitarian compassion. In fact, the gestures of charity are in part the same as those of compassion. But in the face of the fabulous powers bestowed on compassion, in the face of precisely this religion of compassion which has established its authority among us, it is important to underline its limits. Christians would lose the sense and intention of their faith if they could no longer distinguish between compassion and charity.

Fascination With The “Migrant”

Thus, after sketching a political perspective on migration, I have just emphasized the specificity of the Christian message. The two approaches, by various paths, aim to deliver us from a vertigo that sweeps away many of us, Christians or not. From a giddiness to a fascination, the fascination of the “migrant,” a figure which sums up humanity because he is the loss of the human as Marx said more or less of the proletarian, a Christ-like figure who tends to substitute for Christ as the object of the intention if not of the faith of Christians. However, the attraction, the bewitchment by the figure of the migrant in one part of public opinion inevitably finds its counterpart in another part of public opinion; in the form of a more or less vehement rejection of migrants, so that the reception or refusal of migrants tends to constitute in our countries the most powerful motive for political and moral divisions. I have tried to suggest that migration does not force us to change the character of our political system, or the meaning and standards of the Christian religion. Yet, if migration does not fundamentally change the political condition of men, it exerts pressure on our countries which, in fact, deeply affects both our political system and, if I may say so, our religious regime. This pressure is both the cause and the effect of the surprisingly rapid progress of this “religion of humanity” which is profoundly transforming the conditions of our common life.

This new political religion has delegitimized our representative republic by imposing the idea that there is something radically unjust in a community of citizens who govern themselves, because in doing so they separate themselves from the rest of men, and at the same time exclude all those who are not part of it. As democratic as it wants to be, our community of citizens is considered radically unfair since the rights it grants to its members are not granted to all the men who ask for or claim them. The only fair rule is that which applies to men in general. It is according to the same logic that the religion of humanity has tended to delegitimize the Christian religion which, a community sharing objects of faith, criteria of judgment and a form of life which are specific to it, separates itself from the rest of humanity. In fact, any community of action or education, in short just about all that humanity has been able to produce, is delegitimized by the religion of humanity which only wants to see similar people, where men have created great different things.

The difficulty, one is tempted to say, the perversity of our situation, is concentrated in the relationship between migration and the religion of humanity. This commands us to open up to migrants, without asking for anything in return—and certainly not to open up to our form of life. Yet are we not “the others” for them? In truth, there is no question here of equality or human resemblance. The meeting to which we are invited is that of a presumed innocent and a presumed culprit; it is ordered by a moral inequality of principle. It is that the religion of mankind was not produced by united mankind, but by old Christendom tired of itself, or in revolt against itself. Humanitarianism is not only a weakening of Christianity. Rather, there is, at the root of the religion of humanity, which has taken possession of Europe, an enmity and resentment, specifically directed against the Christian religion. This state of affairs concerns non-Christians as well as Christians if not in the same way; since, while Christianity seems to be withdrawing from European life, another religion has taken hold of consciences to deprive Europeans of any right to govern themselves and to preserve a form of life of their own. While Europe persists in erasing the last traces of Christendom, nothing can stop it from disappearing into a humanity without form or vocation.


Pierre Manent is a political philosopher at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron, and Boston College. His many books are widely translated into English, including, Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, A World beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation State, and Modern Liberty and its Discontents.

This article appears courtesy of La Nef. Translated from the French by N. Dass.


The featured image shows, “De bruiloft te Kana (Marriage at Cana),” by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, painted 1530-1532.

Neo-Positivist Realism: A Discussion With Emil O.W. Kirkegaard

Grégoire Canlorbe continues his intriguing interviews with people who are forging new ways of understanding the world. This time around, he is in conversation with Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, who is a Danish intelligence researcher and freelance data scientist. Learn more at his website. Before you ask—there is no connection with existentialist philosopher, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. However, Emil Kirkegaard’s great-grandfather, Harald Rudyard Engman, was a Danish dissident, anti-Nazi artist, who was exiled to Sweden during Word War II. The featured image is a work by Harald Engman. We are so very delighted to have Mr. Kirkegaard join us.


Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): Your name is notably associated with the study of stereotype accuracy—especially those stereotypes underlying immigration policy preferences in Danes. How would you sum up your research in this field?

Emil O.W. Kirkegaard (EOWK): It all began some years ago, around the time of my father’s 50th birthday (in 2014). I was visiting Sweden, because his girlfriend is Swedish, and my father decided to rent a house in Skåne, occupied East Denmark, for the birthday party.

Emil O.W. Kirkegaard.

Some years prior I had read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and recalled that he made some reference to the accuracy of demographic stereotypes. Checking out the supporting references, I found the same names repeated many times: Lee Jussim and Clark McCauley (all the cited works are in an edited book, Lee et al., 1995). I Googled the names of the authors and found a copy of a book chapter with the great title, The Unbearable Accuracy of Stereotypes. It contained a neat summary of the evidence, as it was at the time (Jussim et al., 2009).

I realized there was an entire scientific literature on this topic, one that wasn’t as stupid as my general impression of social psychology. Recall this was in the middle of the early years of the replication crisis, with priming results falling left and right. After that, I checked out the library (that is, Library Genesis, the Russian pirate library), and found that Lee Jussim had written a book in 2012, Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, and I immediately started reading it (Jussim, 2012). While reading this book, I immediately saw the connection to Bayesianism, which I was familiar with because I had long been reading the blogs from people in the Silicon Valley rationalism movement (focused on LessWrong in those days; now mostly reduced to the Scott Alexander-verse).

Say that you’re judging some person for some trait, say being anti-social. The prior belief is the initial guess about some individual based on whatever demographics one can immediately glance at, whether this is sex, age, country of origin, race, name, clothing and so on.

As such, the question of stereotypes is easy to attack scientifically: simply ask subjects to estimate the group means of various groups, and see how well these line up with reality. In fact, a decent sized, but haphazard, set of studies had been done like this, and they pretty much invariably turned up strong evidence of accuracy (the exception being when the data assumed to represent reality was questionable (see, Heine et al., 2008).

At the same time, I had just started studying immigrant outcomes in Europe, and had in my possession a big dataset from Denmark, where we had crime rates, mean incomes, rates of use of social welfare, educational attainment, and unemployment for some 70 immigrant groups in Denmark, as grouped by country of origin (or of their mothers (Kirkegaard & Fuerst, 2014).

In other words, I had the perfect criterion data to study stereotype accuracy in Denmark, and I knew that similar data existed for other European countries, so there was a way to expand afterwards (Kirkegaard, 2014b; 2015). I then found a way to buy survey data fairly inexpensively. We first conducted a pilot study and found quite large accuracy, despite recruiting unrepresentative people online (such as from my Facebook!).

I then managed to raise some funding from friendly sources, and our first big study was published in Open Psych journals in 2016 (Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016a; 2016c). I tried to do things right, from the start: large sample size (about 500), pre-registered analyses, and open science practices (open access, data, code, and reviewing).

As mentioned above, I was familiar with the replication crisis issues in social psychology and did not want to contribute to such poor practices. I also knew that my results would get attacked by leftists, and thus had to be extra strong to withstand scrutiny (Gottfredson, 2007; Kirkegaard, 2020). However, our results were crystal clear—the main aggregate stereotype correlated r = .70 with real differences—and the results were closely in line numerically with the findings that Lee Jussim had summarized.

The idea of linking this data to the immigration preferences was good, and obvious in hindsight, but it wasn’t mine. Noah Carl was the first to combine the two ideas in his 2016 paper, also in Open Psych (Carl, 2016). After reading his paper, I knew the next step forward was to measure all three variables in a single study: real group differences (insofar as government data can tell), stereotypes (estimates of those differences), and finally policy preferences for the same groups.

When looking at immigrant groups, it was obvious that popular opposition to immigrants was closely in line with the actual immigrant groups with high rates of social problems, whether crime or welfare dependencies (so in practice, against Muslim groups). I teamed up with Noah for a study like this, and we wanted to get it out somewhere “mainstream.”

So, we tried a bunch of social psychology journals; with not much luck. One editor, Karolina Hansen, at a Polish university, told us we needed to explicitly state, multiple times, that Muslims were not causing their own misfortunates, whereas our study was agnostic on this topic. I guess I should not be so surprised since, despite being in Poland, she has a Danish last name, so was probably infected by the Woke memeplex.

Unfortunately, it was around that time that troubles began for Noah Carl, and he had to divert time to defending himself against the communist campaign and its friends in the media (Carl, 2019). It didn’t end well; and he was fired. We managed to finally publish this work in 2020 (Kirkegaard et al., 2020).

To return to the question, I would say that my work in this field has just begun, and I expect to publish a bunch more studies on immigrants, stereotypes and their links to intelligence. We are currently finishing up a big study in the Netherlands, with similar results. The last part is important, because from an intelligence research perspective, having accurate stereotypes is simply a manifestation of the general factor of intelligence, already strongly correlated with general knowledge.

So, one should see pervasive correlations between stereotype accuracy and intelligence. And, in fact, that is the case. Some left-wing psychologists and their media cheerleaders hilariously tried to brand this as a negative aspect of intelligence (Khazan, 2017; Lick et al., 2018; Sputnik News Staff, 2017).

GC: A well-known investigation of yours deals with the dataset of OKCupid’s users. You especially focus on the association of cognitive ability with self-reported criminal behavior—and with religiousness. Could you tell us more about it?

EOWK: Back in 2010, or thereabouts, I discovered the OKCupid dating site, and used it myself. The dating site really was very special, as no other dating site collected so much interesting data on their users. Most dating sites attempted only crude social matching, or even dumber things like astrological signs. However, OKCupid was started by a mathematician, and he had a better idea, despite having no background in psychology.

As a big fan of open science, I was wondering how to get a copy of the data for my own curiosity. I teamed up with a programmer to do a scraping (automatic download) of the website, and we managed to download data from nearly 70,000 users. Mind you, a lot of these profiles are essentially empty and not useful. But still, the dataset is amazing, and one can typically use about 10-30k users in a study, depending on which variables are desired and which subgroups.

Again, in the spirit of open science, we wanted to share this data with the world, so we sent our paper to review at Open Psych (Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016b). I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but some mainstream social psychologists started retweeting my tweet to the data (e.g., Brian Nosek of OSF), and eventually the SJWs joined in (Oliver Keyes was a notable nutty blogger who wrote some rambling blogpost on this, since apparently deleted), or maybe the other way around.

In any case, it ended up being a global media event of sorts, where we got featured in various big outlets: Wired, Forbes, Vox, Vice, even Fortune magazine. A guy I went to school with, in 2006, called me and wanted some input for an article he was writing for the Danish state media. The data on the website was really already public, and just required a free user (some of it). It’s just that when this data sits in 70,000 profiles, it is not as useful for analysis as when it is in a spreadsheet-type format. The task of scraping could be done by a chimpanzee, and involves visiting random profiles and copypasting the data into a big spreadsheet. In fact, the website itself wrote in its user agreement that users should consider the data public (“You should appreciate that all information submitted on the Website might potentially be publicly accessible. Important and private information should be protected by you”).

In the end, OSF deleted the copy of the dataset on their service, following a copyright complaint from OKCupid’s owners. Someone reported me to the Danish data protection agency, and they sent me some questions in a threatening manner, which I didn’t answer; and then after a few months, they gave up the case. The media never reported on this dropping of the case. So, in the eyes of the media and the public, it appears I was accused and presumed guilty of some crime; when, in fact, a case was not even filed against me in court.

Aside from all, the dataset is really quite something. This is because the questions on the site were mostly made by users themselves; and because of this, some of them asked about things that psychologists would not dare to ask about. They are also a lot more diverse in topics than what interests psychologists. We have published some studies looking at intelligence estimation based on some 14 questions with high g-loadings; and intelligence scores from these do in fact relate to religiousness, crime (self-reported, not optimal), political interest and so on, in the usual ways (Kirkegaard, 2018; Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016b; Kirkegaard & Lasker, 2020).

This is doubly interesting because the data was filled out by users knowing well that other users would be reading their answers; thus suggesting that social desirability bias should be large here. Evidently, it is not large enough to remove the usual associations. Later on, the website got bought out by Big Dating, that also owns Tinder and others, and the website is now a low quality clone of Tinder; a shell of its former glory. Sad! The most interesting remnant of the website, aside from this (unfortunately) partial copy of the site’s database (and others that exist), is that the founder wrote a book on some analyses he did (Rudder, 2015). It’s really a commercialization, and not a very good at that, of the old OKTrends blog. Fortunately, internet polymath Gwern has archived the blog, so people can, and should, read the unredacted analyses.

GC: Your university background is linguistics. Do you believe race differences may be manifested in language? What are your thoughts about Umberto Eco’s remark that “the language of Europe is translation”?

EOWK: I did a bachelor degree in linguistics, starting in 2010. Before that I studied philosophy for two years, but I was disillusioned with that department and the field, and did not finish the degree. I was always good with language in school, and since I was already interested in the philosophy of language, branching out to linguistics was not a big step.

Honestly, though, studying linguistics had a big advantage: there were no class attendance requirements, so I could avoid going to classes (these are a waste of time). This freed up a huge chunk of time, and allowed me to sleep during the day and work at the night, whenever this was practical (I have non-24 disorder). Passing exams was really mostly a matter of writing three essays (10-15 pages in length) every 6 months, one for each class that one took that semester. Each class was usually based on some book or some papers, which you read. All in all, writing a paper takes perhaps two days, editing included, and reading the required material takes maybe another three days; so we’re looking at about fifteen days of work every 6 months.

In Denmark, the state pays students a stipend to study, about US $800, and there is low-cost, subsidized student housing available too. So, this income is livable; and one can even invest some of it in Bitcoin on the side (Moon Inc.). The rest of the time, I used unwisely to play too much on the computer. But still a large proportion of the time I used to self-study psychology, genetics, statistics and programming. When I was doing the master’s (candidate) in linguistics, in 2015, I was already good enough that a high-profile professor wrote to recruit me for his startup in genetics. That ended my career in academia, not that I was keenly interested in pursuing a linguistics PhD.

So, with my unusual linguistics background aside, what about race and language? It’s hard to say because linguists are, generally speaking, non-quantitative people, and don’t look at these things, except in bland ways. There are some findings on how the physical shape of humans differ by race, and this affects the sounds they produce. Africans have notably larger lips and a broader nose (for cooling), and this results in slight differences in the sounds they make. I don’t think this is very important, however.

More interesting in the big picture are associations between culture and language (an extreme version is called linguistic relativity); and of course, some cultures are vastly more complex than others. Some languages are really quite simple, lacking words for most scientific concepts, some for even basic mathematics, like counting. I am not aware of any formal study of ethnic group IQs and their language features. Economists conduct these kinds of studies, trying to spot relationships between psychological traits and languages, and how this should be reflected in economic outcomes. Best thing they have come up with is that languages that allow dropping of pronouns are higher in some good stuff (Feldmann, 2019; He et al., 2020; Mavisakalyan & Weber, 2018).

There is a big dataset of language features called The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), which is used to study this stuff (the field is called linguistic typology). It has data for some 2700 languages last time I looked, and these are given geographical coordinates, countries, and so on. One could match this to ethnic IQs and national IQs, failing that, and maybe something useful would come out of this. Honestly, I have not looked, because I don’t think anything interesting will come out of it. I did take an initial look at the data from a quantitative perspective in a preprint never published (not even submitted anywhere, (Kirkegaard, 2021); I posted it as a formal preprint for the purpose of this interview).

The national data is rather small for languages, because of the extensive family relationships between them. So, the effective sample size is less than the number of countries. Biologists are familiar with this problem, and have standard phylogenetic regression methods to handle it, and linguists also (they do it in a worse way), but economists less so. I think it is better to proceed here with ordinary national IQs work, and expanding to the genetics of these, á la what Davide Piffer has been doing since 2013 (Piffer, 2013; 2015, 2019, 2020a, 2020b), and what we did in our big 2016 paper looking at the genetic ancestry of countries and their subdivisions (Fuerst & Kirkegaard, 2016). I am not familiar with Umberto Eco, so I have no comment on that quote.

GC: As an avowed proponent of eugenics, do you share the belief in COVID-19 pandemic’s purifying role? What is your assessment of the reservations on negative eugenics that Charles Darwin—while acknowledging the attenuation of natural selection in Victorian England—expressed in The Descent of Man? Namely that “the surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”

EOWK: COVID-19 almost only kills old people who are no longer reproducing, so it has no eugenic or dysgenic effect. If one wanted to be really cynical, one could say that by killing off a bunch of unproductive people, it is easing the state’s welfare budgets, though causing large initial costs in healthcare.

I agree with Darwin. There is an uneasiness with realizing the problem of dysgenics and doing anything about it. Galton himself commented on this in his autobiography (1908): “Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he also has the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective.” So, how can we do things more mercifully? Many have thought about this problem (Glad, 2004).

I submit that we don’t need to do too much. Some countries have already managed to reduce the intelligence-fertility relationship to quite a weak negative or null association through existing social policies and cultural changes (Kolk & Barclay, 2019; Meisenberg, 2008; Reeve et al., 2018).

Aside from that, we have the tools at hand to reverse the problem: embryo selection and genome editing. With the latter, we can edit embryos to remove some known errors, insofar as these are known (typically well-known genetic disorders). The former technology has been here for years, but needs to be augmented with a modern genomics approach, and to get rid of the communist ethos that prevents this from happening (Anomaly, 2018; 2020; Anomaly & Jones, 2020).

Interestingly, survey evidence shows that large fractions of the world population, with notable differences between countries, are already in favor of such technology, and this fraction is increasing over time, just as it did when the original IVF technology emerged (Pew Research Center, 2020; Zigerell, 2019). On the technology side, we need to figure out how to produce a lot of egg cells (sperm are plenty!), and combine these with the best sperm cells if possible (sperm selection), nurture the resulting embryos, and pick the best combination of genes among the sibling embryos according to the best genetic prediction models.

This approach was outlined in Gattaca back in 1997, so this is hardly new. We just need to get serious about it. Galton suggested the same more than 100 years ago (“I take Eugenics very seriously, feeling that its principles ought to become one of the dominant motives in a civilised nation, much as if they were one of its religious tenets”).

If we let the power of capitalism achieve this, we can all have healthier, smarter, prettier, more creative children, and work towards improving our Kardashev score. Considering the current way Western elite thought is moving, there is probably not so much hope for this. Richard Lynn made similar forecasts in his 2001 book, Eugenics: A Reassessment.

GC: A nation’s collective intelligence partly lies in its average IQ. It also lies in its ability to network the various individual IQs within it in an efficient way, i.e., in a way allowing the nation to solve challenges and to prevail in intergroup competition. Efficient networking within a national brain notably includes intragroup competition for innovation—and the shifting of resources towards sound innovators, i.e., individuals bringing a way of thinking which is different, novel, but also more efficient than the previous admitted thought patterns. Do you sense a correlation between average IQ and efficient networking? Historically, which nation performed best in terms of intragroup cognitive collaboration?

EOWK: It’s a tough question because competing nations throughout history have not generally been so easy to compare, since they differ in population size, and change their borders and thus populations over time as well (e.g., modern Austria vs. Austria-Hungary vs. Greater Germany). The ultimate test of inter-group competition is warfare, and so one can look at which countries are very good at this, or have good standing militaries (Karlin, 2020). One can go beyond looking at who won a lot of wars.

One can look at efficiency specifically, and for World War II, there are some numbers here on the combat efficiency of soldiers from the warring states. Though these were calculated by the US army after the war, it probably won’t surprise many to learn that Nazi Germany’s soldiers were the most efficient in per capita terms. Specifically, the research computed the worth of a solider, setting the Nazi German one to 1.00, yields values of 1.10 Americans, 1.45 British, and >4 Slavic (Polish or Russian) (Kretaner, 2020; Turchin, 2007). Details of the calculations are hard to find, and I have been unable to find numbers for World War I or any other wars.

But I admit to not being a military historian and not having spent more than a few hours looking. Peter Turchin talks a lot about this collective efficiency. He uses the term, Asabiya for this, from the great Islamic golden age thinker, Ibn Khaldun. We can make some guesses though. Group efficiency is higher when people have a feeling of belonging.

Most academic research finds negative effects of ethnic/race diversity on social trust (Dinesen et al., 2020), and given the iniquitousness of ethnic voting in democracies, and the endless anti-European hatred from the European left, it’s hard to disagree with a diagnosis of an overall negative effect of ethnic diversity on collective effectiveness.

We currently live in a time of extreme political polarization (mostly Europeans versus other Europeans in the same countries), mostly caused I think by the radicalization of the global media by communist Woke theories from academia. Zach Goldberg is doing great work on this topic (Goldberg, 2019a; 2019b).

China, on the other hand, is going strong in terms of collective efficiency, insofar as their human capital allows (corruption is endemic outside WEIRD populations; (Henrich, 2020)). All this aside, collective efficiency is positively affected by national average intelligence, and this shows up in any kind of analysis one does. Intelligence is at the individual level related to trust, honesty, competence at any job, patience and so on. So, it is not surprising that countries with smarter people outcompete others by large margins (Kirkegaard & Karlin, 2020).

GC: You dedicate yourself to exploring the relationship of personal names to factors like social status, intelligence, age, and country of origin. What are your conclusions at it stands? Do you subscribe to the Jewish belief that someone’s name predicts his destiny?

EOWK: I’ve never heard of this Jewish belief, but it is certainly true that names have associations with outcomes in life. You see when most social scientists discover such patterns, they immediately think it results from some kind of discrimination (the so-called second sociologist fallacy: any group difference is caused by discrimination by the above average groups). They devise experiments to show that people preferentially hire people with higher status names, and so on (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Oreopoulos, 2011). Yes, I am sure one can find some evidence of this stuff. It goes back to the stereotype discussion initially. People act in a crudely Bayesian manner; they use whatever information about an individual they can find. Sometimes researchers give people only names, and so of course people will use such information until they can get better information. This is both rational and not a big mystery.

My entry into this topic was, again, due to nice data presenting itself, but in a less useful format. A Danish newspaper bought government statistics about first names of people living in Denmark, specifically about their average incomes, crime rates, and so on. This data were then published on a website, sort of. There was a search function and one could look up any name to see the stats for that name; but no way to download all the data.

Together with a friend, we figured out how to get the entire dataset behind this website. We then carried out a bunch of analyses of this. We confirmed the usual “S factor” pattern. Maybe we should call this Thorndike’s Rule, as he wrote in 1920: “a still broader fact or principle—namely, that in human nature good traits go together. To him that hath a superior intellect is given also on the average a superior character; the quick boy is also in the long run more accurate; the able boy is also more industrious. There is no principle of compensation whereby a weak intellect is offset by a strong will, a poor memory by good judgment, or a lack of ambition by an attractive personality. Every pair of such supposed compensating qualities that have been investigated has been found really to show correspondence.” (Quoted from Gwern’s page on correlations).

Anyway, in our data, names with higher mean incomes were also, on average, less crime prone, and worked better jobs and so on (Kirkegaard & Tranberg, 2015). So, for every name, one can score it on this composite measure of social status, or “general socioeconomic factor,” as I called it in 2014 (Kirkegaard, 2014a), in a study of countries. I got the idea from reading Richard Lynn and Gregory Clark’s books in short succession (Clark, 2014; Lynn & Vanhanen, 2012). Clark talks about how everyone is born with a latent, genetic score for this generalized social status; and the various social status indicators in life are an imperfect indicator of this (and the other part being mostly luck).

However, if one relies on last name data, one can actually see that the heritability of the latent general social status is about 75%. This finding replicates across many datasets from different countries, even in Maoist China. It’s really quite astonishing. I realized then, that the same thing can be said for countries and subpopulations inside countries, such as immigrant groups (Kirkegaard & Fuerst, 2014).

In our follow-up study, we were also able to show that average intelligence measured in the Danish army correlated quite well with this general social status of names (Kirkegaard, 2019). Personally, I don’t think having a funny name does much to harm one’s career; and it’s a quite simple matter to change it these days, if one really thinks so.

The fact of the matter is rather than funny parents give their kids funny names, and low status parents their kids low status names, and so on. This results in first names being differentiated by genetic propensity for social status, despite not being a family. One can even see dysgenics this way in our Danish data, as higher social status names had fewer “kids;” a kind of pseudo-fertility measure; and so these reduce their share of the population over time. Elite families dying out is a familiar finding for many historians.

GC: It is sometimes asked whether our ontological concepts (causality, identity, quantity, and so on) are intended in the human mind to relate to objective properties of the observed things. Or, on the contrary, only serve as molds, allowing the human mind to clarify, organize the empirical data; but having nothing to do with the content of reality. It is also asked whether the human mind is able to draw its concepts from an immaterial dimension reached through suprasensible perceptions. Or, on the contrary, is condemned to rely on itself—and on sensible experience. What is your take on such issues?

EOWK: That philosophy is a waste of time. For those few who still want to wade into this territory, I highly recommend Alan Sokal’s writings on ontological realism, quantum mechanics and postmodernism (Sokal, 2008; Sokal & Bricmont, 1999).

In my opinion, the best philosophy is written by working scientists or philosophers with a very close relationship to science (and I don’t mean doing some pop-neuroscience). For those wanting to put a label on me, I like to refer to myself as a neo-positivist scientific realist. This is essentially the view that evolution favors organisms that have some level of accuracy of their perception of the real world, which come equipped with a bunch of mostly adaptive cognitive biases (“tinted glasses”), and that through rigorous application of the scientific process, we can better see reality as it really is.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that social science is close to this scientific ideal, being staffed by the wrong people, with the wrong incentives. Social science would do better if we fired everybody who works there, and hired some random physicists to figure things out. This is essentially what Dominic Cummings did in order to win the 2016 Brexit vote, his blog has a bunch of stuff on this.

GC: Going back to linguistics, you may have heard of the proposition “Est vir qui adest.” Namely the anagram for Pilate’s question to Jesus, “Quid est veritas?” What does such connection inspire to you? Which one of Jesus or Pilatus is the chad—and which one the virgin?

EOWK: I generally don’t read fiction, so I am not overly familiar with the Bible stories. Considering that Jesus supposedly died as a childless Virgin (if we disregard the Mary possibility), and Wikipedia tells me that Pilate apparently had a wife, and we don’t know anything about any potential children. So, it boils down to the interesting question of whether Jesus was as holy as he claims to be (i.e., the Gospels claim him to be!), considering the base rate of fertility rates among cult leaders. On the balance of probabilities, I am going with Chad Jesus and the groupies theory, and may God forgive my atheist sins!

GC: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add something?

EOWK: These were some very far reaching questions. You certainly have a talent for interviewing. Maybe you can get a job at Playboy!


The featured image shows, “Nyboder with figures, evening,” by Harald Rudyard Engman, painted in 1931.

Mariano Artigas And The Debate On The Origin Of Man

1. Love Of Wisdom

“All men naturally desire to know” (Aristotle). With this striking statement, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle begins his famous work entitled, Metaphysics. Without a doubt, these few words, in all fairness, may be perfectly applied to Mariano Artigas—because his deep intellectual concerns led him to get a doctorate in philosophy, theology and physics.

This natural appetite for a thorough understanding of the whole of reality made Artigas plunge into a deep and careful investigation of a whole series of questions relating to a plurality of disciplines so varied, but intrinsically connected, as they can be—namely, cosmology, anthropology, philosophy of nature, metaphysics, theology (both natural and revealed), philosophy of science in general and epistemology in particular, as well as certain crucial points of the history of science (such as, for example, the detailed study of the Galileo case). All this plurality of theoretical knowledge converged in the spirit of Artigas into a focal point: truly knowing the ultimate foundation of reality, in such a way that our minds may be able to elaborate a thorough and comprehensive account of the totality of being, including the apprehension of the true human essence.

In this article, we will deal with one of the central themes of this ambitious and complex intellectual project of Artigas: the knowledge of man, both with regard to his biological origin and evolution, as well as relative to his authentic ontological dimension. On the spiritual level for Artigas, clarifying these questions was present in his mind from very young. Getting to know the true place that man occupies in Nature was a restlessness that very soon awoke in his soul. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger said that:

No other epoch has accumulated so great and so varied a store of knowledge concerning man as the present one. No other epoch has succeeded in presenting its knowledge of man so forcibly and so captivatingly as ours, and no other has succeeded in making this knowledge so quickly and so easily accessible. But also, no epoch is less sure of its knowledge of what man is than the present one. In no other epoch has man appeared so mysterious as in ours.

Heidegger points out with his usual acuity that never has so much been known about man as now. Indeed, multiple disciplines, such as, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, archeology, paleontology or biology, provide us with a kaleidoscope of information and knowledge about ourselves that would cause enormous astonishment and perplexity to any sage of even a century or two ago.

But, at the same time, that halo of mystery that has enveloped man, not only remains standing, but grows larger as we delve into our own knowledge. Another German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, noted the same when stating that: “We who know are strangers to ourselves” (Nietzsche). A few words that invite a suggestive reflection, and that in the case of Heidegger brought him to see humanity as “stateless in their own homeland” (Heidegger). Explaining what that homeland is and what the authentic ontological status of man in that homeland consists of is what Artigas devoted all his intellectual effort in the field of anthropology, both in its philosophical-theological, as well as its scientific, aspects.

2. What Is Man?

Towards the end of the Critique of Pure Reason Kant argues that the three most important questions humans can ask are: What can I know? What should I do? And what can I expect? The first question refers to the nature of human knowledge, to the understanding of its origin, its limits, its reliability and scope. The second refers to moral conduct consubstantial to the fact of being human; and the third to the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. The surprising thing is that the Prussian philosopher reduces these three questions to a more basic one: What is man? Making it the most important of all. It is not that Kant reduces epistemology (or gnoseology, in general), ethics and natural theology to anthropology, but he considers that by knowing well what is man we will be able to adequately approach all the other questions.

Perhaps the question, what is man? is not the most important of all (some will say that it is relative to whether God truly exists in an objective way or not). What is indisputable is that it is one of the most fundamental questions. It is also beyond doubt that the question of man is linked to that of God, since our identity (who are we?), as well as our origin (where did we come from?), and our destination (where are we going? which is the popular equivalent of Kantian, what can I expect?)—are fully engaged in the question of the existence or not of God. Artigas raises this issue explicitly when wondering if we are purely material beings who exist thanks to chance, in such a way that everything ends for us with death; or if, on the contrary, we have a spiritual dimension created by God that opens the doors to immortality and that confers a transcendent meaning to our existence (Artigas and Turbón 2008, 19).

3. Emergentism: More From Less

In the first case, the materialists have to explain what is the origin of the so-called spiritual faculties that man has: intelligence and the will (with its unique ability to love freely). According to them these would have arisen gradually throughout the evolutionary process, a position that Artigas describes as “emergentism.” For him, the spiritual elements that characterize humans (“more”) cannot come from the potentiality that matter contains (“less”), but rather represent an ontological leap; so that the difference between man and the rest of the living things is qualitative and not merely of degree, as emergentist materialism would maintain.

It is true that man is a being that has a biological basis of the same nature as that of other living beings, and that this biological dimension seems to be dynamic (evolutionism), but Artigas insists that this does not cancel out the fact that man encloses an essential novelty with respect to all other living natural entities. As for what is the same: man is an animal, but he is not just an animal.

For the emergentists, human qualities gradually emerged in prehuman hominids (perhaps some species of australopithecine such as A. africanus, A. garhi or some other still undiscovered, even some other genus of hominids not yet found). For those who maintain that God has a direct relationship with that ontological leap that gives rise to man, the question is when and in whom did it occur. For Artigas it is not possible to scientifically answer these questions. According to him the “spiritual dimensions began to exist in the human being at some point, when the necessary biological basis existed. We do not know when it was and likely we will never know” (Artigas and Turbón 2008).

The answer to the question of when is related to who. In other words, what species of hominid did Adam and Eve belong to? Were the first parents of mankind the first couple of Homo sapiens? Or maybe the first pair of Homo habilis, or Homo rudolfensis?

In the first case, humanity would be around 200,000 years ago. In the second, we would be talking about two and a half million years. Fiorenzo Facchini maintains that this issue has to be elucidated by scientists and not by philosophers or theologians (Artigas and Turbón 2008).

4. Monogenism And Polygenism

A much more problematic question from the doctrinal point of view is whether the biblical Adam and Eve represent a pair of real individuals from which all humanity would come; or if it is a symbol that refers to a first population formed by several protohumans that would have appeared simultaneously from a prehuman hominid species. That is to say: is the origin of humanity monogenic or polygenic?

It does not escape anyone that this question is not at all trivial, since it has to do with the Judeo-Christian doctrine of original sin. Artigas, in his aforementioned book on the origin of man published together with biology professor Daniel Turbón, after exposing the biological advantages offered by monogenism (facilitating the restructuring of the genotype to present decisive novelties in the emergence of a new species) calls attention to a fact of great interest, and that is that “the current edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mention the term monogenism” (Artigas and Turbón 2008).

Elsewhere, after noting that: “No matter how great the scientific progress, it seems very difficult to reach clear conclusions about monogenism or polygenism relying only on science… On the other hand, although monogenism poses some difficulties to our desire to represent the origin of the human species, polygenism also poses difficulties that are hardly trivial.” (Artigas 2007), Artigas warns that, although “there are scientifically respectable possibilities to explain the monogenistic origin of modern man… polygenism has not been excluded in an absolute way” (Artigas 2007).

In fact, in such a way that some end up observing that certain “theologians have tried to show that this conciliation could exist, although it is an issue that presents difficulties” (Artigas 2007). The truth is that there are many difficulties to which Artigas alludes. Then, as Pius XII points out: “It is not seen how such an opinion [referring to the polygenist] can be reconciled with what the sources of revealed truth and the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church propose about original sin” (Pius XII 1950).

5. The Vatican And The Reception Of Darwinism

The very delicate and complex question of monogenism and polygenism leads us to deal with another of the issues to which Artigas devoted great attention in his latter years: the attitude of the Congregation of the Index towards Catholic authors who defended the compatibility between the scientific theory of biological evolution and Christian doctrine. In other words, it was about analyzing what the official position of the Vatican had been regarding this theory, since it became known in the second half of the 19th century (and, incidentally, see the position of the popes in relation to the evolution of man). This was possible after the opening of the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998. Investigating this matter took Artigas to Rome the following year, in order to study the Vatican archives (for a detailed analysis of this question, see Martínez 2007).

Reviewing documents for the reception of Darwinism by part of the Holy See, Artigas had the unexpected and fascinating surprise of stumbling upon the discovery of an unpublished manuscript in which Galileo’s atomistic doctrine, in his popular work Il Saggiatore, was judged. It is not necessary to emphasize the enormous historical value of material of this caliber. The translation and the study in question took a couple of years. Once this task was completed, which was finalized with the publication of the manuscript (Artigas et al. 2001) and of a work on the content and its implications (Artigas, Martínez and Shea 2003), Artigas resumed the original project, which Rafael A. Martínez had now joined.

The enormous progress of the empiriometric sciences of nature produced since their appearance in the seventeenth century, led to a confrontation between science and Christianity in the nineteenth century. Certain intellectuals of the time were interested, for purely ideological reasons, in presenting both as inevitable and irreconcilable enemies.

The tension between science and religion was accentuated in the second half of the 19th century as a result of the publication and dissemination of Darwinian ideas on the evolution of species, which had natural selection as an explanatory mechanism for change or transformation. In this age, theology was constantly attacked by those who used science as a weapon capable of discrediting religion. In this way, for some, the theory of evolution left in evidence the millennial biblical account of the creation of man by God, offering instead a naturalistic alternative that delighted the materialistic monists. In this context, it is not surprising that there were theologians who viewed the theory of evolution with suspicion and wagered on its denunciation. But there were also Christian theologians who considered plausible the elaboration of a synthesis that would wager on making this theory compatible with the anthropogenic conception included in the Genesis account.

Artigas’ studies carried out in relation to the Index Archives concluded that the Vatican authorities never pronounced an official condemnation of the scientific theory of biological evolution, although there were warnings against its supporters. That is, there was no official Vatican policy against evolutionism as such (understanding it here as a scientific theory and not as an ideological movement), nor a common pattern in the decision-making of popes and cardinals—but rather it was acted on, in accordance with the specific circumstances of each instance.

Artigas and his collaborators analyzed six specific cases. In those (of Bonomelli, Hedley and Mivart) “there was no action against these authors” (Martínez 2007). In the three cases in which the Congregation of the Index intervened (those of Caverni, Leroy and Zahm) “it did so in response to external complaints. The Holy Office did not intervene in any of the cases. It can be affirmed that the cases examined did not correspond to a policy of the Roman authorities against evolutionism” (Martínez 2007).
In short, “Evolution has never been the subject of any official condemnation by the Vatican authorities” (Artigas 2007). For Artigas, the cause of the absence of an official conviction was in the will, on the part of the Vatican, to avoid the repetition of a new Galileo case. Indeed:

The Vatican authorities were aware that there was no doctrinal decision about evolutionism, and apparently they did not have much interest in provoking it. They examined the various writings in response to specific allegations, and attempted to analyze them based on existing doctrine, without following any explicit directives on the matter. This explains why the various reports, very different in terms of length, arguments and conclusions, did not follow any uniform scheme… It is very likely that the mildness of the measures taken was the result of the desire not to compromise the authority of the Church in a field related to science. The Roman authorities did not want to be faced with a new ‘Galileo case’ (Martínez 2007).

In summary: “The Magisterium of the Church has never condemned scientific theories of evolution, and admits that these theories can be reconciled with Christianity, provided that the basic aspects of Catholic doctrine about the action of God and the human person are respected” (Artigas and Turbón 2008). And it is that “the Catholic Church has never, officially, pronounced against evolutionary theories, as long as they are not extrapolated outside the scientific field” (Artigas 1992b).

6. Popes And Evolutionism

The study of the research carried out by Artigas, regarding the reception of Darwinism by the Vatican authorities, can be complemented with the exposition he makes of the opinion of various popes on the theory of evolution.

In 1950, Pope Pius XII published the encyclical Humani generis; it includes a paragraph that has served for decades as a point of reference to support the compatibility between Christianity and evolutionism. The text in question is as follows:

For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith (Pius XII 1950).

In April 1988, the University of Munich organized in Rome an international Symposium on the Christian faith and the theory of evolution, which was attended by the then Cardinal Ratzinger and led by Robert Spaemann and Reinhard Löw, who stated that “a theory of well-formed evolution can not only be acceptable, but perfectly compatible with faith” (Artigas 1992b); to the point that “the theory of evolution, if kept within its just limits, not only does not shock faith, but, in some way, highlights its splendor” (Artigas 1992b, 97). Pope John Paul II himself affirmed there that “the debate around the explanatory model of evolution finds no obstacle in faith, as long as the discussion remains in the context of the naturalistic method and its possibilities” (Artigas 1992b).

The following year, and during a General Audience, John Paul II recalled the aforementioned words of Pius XII and made them explicit, noting that “it is possible, according to the aforementioned hypothesis, that the human body, following the order printed by the Creator in the energies of matter, has been gradually prepared in the forms of antecedent living beings” (John Paul II 1986, 1041).

A decade later, he made some especially relevant statements, noting that:

New insights lead us to think that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis. Indeed, it is remarkable that this theory has gradually imposed itself on the minds of researchers, due to a series of discoveries made in various disciplines of knowledge. The convergence, in no way sought or provoked, of the results of works carried out independently of each other, constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory (John Paul 1996, 4).

This does not mean the uncritical acceptance of any evolutionary proposal, but of those that do not transcend the limits of positive science and that do not make statements, rather, of a philosophical nature, that are pronounced with a clear ideological tone when making them pass as scientific conclusions. Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, had already touched on the subject in his work Creation and Sin where he affirms that:

We cannot say: creation or evolution; the correct way to pose the problem must be: creation and evolution, since both answer different questions. The history of the clay and the breath of God… does not tell us how man originated… And conversely, the theory of evolution tries to know and describe biological periods. But through this, it cannot clarify the origin of man’s “project,” his intimate origin or his own essence. We are thus faced with two questions that complement each other to the same extent and are not mutually exclusive (Ratzinger 2005).

Ratzinger considered the question of the origin of man so important that he alluded to it in his opening papal homily, stating there that: “We are not the casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each one of us is loved, each one is loved, each one is necessary” (Benedict XVI 2005).

The two issues raised by these Ratzinger texts put on the table the issue of the compatibility between the notions of creation and evolution and that of a finality in nature—in such a way that God has a plan, a project, for man, the existence of which is not the mere fruit of chance. Let’s look at both questions.

7. Compatibility Between Evolution And Creation

For Artigas, “the alleged oppositions between evolution and divine action are baseless” (Artigas and Turbón 2008). And it is that “evolution does not lead, by itself, to affirm or deny the action of God in the world. Scientists study evolution without counting on God, because they look for natural explanations. But that does not mean that they deny God. It simply means that biology is limited to what can be known through the methods of science” (Artigas and Turbón 2008). Therefore, it can be stated “that there is no alternative ‘evolution-creation,’ as if it were two alternatives from which to choose. Evolution can be admitted and, at the same time, divine creation” (Artigas 1992c). In fact, “God was able to create the universe in very different states, and this does not conflict with the possibility that later some beings emerged from others” (Artigas 1992c).

For Artigas, the conclusion is evident: “The theories of evolution have nothing with which to object to the need to admit a Creator. These theories only study the origin of some living beings from others, but it will always remain to be determined what is the ultimate cause of the existence of everything that exists; and at that level it is necessary to admit the existence of a creator God” (Artigas 1992c). So that:

According to the teachings of the Catholic Church, there is no opposition between Catholic doctrine and evolutionary theories, provided that these are valued with the necessary rigor, which means, among other things, that they are not used outside of their scientific context, such as happens when unjustified leaps are made that lead to materialistic positions, or to the denial and relativization of religious truths. However, there are not a few authors who make that leap unjustified to materialism, presenting it as justified by science (Artigas 1992c, 202).

Artigas insists on this idea in several places. Thus, in Man in the Light of Science, he points out that “according to the teachings of the Catholic Church, there is no opposition between Catholic doctrine and evolutionary theories, as long as these are valued with the necessary rigor, which implies, among other things, that they are not used outside the scientific context” (Artigas 1992b).

At this point, Artigas asks himself the key question: “Can there be, at the same time, evolutionist and Christian? ” (Artigas and Turbón 2008, 135). The answer is clear: “Today, Catholic theologians say yes, because creation and evolution are compatible; the latter is nothing but the dynamic expression of the former” (Artigas and Turbón 2008).

In fact, Artigas remarks that not only the notions of evolution and creation are compatible, but the former requires it—in the sense that for something to evolve, it must first be created; in the sense that, in the first place, evolution occurs within creation and, secondly, the totality of contingent entities (and the evolutionary process) ultimately requires a necessary foundation and transcendence that creates them in a free and gratuitous act. Thus, “created causality is compatible with divine action” (Artigas and Turbón 2008). Therefore: “if it is understood what the creation and conservation in being is, it is easy to understand that the action of God is not situated on the plane of created causes; and that must be affirmed whether evolution is admitted or not” (Artigas 1992c, 195).

8. Teleology

We said before that the compatibility between creation and evolution is linked to the idea that there is a purpose in nature (teleology) which corresponds to a divine plan. This is precisely the big question. This is how Artigas recognizes it when he warns that:

The big problem, in short, is whether we are the object of a divine plan or have appeared on Earth as a simple result of blind laws and chance. But these are not conclusive extremes. For God, who is the First Cause that gives being to everything that exists, and therefore knows everything perfectly, there is no difficulty in having His plans carried out relying on natural laws of which He Himself is the author, and with intervention, which for us is random because we cannot predict it (Artigas 2007, 28).

Chance exists for us insofar as it is the ignorance of causes. On the other hand, “for God, there is no chance, because everything is subject to His power and He knows perfectly all the processes and their effects” (Artigas 2007, 42). The conclusion drawn by Artigas is that: “I see no reason to deny evolution nor to underestimate the role of chance and natural selection. It seems to me that these are aspects that must be taken into account by rigorous philosophical reflection today. However, it also seems to me that this does not authorize us to dispense with purpose in the study of nature” (Artigas 2007, 74).

According to Artigas, “there should be no problem to combine evolution and the existence of a divine plan” (Artigas and Turbón 2008); and this is so because “the same effect can be considered as contingent when compared with its immediate causes and, at the same time, being included within a divine plan that cannot fail” (Artigas and Turbón 2008).

Biology and philosophy (especially metaphysics) address different ontological and epistemological planes of reality, not through juxtaposition, but by complementing each other, so that “the combination of chance and purpose, of variation and selection, together with the potentialities for self-organization, can be easily completed as the path used by God to produce the process of evolution” (Artigas and Turbón 2008).

In relation to this issue, Artigas concludes that:

Everything has its cause; but many things happen when independent causes come together. This is called chance: the concurrence of independent causal lines. Chance exists. But it only exists for us. For God, who is the First Cause on which everything always depends, there is no chance or causality. Therefore, from the existence of chance in evolution, it cannot be concluded that there is no divine plan and that the human being is not the intended result of that plan (Artigas and Turbón 2008).

To deny the existence of finality in nature, in the name of science, is to force it to say more than its methods allow to affirm, thus,

When it is asserted that the combination of necessity and chance renders recourse to a metaphysical cause superfluous, the limits of the scientific perspective are reached. To affirm the existence of a divine plan, it is necessary to take a metaphysical leap whose legitimacy cannot be justified by science. But, for the same reason, science cannot show that this leap is illegitimate either” (Artigas 1992a, 399).

This detail is very important, since, “the combination of necessity and chance is real. It may be enough to partially explain nature, showing what types of processes are involved in the functioning of nature, and how some entities can arise from others. But it cannot explain the radical foundation of nature (Artigas 1992a, 399).

9. The Harmony Between Reason And Faith

In short, Artigas wagers, arguing in detail, on the compatibility between the evolutionary vision of living nature with the metaphysical notion of creation from nothing, a fact that escapes the research methods used by science. Indeed, the empiriometric science of nature studies the transformations produced from an initial concrete physical state to another final concrete physical state. Creation ex nihilo, on the other hand, consists of a passage from absolute nonexistence (and therefore devoid of any physical characterization) to a physical state, so that it is a fact that cannot be studied by science.

As far as human beings are concerned, Artigas does not see any incompatibility between the study of their evolutionary biological development and the affirmation that their spiritual dimensions are the object of direct creation by God. The aforementioned compatibility between the theory of evolution and the Christian doctrine of the creation of man, as far as his intellectual concerns are concerned, is framed in the context of the general compatibility between the truths of faith and the truths of reason. In other words, Artigas wagers on the harmony between science, reason and faith. On the other hand, there are those who use the theory of evolution to try to scientifically prove that God is a fictitious entity and that religion, therefore, is a suprastructural discourse with no real basis.

10. The Ideological Manipulation Of The Theory Of Evolution

Artigas denounced as active and passive the manipulative use of any scientific theory to try to spread ideology by passing it off as science. The theory of evolution has been, precisely, one of the most used against religion since “Darwinism is often used in this context to affirm that Darwin has made it possible to be an atheist in an intellectually legitimate way, because Darwinism can show that it is not necessary to admit divine action to explain the order that exists in the world” (Artigas 2007, 92).

This ideological use of the theory of evolution has been repeatedly rejected by Artigas as having nothing to do with science, strictly speaking (Artigas 1992). Thus, he claims a sincere search for the truth, leaving aside all ideological prejudices. In fact, there is a manifest contradiction in those who wield science in general (and the theory of evolution in particular) as a proof of the truth of materialism, when this is, in reality, a philosophical ideology and not an empirically proven scientific theory.

With profound insight, Artigas highlights the fact that the same science that is used to seek to prove the truth of materialism and to claim to demonstrate scientifically that man is nothing more than an animal, since everything that exists would be purely material (Artigas 1992b ; 2007)—is precisely an example of the essential difference between man and animals (Artigas 2007).

11. That Mystery Named “Man”

The scientific theory of evolution is not opposed by itself to the metaphysical and theological doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, but to fixism (the belief that God created the species as we know them today). God creates for free. He does not need to create, since He is perfect. Thus, He does not benefit at all from His creation, for He is imperfectible. So why does He create? He does it to communicate His perfection and benefits to creatures (Artigas 2007). In the case of man, God makes him a participant in His spiritual life and offers him the possibility of being able to enjoy His glory; the only way to satisfy the desire for full happiness to which every man naturally aspires. Now, making use of his free will, man can accept or reject that destiny.

Artigas’s has practically dedicated an entire life to studying and searching for the wisdom that allows us to truly know how is the cosmos, man and God. A search that has led him to conclude (by virtue of those spiritual capacities that specify man: intellectuality, freedom and capacity to love, seeking only the good of the other) that “each human is a mystery” by virtue of the practically inexhaustible wealth that human interiority contains (Artigas and Turbón 2009).


Carlos Alberto Marmelada is a philosopher, professor at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, and author of various publications on evolution, cosmology, and metaphysics.

The article is courtesy of Scientia et Fides. Translated from the Spanish by N. Dass.


The featured image shows, “Creation of Eve,” by Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, painted ca. 1662.

Karl Popper’s Critical Rationalism And The Notion Of An “Open Society”

I liked America from the first, perhaps because I had been somewhat prejudiced against it…There was in 1950 a feeling of freedom, of personal independence that did not exist in Europe and which was stronger than in New Zealand, the freest country I knew… On my return to England I had an argument about this with Bertrand Russell… I admit that things might have developed in a very different way. “It cannot happen here” is always wrong: a dictatorship can happen anywhere (Karl Popper, Unended Quest, §28).


I. Introduction

Karl Popper, often named as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, is known primarily for his work in the philosophy of science and political philosophy which are, on his view, related. Popper’s constant opponent is dogmatism, whether this occurs in philosophy or science or politics. His surprising view is that even the view that what makes a theory scientific is that it can be empirically verified supports a particularly insidious species of dogmatism. In other words, it is not just rationalism, the view that certain views are demonstrable by reason alone, but even empiricism, with its verificationist doctrine, that is prone to dogmatism. In opposition to all species of dogmatism, Popper attempts to build anti-dogmatism into the very logic of scientific reasoning by replacing the standard verificationist criterion with his view that what makes a theory “scientific” is that it can be empirically falsified.

Since he sees scientific knowledge as the paradigm of all knowledge, he generalizes this anti-dogmatic view from scientific reasoning to all forms of reasoning, in philosophy, morality, aesthetics, politics, etc. His healthy concept of reasoning, which he calls “critical rationalism,” can only be realized in a “open society,” a society in which all views, even one’s own most cherished ones, are subjected to rigorous criticism and in which one, like Socrates, subjects oneself to rigorous self-criticism.

Popper’s anti-dogmatic philosophy is especially relevant to our own time in which dogmatism is tearing us apart. For, it is safe to say that if the children at Evergreen University who scream at their teachers and threaten them, the child billionaires in the media who censor people with whom they disagree, and the partisans in the “news” media that are committed to advance a cause rather than report the facts, and so on, were Popperian “critical rationalists,” they might realize how little they actually know and abandon their destructive (and self-destructive) totalitarian behavior.

The present article lays out the basic planks in Popper’s philosophy of science and “critical rationalism” as a means towards explaining Popper’s critique of totalitarianism (that is, Popper’s criticism of what he sees as most Western philosophy and of the dominant movements in much contemporary Western “culture”).


II. Biography

Karl Popper was born in Vienna Austria (Austria-Hungary at the time) in 1902 and died in 1994 in London. His grandparents were Jewish but he was raised a Lutheran. He dropped out of school at age 16 to attend lectures in mathematics, physics, philosophy, psychology and the history of music at the University of Vienna as a guest student. While at university, like so many young people, Popper became attracted by Marxism, socialism, and communism, and by the oft heard claim that such leftist views are supported by science. In his excellent intellectual biography, Unended Quest, he writes that for a time he joined several socialist clubs but resisted full-fledged communism until, “in the spring of 1919 [when he was about 17 years old], I, together with a few friends, was converted by their propaganda [and] for about two or three months regarded myself as a communist” and a Marxist.

Karl Popper

However, an event happened that led Popper away from communism and Marxism. A shooting broke out at a demonstration in which he was involved that left several demonstrators dead. Popper was horrified at the police behavior but also at that of his own side which, he thought, rationalized the necessity for such violence.

This left him with a “life-long revulsion of feeling” for such views. Although anyone can get involved in some feel-good political movement and become repulsed when it rationalizes violence, Popper’s unhappy experience with socialism, communism and Marxism as a student affected him in an entirely different way that had a major impact on his later philosophical development. For Popper realized that he had accepted these leftist views, as well as the claims that they are supported by science, uncritically. This led him to ask what a genuine critical rational appraisal of any purported theory would be like, eventually leading to develop his theory of falsifiability and his associated notion of “critical rationalism.”

It is also worth pointing that in his quite varied life Popper also worked in construction for a short while but could not cope with the heavy work. He became an apprentice as a cabinet maker and became a journeyman in the trade. He wanted to start a daycare center for children and did voluntary work at one of the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler’s clinics for children.

In 1922 he became a regular student at the university and completed his examination as an elementary school teacher in 1924 before working at an after-school care club for endangered children. He continued studying education, philosophy and psychology and in 1928 earned his doctorate in psychology under the supervision of the psychologist Karl Buhler and the philosopher Moritz Schlick at the University of Vienna for his thesis titled ZurMethodenfrage der Denkpsychhologie [On Questions of Method in the Psychology of Thinking].

In 1929 he earned an authorization to teach mathematics and physics at the secondary school level and began doing so. Despite all this, already enough for one life, he still found the energy and time to marry his colleague Josefine Anna Henninger (1906-1985). Around this time politics intervened. Nazism was raising its head in Austria and, being of Jewish extraction, Popper felt it might not be healthy to remain in Austria. In order to get an academic position in a country safe for people of Jewish descent, he needed a book.

In 1934 he published his groundbreaking Logik der Forshung [The Logic of Scientific Discovery] in which he criticized psychologism, naturalism, inductivism and logical positivism and advanced his view that the capacity for falsifiability, not verifiability, is the proper criterion for distinguishing genuine scientific theories (like Einstein’s Relativity Theory) from pseudo-scientific theories like astrology.

In 1935-1936 he took unpaid leave to study in the United Kingdom at Cambridge. In 1936 he was offered a lectureship in Canterbury University in New Zealand. He had the opportunity to remain at Cambridge but when he found that his study position at Cambridge could be transferred to someone else, he suggested that it be given to the young philosopher and member of the Vienna Circle, Friedrich Waismann. This was agreed: Waismann went to Cambridge and Popper went to New Zealand.

In 1946, Popper accepted a position in the London School of Economics which, he later said “was a marvelous institution… in those days.” In later life he attempted to obtain a teaching position in Austria, but he was unsuccessful and returned to the UK.


III. The Verificationist Criterion

Recall that the lesson that Popper learned from his unhappy youthful association with leftist radicalism was that he had accepted these sorts of views uncritically, which led him to construct an account of what a proper critically rational way of evaluating theories would look like. In order, however, to understand the force of Popper’s falsifiability criterion, it is necessary first to understand the view he was reacting against, namely, the view (defended, for example, in A.J. Ayer’s classic 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic and still invoked by many influential philosophers), that what makes a theory scientific as opposed to superstition is that it is empirically verifiable. The verifiability criterion was also the standard view of the influential Vienna Circle (a distinguished group of logicians, philosophers of science and economists, including Rudolph Carnap, Otto Neurath, Herbert Feigl, Richard von Mises, Karl Menger and Kurt Gödel, operating in Popper’s own Vienna at the time).

The verifiability criterion has a simple naturalness to it. Consider some theory T. For the sake of simplicity, let us choose a very simple theory, namely, the theory T1 that a certain Virus V1 causes a certain disease D1 in rabbits. That is, T1= V1 → D1. How does one verify that T1 is true? Perhaps one introduces V1 into a healthy rabbit R1 that has been determined to be free of V1.

If, a few days or weeks later R1 develops the disease D1, this is taken to verify T1. However, to say that T1 has been verified by this test does not mean that T1 has been conclusively verified. After all, a single positive result might be a coincidence, a so-called “false positive.” Thus, on the standard view, these test results must be repeatable. Only after T1 passes multiple such tests can it be regarded as highly verified. For example, Newton’s “theory” T2 that an object close to the surface in earth’s gravitational field falls at an acceleration rate of 32 ft/sec2 has been tested, not once or ten time or even a hundred times but literally thousands of times. Thus, T2 is seen as highly verified and no one any longer doubts for a moment that it is true.

What could be more obvious than this that this is how science comes to accept certain theories and reject others? Theory T implies a certain fact F. One does a test to determine if fact F is observed. If F is not observed, the theory is not verified. If, however, fact F is observed, T is verified and if, after repeated tests T continues to be verified, it can be accepted as virtually certain.

Popper noticed, however, both that 1) It is very easy to find verifications for one’s theories and 2) It is a psychological fact that human beings prefer to see their own theories verified.

Consider the case of astrology! A person P1 goes to see an astrologist A1 who makes the prediction that P1 is going to come into a lot of money soon. P1 is very excited because they need the money for a cancer operation. A few days later P1 wins $300 dollars in a lottery and A1 brags that her “prediction” has come true. But has it? What does one mean by “a lot of money?” In the case at hand, $300 is not a lot of money when one is talking about a cancer operation that will cost upwards of $100,000 dollars. The point is that no matter what happens, astrologists can find something to claim their prediction has come true. This is because an astrologist’s “predictions” are generally so vague that they are consistent with virtually any possible outcome.

To see this, consider another case. A1 again predicts that P1 is going to come into a lot of money soon. P1’s stockbroker calls them the following week with bad news. P1’s stock went down in value by 30% and P1 has lost tens of thousands of dollars. P1 angrily complains to A1 that her prediction has not come true. P1 has not “come into a lot of money.” In fact, P1 has lost money. However, A1 points out that many experts had predicted that the stock market would drop by 60%. A1 claims, therefore, that a stock market loss of 30% is actually a gain over the 60% drop that had been predicted. P1 has gained money in that sense. The vaguer the prediction, the more likely it is to be verified by future developments. As Popper observed, pseudo-sciences are generally easily verified. But that means verifiability cannot be the criterion that distinguishes a genuine scientific theory from a superstitious pseudo-science like astrology.

One might reply that astrology is a trivial kind of example. No one would seriously propose that astrology is a candidate for being a genuine science. In fact, Popper briefly mentions astrology several times in his Conjectures and Refutations but makes precisely the same point. He makes his central argument by reference to the alleged new “sciences” that were causing a lot of excitement in the universities in his student years, Darwinian evolutionary theory, Freudian psychology and the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism. Popper argues that all of these “theories” are easily verified, in fact too easily, but none of them is a genuine science because none of them can be falsified. Thus, each of these, under close scrutiny, looks more like astrology than it does like a genuine scientific theory like Einstein’s theory of general relativity.


IV. Three Pseudo-Sciences: Marxism, Freudian Psychology, Darwinian Evolutionary Theory

Popper states that during his university days there was great excitement about three allegedly new sciences: Marxism, Freudian Psychology and Darwinian Evolutionary Theory. One might add Adler’s psychology as well (recall that Popper worked at one of Adler’s clinics for a time), but since Adler’s theory is, in the relevant logical respects, similar to Freudian psychology, only the former need be discussed here.

The excitement was due to the fact that these three alleged new “sciences” appeared to open up to scientific understanding three areas that had long been believed to be the province of philosophy and dreamy speculation, the laws concerning the genesis of life (Darwin), the laws that govern the mysterious working of the mind (Freud), and laws behind the historical development of human societies (Marx).

However, after, in his youth, being initially impressed by these new theories, Popper came to see each of them as a pseudo-science. Each of them turns out to be a kind of seductive story about their respective subject matters, but none of them is a genuine science. It is, therefore, useful to sketch the basic claims of these three theories in the present section before Popper’s arguments that none of them is a genuine science, because none of them is falsifiable, are taken up in the subsequent section

Consider Darwinian evolutionary theory first. In his famous book, The Origin of Species, Darwin was trying to explain why certain species (the ones we actually find in existence) rather than others (the one’s that went extinct) are the ones that survived. His purported explanatory principle is “the survival of the fittest.” That is, the reason the African lion survived to the present day rather than one of the other large powerful saber-toothed cats in existence a million years ago is that the ancestors of the African lion were more “fit” than their saber-toothed competitors. This is interesting.

After all, if one compares the African lion with one of its massive saber-toothed competitors 1 million years ago, the saber-toothed cat certain appears, at first glance, more “fit.” The saber-toothed cat was more powerfully built and one can imagine an African lion heading for the hills at the sight of those 11-inch-long saber-like fangs. Despite the more fearsome sight of a saber-toothed cat, the African lion with its less muscled body and smaller fangs was actually, all things considered, more “fit” to survive in that specific environment than the saber-toothed cat.

One can even tell an interesting story about why the African lion with its smaller muscles and fangs was more “fit.” It was more agile. Its method of killing, cutting off the air supply of the prey, was more efficient than the saber-toothed cat’s strategy of slashing the prey and letting it bleed to death, etc. Darwin “explains” why the African lion survives today and the terrifying saber-tooted cats went extinct! Thank you, Mr. Darwin!

Consider now Freudian psychology. Freud claimed to be able to explain the genesis of all neurosis in human adults. Specifically, he holds that all neuroses are explained as the result of repressed sexual trauma in childhood. Consider the following example! A patient S has a frozen right arm but medical doctors can find nothing physically wrong with the arm. The “cause” of the frozen arm must, therefore, be “psychological.” Freud “discovers,” sometimes in long “sessions” with the patient on the couch, that the patient was sexually abused in childhood. Freudian psychology claims that the fact that S was unable to express this trauma to anyone, that is, the fact that S had to “repress” this trauma, caused S’s neurosis.

On Freud’s model, a repressed trauma, like the steam building up in a tightly covered boiling pot, will have to be let out one way or the other. If the steam is not let out of the boiling pot in a measured way, the pot will explode. If the sexual trauma in childhood is not let out (expressed) over time, the person will, so to speak, “explode” (develop a neurosis). Since sexual trauma cannot in most societies be expressed openly and honestly (one simply does not talk about such things), it must be expressed in some other way. It will, therefore, be expressed symbolically, perhaps by a frozen arm or by some other neurosis.

This, it must be admitted, is interesting. It sounds plausible. One knows people who have suffered sexual trauma in youth and who do display neurotic symptoms. Perhaps they cannot trust people, even to the point of irrationality. When they talk it out with a therapist, that is when they, so to speak, “let off some steam,” they sometimes report a decrease in their neurotic symptoms. Thank you, Dr. Freud!

Consider now the alleged new science of historical development: Marxism. In the Preface to Capital [Das Kapital], Marx states that just as the Newtonian mechanics states the laws of physical motion in the physical world, his theory of historical development states the laws of economic motion in the human historical world.

Specifically, Marx holds that human society, beginning with feudalism, necessary develops in a certain very specific way. Just as a plant necessarily moves from seed, to stem, to blossom to fruit, human society necessarily moves from feudalism to capitalism to socialism and finally to full-fledged communism. Further, just as a plant cannot go directly from seed to blossom, but must necessarily traverse all the intermediate stages in the proper order, human society must move from feudalism to communism without skipping any of the intermediate stages.

In addition, any given stage of human society will break down and give way to the next stage in the sequence only when it is most advanced. For example, a young immature capitalist society will not break down into socialism but, rather, only a mature capitalist society, in which all the internal problems of capitalism have become fully developed, will break down into socialism. Since Marx, when he penned his theories, was living in the most advanced capitalist society of his day, England, he predicted that the socialist revolution would occur in England first.

In addition, since Russia was still in a backward feudal stage, he predicted that the revolution will not occur in Russia until it goes through the capitalist stage. Popper calls any theory that purports to be able to predict the future development of human societies “historicist” theories. He sees “historicist” theories in Plato, Vico, Hegel, Marx, Comte, and Spengler and traces of “historicism” in Jaspers and Heidegger.

Marx’s “historicism” also seems plausible, but why? First, it is reassuring. Whereas the history one learned in grammar school seemed an incomprehensible chaos of dates, treaties, wars and betrayals, Marx reveals that there is a discernable order to it. Marx makes one feel like the actors in Hollywood who know the end of the script (the butler did it!), and if one knows the end of the script, one can prepare for it. For example, if human society is necessarily moving towards socialism, one knows where to place one’s bets. Indeed, since one knows how things are going to turn out, perhaps one can even exert some control over the process. Since capitalism is necessarily going to fall, why not give it a little push to help things along?

Indeed, Popper points out that “historicists” tend to be attracted to social engineering, the effort to control history to fit the theory (script). Further, if one lives in a capitalist society, one cannot avoid seeing the gulf between the rich (capitalists) and the poor (workers) and feel compassion for the latter. It is reassuring to know that the oppressed classes will win in the end. In fact, Marxism sounds just like a religious salvation story: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 19: 29-30).

Finally, there have been various revolutions around the world in which the poor have risen up against their greedy oppressors. It is very reassuring, not to mention profitable, to be on the right side of history, but, for that, one must know what side is the right side. Marx’s new “science” of dialectical materialism is more useful than any portfolio manager. Thank you, comrade Marx for the interesting and profitable insights!

Despite the fact that each of these theories seems plausible, and despite the fact that Popper himself was initially attracted to them, he came to the conclusion that each of them is actually pseudo-science, not genuine science. These arguments are discussed in the following section.


V. Popper’s “Falsifiability” Criterion

Popper claims that each of Darwinian evolutionary theory, Freudian psychology, and the Marxist theory of historical development may look like genuine sciences, and each may appear to satisfy the verifiability criterion, but each fails his falsifiability criterion. That is, each is a species of seductive dogmatism disguised as science. It is important to note at the beginning that Popper holds that the specific ways each fails the falsifiability criterion is not exactly the same in all three cases. For this reason, the case of Marxism, with its unique problems, is separated out and considered in the subsequent section.

Consider Darwinian evolutionary theory, which was, and continues to be, touted as an established scientific theory, first!  It is important to stress that Popper does not reject Darwinian evolutionary theory altogether. He accepts that Darwinian evolutionary theory is useful for science. Popper calls it a useful “metaphysical research program,” that is, a schema that guides one in discovering the specific mechanisms that take place in the evolutionary process. His claim is only that it is not itself a scientific theory. Popper’s reasoning is illuminating.

Recall that Darwin’s evolutionary theory purports to explain why the species we find in existence today, e.g., the African lion as opposed to some other big cat, has survived. His explanation is that the African lion has survived to the present day rather than one of the other large powerful saber-toothed cats in existence a million years ago because it was more “fit” than its competitors.

But what is the “empirical content” of the claim that it is “more fit” than its competitors?  The answer, Popper points out, is that the African lion is the one that has in fact survived. But we already know that independently of Darwin’s “theory!”  Darwin’s “theory” of the survival of the fittest reduces, therefore, to the claim that the one’s that survived up to the present time are the ones that are most survivable – but that is akin to the tautology: The ones that survived are the ones that survived: “[A] considerable part of Darwin’s theory is not … an empirical theory but is akin to a logical truism” (Objective Knowledge, Chap. II, §16).

One can make the same point from another direction. Although Darwinian evolutionary theory claims it can explain why the African lion survived and its large saber-toothed competitors did not, consider the following thought experiment. Suppose that Darwin is magically transported back to the African plains 1-2 million years ago and provided with an exhaustive list of the facts on the ground about the various competing big cats in existence at the time. Popper points out that even if Darwin were given that knowledge, there is no way he could, with his theory of “the survival of the fittest,” have predicted which of these species of big cats would survive into the 20th century!   Darwin would have wait, with the rest of us, to see that it was actually the African lion that survived, at which point it would be declared, on that basis, to be “the fittest.” But that is no explanation whatsoever. It is just a coronation after the fact.

For this reason, there is no way to show that Darwinian evolutionary theory is false. Since Darwinian evolutionary theory cannot make any predictions, none of its predictions can be falsified … and that is very convenient. Since Darwinian evolutionary theory confines itself to “explaining” known facts, it can never be wrong in claiming that this known animal (e.g., the African lion) is the fittest. But, of course, it is!  It is the one that survived. Further, since explanation and prediction are the two sides of the same coin, and since Darwinian evolutionary theory cannot predict anything, it cannot actually explain anything either. Its purported “explanations” are the result of a “rigged game” in which it already knows the correct answer (the African lion is the one that survived). Thus, a big part of Darwinian evolutionary theory is a logical truism, the ones that survived are the ones that survived, disguised as a scientific theory.

Popper claims that something similar is true of Freudian psychology. For example, Freud purports to explain S’s frozen arm as the consequence of repressed sexual trauma in S’s childhood. In fact, however, Freud’s theory explains nothing. Consider the following thought-experiment. Suppose Freud is presented with a young child, S*, who we know has just now, today, suffered sexual trauma. Can Freud predict whether S*, when they have reached 20 years of age, will present neurotic symptoms and, if so, what form these will take?

The answer is obviously “No!” First, since neurotic symptoms take a plethora of forms, and since Freud cannot formulate any psychological laws that correlate specific forms of sexual abuse with specific symptoms, he cannot predict whether S* when adult will have a frozen arm, or a fear of intimacy, or insomnia, or constant headaches, or agoraphobia, or fear of the dark, etc. Second, Freud cannot even predict whether S* will display any neurotic symptoms at all in adulthood because, on his view, it is possible that S*’s repression mechanisms will prevent any neurotic symptoms from becoming manifest by any given time. Just as Darwinian evolutionary theory can only say which species is most “fit” after the fact, that is, after evolution has declared the winners, so too Freud can only claim to be able to explain neurotic symptoms after the fact. That is, only after S presents the frozen arm can Freud claim to be able to explain that it is the result of repressed sexual trauma in childhood – but he could not have predicted the frozen arm in advance! 

Further, if one were to present Freud with a child S* that his just suffered sexual trauma in the present, he can predict nothing about S*’s future development. He cannot predict which neurotic symptoms they will have. He cannot even predict that they will have any neurotic symptoms at all because their “repression mechanism” might suppress any symptoms. Freud’s theory is another example of a theory that purports to be able to explain everything but can predict nothing, and that, for Popper, is the hallmark of a pseudo-scientific theory.

Further, since Freud’s theory purports to be able to explain everything, but can predict nothing, it is compatible with all possible outcomes. It is compatible with the view that when S* reaches adulthood they have a frozen arm, but it is also compatible with the view that when S* reaches adulthood they do not have a frozen arm. It is compatible with the view that when S*reaches adulthood they will suffer from agoraphobia, but it is compatible with the view that when S*reaches adulthood they do not have agoraphobia, and so on.

In fact, Freud’s theory is compatible with the view that when S* reaches adulthood it has no neurotic symptoms whatsoever. Freud’s theory, like Darwinian Evolutionary theory, is unfalsifiable. This is concealed by the fact that Freud already knows the outcome, the frozen arm, before he purports to provide the “explanation” for it!  But he could not have predicted it in advance. Since explanation and prediction are the two logical sides of the same coin, Freud cannot actually explain nothing. Freud tells an interesting and compelling story about neuroses and sexual trauma, but he is not doing science. The following section argues that Marxism suffers from defects similar to those in Darwinian evolutionary theory and Freudian psychology.


VI. Marxism As Pseudo-Science

The reason why Marxism fails the falsifiability criterion is somewhat different from the reasons why Darwinian evolutionary theory and Freudian psychology fail it. Recall that Marx holds that the “historicist” view that human society, beginning with feudalism, necessary develops in a certain specific predictable way, specifically, that feudalism necessarily breaks down into capitalism, which necessarily breaks down into socialism, which necessarily devolves into full-fledged communism. Further, Marx holds that these successive breakdowns occur in a specific order. First, one cannot skip a step. Second, the breakdown of any form, e.g., capitalism, happens when it is at is most advanced stage. Specifically, Marx, predicted that the socialist revolution would occur in England first and that it would not occur in feudal Russia.

Unlike Darwinian evolutionary theory and Freudian psychology which cannot make predictions at all, Marxism does make predictions. Marx does not wait until capitalism falls into socialism and say, after the fact, “See, I told you so.” Marx predicts the collapse of capitalism into socialism in advance. This is the sort of risky prediction that for Popper is the hallmark of genuine science.

Thus, the problem with Marxism does not lie in the logical structure of the theory. The problem with Marxism is that when these Marxist predictions fail to come true, which they virtually always do, Marxists refuse to acknowledge this failure and make ad hoc hypotheses designed for the sole purpose of saving their cherished theory. For example, whereas Marxism predicts that the socialist revolution will occur first in the most developed capitalist country, England, and not in the still feudal country, Russia, the revolution actually occurred first in Russia and has still, to this day, not occurred in England.

Thus, Marxism got two of its central predictions wrong. A genuine scientist, like Einstein, faced with two major failed predictions, would have gone back to the drawing board and either abandoned the theory altogether or at least made major revisions to it.

To take just one example, when the socialist revolution occurred first in Russia, where Marxism states that it will not occur, Marxists have claimed that the revolution occurred first in Russia because of the great genius of Vladimir Lenin who understood where the historical dialectic was heading and was, therefore, able to push it along a bit faster than it would normally have gone. Unfortunately, the whole point of Marxism, without which it fails to have any predictive power at all, is that the historical dialectic cannot be influenced by individual human beings.

Thus, this “hypothesis,” that it was Lenin’s unique genius that enabled Russia to skip directly from feudalism to socialism, without going through the capitalist stage, is an ad hoc (after the fact) hypothesis designed to save original Marxism from falsification. To put it in the most basic terms, the Marxists, faced with falsifying observations, cheat to save their cherished theory. Faced with the choice between their cherished theory and reality, Marxists by and large choose their theory and give up on reality.

The consequences of the decision to eschew reality can be seen in Marxist countries, like the Soviet Union, Cuba and Venezuela, around the world.
It is an interesting question why Marxists, as opposed, for example, to physicists or chemists, tend to cheat on this scale to save their pet theories. However, only a few brief remarks can be made here.

The reason why Marxists tend to cheat to save their cherished theory of historical development from falsification is that Marxism, dealing as it does with things that people value very much (e.g., socialism over capitalism, the comforting belief in the possibility of a utopian socialist “brotherhood” in which everyone is absolutely equal, etc.) readily changes from a purported scientific theory to an ideology believed with all fervor of a religious dogma. In this way, Marxists transformed their purported scientific theory into a matter of faith (and there is no end to the irony in that).

Asserting that “the workers of the world” would rise up in a socialist revolution to take down capitalism was changed from a scientific prediction into a religious ritual. In order to be accepted into the in-crowd of caring “woke” Marxist utopians one is required to chant such lyrics in unison and human nature being what it is, there is no end to the number of people willing to sing along in order to be accepted into the “woke” in-crowd.

In summary, Darwinian evolutionary theory, Freudian psychology and Marxism all turn out to be unfalsifiable pseudo-sciences, but for different reasons. Whereas it is in the nature of Darwinian evolutionary theory and Freudian psychology to be unfalsifiable, Marxist “historicism,” as originally articulated by Marx, is, at least potentially, a genuine falsifiable scientific theory. But Marxism was transformed from a genuine science to a pseudo-science when Marx’s major predictions turned out to be false and Marxists chose the comfort of their own tailor-made quasi-religious faith to the trials and tribulations, but also the wonder, of reality.


VII. Einstein’s Example

Since it might be difficult to obtain an overview of the abstruse philosophical arguments of the preceding four sections (III-VI) about the distinction between genuine scientific theories and pseudo-scientific theories, one might illustrate Popper’s central insight in the following easy to understand way. Popper was extremely impressed with Einstein as an example of a genuine scientist to contrast with pseudo-scientists like astrologists, Freudians, Adlerians, Darwinian evolutionary theorists and Marxists. The pseudo-scientists typically put forward some theory Fx and set out to verify their theory. The schema should now be familiar:

Theory Tx → Fx.
Fx is observed.
Therefore, Tx is verified.

However, since, as Popper points out, verifications for one’s favored theories can easily be found, it is not surprising that the pseudo-scientists typically find that their theories are verified. By contrast, Einstein, a genuine scientist, looked at his theories in precisely the opposite way. Popper puts it this way in Unended Quest, §9):

If somebody proposed a scientific theory, he [or she] should answer, as Einstein did, the question: ‘Under what conditions would I admit that my theory is untenable?’ In other words, what conceivable facts would I accept as refutations, or falsifications, of my theory?

That is, instead of trying to verify his own theories, Einstein tries to specify the conditions that would falsify his theory and then attempts to falsify it. This leads directly to Popper’s main idea: What is important about a theory, what gives it its “empirical content,” is not what it rules in, not what “verifies” it, but what it rules out; what, if observed, would falsify it.

Once again, it is very easy to find things that verify a given theory, e.g., all of Freud’s patients who were very happy by Freud’s diagnosis of the sources of their neurosis. But what gives a scientific theory empirical content is not that it can produce verifications, many of which are “safe,” but that it makes risky predictions that, if these turn out to be false, refute the theory. Freud’s hysteric patients, the African lion, and the fact that a revolutionary banner is flying somewhere in London in 1848 do seem to verify, respectively, Freud’s theory, Darwinian evolutionary theory, and Marx’s theory of historical development.

But, Popper argues, verifications are cheap. The genuine scientist, like Einstein, asks what would falsify their theory and then they try to falsify it. When one genuinely tries to falsify a theory Tx and fails, one has the right to count Tx, not as a verified theory, but as an unfalsified conjecture. Indeed, part of the significance of the title to Popper’s excellent book, Conjectures and Refutations, is that we should replace talk about “verified theories” with talk about “conjectures that have not been refuted yet.” The “yet” is important. For this fosters an undogmatic attitude in science.


VIII. Critical Rationalism And An “Open Society”

Popper develops his notion of falsifiability specifically in connection with the philosophy of science. His aim is to demarcate genuine scientific theories like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity from pseudo-scientific theories like Marxism and Freudian psychology. However, Popper aims to expand his anti-dogmatism from scientific reasoning to all reasoning. This, he holds, is justified because, as he states in the Preface to the first English edition of The Logic of Scientific Discovery, scientific reasoning is a kind of paradigm of all of our different kinds of reasoning: “The growth of knowledge can be studied best by studying the growth of scientific knowledge.” Thus, Popper aims to extend his falsifiabilty criterion, by analogy, to reasoning in philosophy, religion, morals, aesthetics, etc. Obviously, one cannot require that these mostly non-empirical theories and views are empirically falsifiable. However, one can require that theories and views in each of these areas is open to continual criticism.

In order to ensure that this critical spirit is preserved one requires what Popper calls an “open society” rather than a closed one, that is, 1) a society that honors and cultivates problem solving, 2) a society that promotes bold risky theorizing accompanied by unfettered criticism, and, equally importantly, 3) a society that permits the possibility of genuine change as the result of that criticism.

In his 1994 book All Life Is Problem Solving, Popper argued that modern Western liberal democracies are the closest approximation we have yet found to open societies and he defended them as “the best of all political worlds of whose existence we have any historical knowledge.” The value of these open liberal democracies lies primarily in their ideal of individual freedom and ability to peacefully self-correct over time.

Other philosophers, J. S. Mill, etc., have defended the liberal democracies, but Popper grounds his defence of these systems of government in his epistemological views, specifically in his concept of critical rationalism, which, in turn, is grounded in his account of scientific reasoning as problem solving by means of trial and error, what Popper recasts as “conjecture and refutation.”

The United States, which Popper much admired in the 1950’s for its cultivation of individuality and freedom, has, until recently, aspired to the idea of an “open society.” Unfortunately, both elected and unelected individuals who believe, apparently, that they have some privileged access to the truth and some greater claim to morality than ordinary citizens have begun censoring people, including the elected president of the United States, with whom they disagree (or, perhaps, to be more precise, people who stand in the way of their unfettered accumulation of wealth and power).

One might believe that the United States, with its “Bill of Rights,” its first and second amendments to the constitution, the hallmarks of a free self-governing people, and its traditions of tolerance and respect for others can never turn into a dictatorship. However, as Popper, who had to flee Austria during the rise of Nazism knew only too well, one can never be complacent, for “dictatorship can happen anywhere.” The following section discusses what Popper saw as the two main intellectual threats to an “Open Society.”


IX. The Two Intellectual Threats To An Open Society: “Historicism” And “Holism”

In the Introduction to the 2012 edition of The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper begins by describing the fragility of our own short lived Western “open society:”

[This book] sketches some of the difficulties faced by our civilization—a civilization that… [aims] at humanness and reasonableness, at equality and freedom; a civilization that is still, as it were, in its infancy, and which still continues to grow and despite the fact that it has so often been betrayed by so many of the intellectual leaders of mankind. It attempts to show that this civilization has not yet recovered from the shock of its birth—the transition from the tribal or ‘closed’ society, with its submission to magical forces, to the ‘open’ society, which sets free the critical powers of man. It attempts to show that the shock of this transition is one of the factors that have made possible the rise of reactionary movements [that try to] overthrow civilization and return to tribalism. [The book] suggests that what we now call totalitarianism belongs to a tradition that is just as old, or just as young, as civilization itself… It tries thereby to contribute to our understanding of totalitarianism, and of the significance of the perennial fight against it.”

Popper warns that the citizens in the Western democracies take much in our “open” rational Western civilizations for granted and fail to appreciate how fragile it is, how easily it could fall back into the magical thinking and totalitarianism of the closed societies from which it so recently emerged. In Chapter 5 he describes the nature of these “closed” societies in greater detail:

It is one of the characteristics of the magical attitude of a primitive tribal or “closed” society that it lives in a charmed circle of unchanging taboos of laws and customs which are felt to be as inevitable as the rising of the sun, or the cycle of the seasons, or similar obvious regularities of nature. And it is only after this magical “closed society” has broken down that the theoretical understanding of the difference between nature and “society” can develop.

According to Popper, “historicism” and “holism” are the two main intellectual currents in the modern world that attempt to return us to such a comforting “magical ‘closed society’” of “inevitable” totalitarian and tribal laws and customs. Both of these tendencies are exemplified in Marx’s claim to have discovered the “laws of economic motion” that govern human history.

The particular “laws of economic motion” that Marx purports to have discovered tell us that human history is moving inevitably, just like the inexorable natural cycle of the seasons, towards the triumph of the ultimate tribe, the charmed circle” of the “chosen people,” an abstract communist brotherhood (updated recently to include an absolutely equal sisterhood as well that Marx, in what Kierkegaard might call a moment of “world-historical absent-mindedness,” himself forgot to mention at the time), chosen, not by fallible human beings, but by the cosmic historical dialectic itself (the closest thing to a God that remains after the grand “scientific” historicist purge).

The greatest virtue (if one may still be permitted to speak of virtues) of this magical historical dialectic is that the human beings that survive it are relieved of the burden of being free individuals existing in and for themselves by being reduced to a “comrade,” a member, just like any other, of the abstract historically chosen brotherhood and sisterhood. Should one be curious about what individuality means for Marx one will be disappointed. The notion of individuality only occurs once in the one thousand and eighty-four pages of Volume 1 of the 1990 edition of Capital, and that not in the work itself, but in the Preface to the first edition. Marx there explains that “individuals are dealt with here only insofar as they are the personification of economic categories, the bearers [Träger] of particular class-relations and interests” and goes on to add that his standpoint, “less than any other [can] make the individual responsible for [class] relations whose creature he remains…” One must read the last clause carefully, Marx holds that the individual remains “the creature” of [class] relations” for which he is not responsible, or, as Popper might put it, Marx holds that the individual remains “submitted” to magical forces that are, in a “primitive tribal or ‘closed’ society,” seen as just as inevitable as the natural cycles. That is, Popper sees Marxism as a return, under the guise of a new “science,” to the magical fortune-telling of totalitarian tribal primitivism.

For Popper, it is no more a surprise that Marx’s predictions failed to come true than that the primitive shaman’s prediction about the future of the tribe based on his reading of the cracks in a tortoise shell fail to come true. For, there are no secret cycles of history accessible to primitive shamans and Marxists. It is worth pointing out that Popper also sees Freudianism as a return to this same primitive magical thinking based on belief in insight into the secret cycles of history (sexual trauma in child is causally linked to neurosis in adults – but don’t ask for any precisely formulated laws linking the two because the link can only be glimpsed by the well-paid shaman sitting beside the paying patient on the couch). Since, however, Marx’s magical mode of thinking is our main subject here, Popper’s more detailed critique of Freud’s brand of fortune-telling must be left for another occasion.

Popper’s basic argument against all species of historicism, given in schematic form in the Preface to his The Poverty of Historicism, is that since it is impossible to predict the future growth of human knowledge (because, roughly, that would require one to know something before one knows it), and since the growth of human knowledge has a major influence on the development of human history, it is literally impossible to predict the future course of human history (as Marx and other “historicists” purport to do).

The failure of Malthus’ prediction about the inevitability of mass starvation in England illustrates Popper’s point. For, there is no way Malthus could know on the basis of the scientific knowledge of his day how the future growth of human knowledge would enable human beings to avoid his dire predictions.

The failure of Marx’s prediction of the necessary collapse of capitalism into socialism is another. For there is simply no way Marx could know on the basis of the scientific knowledge of his day how the future growth of human knowledge would enable human beings to modify their institutions to escape the collapse of capitalism. There is, for example, no way he could know that capitalism would produce so much wealth that the worker and capitalist classes would begin to merge, thereby defusing the antagonism between them.

Astonishingly, “historicists” in general forget the mundane fact that human beings can actually learn new things that enable them to change the course of their history. Human beings are not termites that build their castle to the cycle of the seasons. Indeed, it is the ability to learn new things and take one’s destiny in one’s own hands that distinguishes the emergence of human civilization from blind nature.

Popper holds that “historicism” is a threat to an “open society” because historicists tell people that their future is not in their hands but is already determined by the great impersonal forces of history. That is, if the collapse of capitalism and rise of socialism and communism is inevitable, why should one fight to save capitalism? Similarly, since capitalism is doomed by virtue of Marx’s “economic laws of motion,” why should one not help hasten its demise in order to usher in the inevitable glorious era of socialism and communism?

Since socialism and communism are “necessarily” coming anyways, it is much better, not to mention more healthy and more profitable, to be on “the right side of history” (much better to be one of the comrades in the communist Ministry of Truth than one of the dissidents in a gulag), but to know what “the right side of history” is one must consult the right shaman or Marxist. It is just a shame that history shows that Marxists and other shamans regularly get their predictions wrong.

Similarly, “holism” (or collectivism) also tells people that their nature and destiny are not in their own individual hands, not something for which Marx’s “creatures” are individually responsible, but something that is only determined by the whole collective. In Marx’s version of “holism,” the whole is one’s “class” (defined solely in economic terms). Thus, in a capitalist society, one is either, with a few exceptions, a member of the “worker” class or the “capitalist” class which are, according to Marxist edicts, by their very nature, “antagonistic” to each other. As Marx states in “The Coming Upheaval” (excerpted from the end of his The Poverty of Philosophy), the worker’s class “constitutes itself as a class for itself,” which means that the worker’s interests are its “class interests” (period).

Consider, for example, a hypothetical worker Mary. Since Mary’s interests are her “class interests” and since the worker’s class is intrinsically “constituted for itself” against an antagonistic class of capitalists, Mary’s interests are reduced to her working classes struggle with the capitalist class – whether Mary likes it or not. For example, Mary, left to her own individual devices, might not have any intrinsic antagonism towards capitalists. In fact, a capitalist, Rob, gave Mary her job. The two might actually, on the personal level, like and admire each other. However, Marx’s holism, his communism, refuses to see Mary as anything other than an abstract representative of the working class (“the personification of economic categories”). Thus, any possibility of a mutually beneficial relationship between Mary and Rob is verboten. For the great historical dialectic has determined that Mary must be intrinsically antagonistic to Rob. There is no point resisting this class antagonism because it is a necessary consequence of the great impersonal economic forces of history.

Thus, in the same document, Marx asks, “[I]s it at all surprising that a society founded on opposition of classes against classes should culminate in brutal ‘contradiction’, the shock of body against body [violence], as a final dénouement?” Too bad for Mary and Bob, both of whom, had they been free to be themselves, might have been quite happy together!

It is also worth pointing out that Marx’s theoretical assertion of the necessity of violence (“brutal… shock of body against body”) between the different classes can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, teaching that class war is necessary to generations of students can lead to the creation of conflict where none need exist.

After all, if Marxian “science” states that Z, as a worker, is intrinsically antagonistic to members of the capitalist class, then Z is likely to cultivate such antagonisms where none need exist. Why should Z not cultivate these antagonisms? Z is taught that they are written into the structure of the cosmos. It could be, therefore, that the class war is inevitable, not because of Marx’s great impersonal forces of history, but because indoctrinating generation after generation of students with these radical theories instills these antagonisms in people that might otherwise have learned to work together to solve problems.

The primitive, magical, tribal belief that there is a necessary antagonism between the different classes, not Marx’s fictitious “laws of economic motion,” itself makes the destructive cycle of class struggles inevitable. Eldridge Cleaver, a violent socialist, communist and Marxist in his youth, eventually saw through this self-destructive policy and joined his capitalist benefactors.

It is noteworthy that Marx sees his theory of dialectical materialism as a “scientific” antidote to the magical religious superstitions of the past. In his commentary on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx describes religion, which he aims to replace by his “science” of dialectical materialism, as “the opiate of the masses.” Popper holds that the shoe is on the other foot. That is, Popper sees Marxism (and Freudianism) as a return to the magical tribal superstitions of the “closed” totalitarian tribes of the primitive past.

These kinds of tribal superstitions are seductive for just that reason. Since the human race has only recently escaped its tribal totalitarian past with its seductive magical thinking, the egg-shells of those primitive beliefs still cling to human society. Since, however, the human race has acquired the beginnings of critical rationality, these old magical ways of thinking can only be revived if they are cloaked in the guise of science. Since no genuine scientist could possibly confirm the magical connections conjured by Marx and Freud, it must be a new kind of science, not like Newton’s or Einstein’s genuine testable sciences, but an unfalsifiable science that resembles a new religious dogma.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons that Marxism is so hostile to religion. For Marxism and religion are competitors. Specifically, Marxism is attempting to occupy the position formerly held by theistic religions like Christianity. Marxism is the translation, so to speak, of the theistic salvation story into a purely “materialistic” medium. The Christian’s spiritual pilgrimage through the trials and temptations of human life is replaced by the dialectical advance through the trials and temptations of capitalism.

When, in a footnote to the end of Chapter 32 of Capital, Marx describes the “proletariat” (the working class) “alone” as the “really revolutionary class,” he is describing the group redeemer sent by the inexorable dialectical process to save humanity from its capitalist sinners. The spiritual heaven, the absolute unitary whole of God’s kingdom that awaits devout Christians in the afterlife, is replaced by the unitary whole of the communist paradise at Marx’s “end of history.” This is Christian eschatology (the “end of times” story) translated into Marx’s materialist terms. The absolute truth of the Christian story of salvation is replaced by the absolute laws and cycles of history as consecrated by the new unfalsifiable “science” of dialectical materialism, the closest thing to a “God” remains for completely material (economic) beings. There is no use resisting the inexorable (“necessary”) laws of dialectical materialism for the same reason there is no use resisting the Almighty in heaven. For neither can be resisted. Marxism is cosmic totalitarianism made (pseudo) “scientific” as a new opiate for the “materialist” masses to replace the religious views it attempts to replace.


X. Popper’s Ideal Of Socratic Humility

This article begins by noting the totalitarianism currently overtaking society in the United States, the ignorant angry snarling mobs of children at Evergreen University and other universities around the country threatening their teachers and administrators, the censorship of conservatives and the President of the United States by all-knowing leftist tech billionaires, the Lilliputian members of the “news” media whose shows with their tiny arrows more resemble Saturday Night Live than they do a genuine “news” shows, the “cancel culture” that is so afraid of hearing an opposing view that, like the old Soviet Union, it “disappears” people that might hurt its feelings, the return to tribalism in “identity politics” that divides people into antagonistic camps based on their skin color, gender, ethnicity, etc., the calls by transparent partisans about setting up a Ministry of Truth to enlist government power, Soviet-style, to impose their views on the oppressed masses, the unfalsifiable (and, in fact, unformulable) assertions of “white privilege” and “systemic racism,” and other recently popular forms of magical thinking used to bully people into submission, etc.

Popper formulated his criterion of falsifiability in his philosophy of science, and, later, his more general notion of “critical rationalism,” in order to enable one to distinguish genuine rational thinking from just these sorts of dogmatic nonsense. Unfortunately, fed by the decay of rational standards in our universities led by Marxists and other tribalists and shamans, all these lessons have been lost in the rush to the bottom. Talk of “rational standards” has become mere words, quickly sacrificed to the emotional cause du jour. As Popper, who lived through a similar national psychosis once before and had to flee Austria because of it, knew, there is literally no way that this ends well.

There is no better way to understand Popper’s anti-dogmatic ideal than to realize that although Popper opposed Plato, who he saw as one of the greatest dogmatists of all time, he considered himself as a disciple of Plato’s teacher, Socrates:

The encounter with Marxism was one of the main events of my intellectual development. It taught me a number of lessons I have never forgotten. It taught me the wisdom of the Socratic saying, “I know that I do not know.” It made me a fallibilist, and impressed on me the value of intellectual modesty. And it made me most conscious of the difference between dogmatic and critical thinking (Unended Quest, §8).

One often thinks of Socrates and Plato as virtually indistinguishable because Plato is Socrates’ most famous student and because we know most of what we know about Socrates from Plato. However, there are some respects in which the two appear to be virtually opposites. Whereas Plato, in his Republic, outlines a very totalitarian political system in which certain views, even lies (“noble lies”) are enforced by the state, Socrates, as reported in Plato’s Apology (21d), taught the opposite, that human wisdom consists in one thing only, that one knows that one knows nothing. Socrates in that passage also adds that wisdom consists in humility before God.

Popper’s entire mission is best understood as a call to return to the humble wisdom of the Socratic ideal. He implies this on the very first page of his Unended Quest where he explains how he became “a disciple of Socrates.” The students at our universities who think they know something because they have taken a course, or read a book, or attended some lectures, or acquired a degree, the Lilliputians in big tech and the mainstream “news” media who have somehow acquired the idea that their huge bank accounts somehow imbues them with genuine philosophic wisdom, many of our “educators” and politicians who are blinded by the sin of pride that, unfortunately, seem to infect these professions, and many others that, similarly, have no sense whatsoever of their own great limitations, could benefit by lesson in Socratic humility.

Perhaps every people need a Socrates to make them examine themselves but ours more than most. For acquiring genuine wisdom about the great issues of human life requires a kind of commitment and personal sacrifice, and the humility that only one who makes that kind of commitment and sacrifice can understand, that, as Plato’s brother Glaucon, puts it in the Republic (450b): [F]or intelligent people, “the proper measure of listening to such arguments is a whole life.”


Richard McDonough is the author of two books, numerous articles, encyclopedia and dictionary entries, and book reviews. He has taught previously at Bates College, the National University of Singpaore, the University of Tulsa, the University Putra Malaysia, the Overseas Family College, the PSB Academy, the University of Maryland, the Arium Academy, and James Cook University. In addition to philosophy, he has taught psychology, physics, humanities and writing courses.


The featured image shows, “View on L’Étang-la-Ville from the ruelle de la Coulette,” by Be de Waard, date unknown.