More on ‘Bad Philosophy’

Over at Porphyrogenitus, Porphy (we’re e-mail friends, so I can call him that) has a long and link-filled post on the roots of what he sees as the modern kulturkampf. While I don’t quite agree with the place (on the right wing) where he stands to make this point, I think he lays out a fairly good description of the array of intellectual parents responsible for “Bad Philosophy”, and of some of the sociology that underpins its promulgation.

Intellectual life doesn’t take place in a vacuum; to borrow from Newton, intellectuals all stand on each other’s shoulders. People being human and fallible, they are picky both of whom them allow to stand on their own shoulders, and of whose shoulders they stand upon.

Readers of Thomas Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” will see this as a familiar process, in which socially accepted constructs – “paradigms” mature, evolve, and occasionally collapse, through an essentially social process.

The social process Porphy focuses on is the process whereby academic ideas become “normal” and accepted, and the ways in which their holders defend themselves against new and different ideas. He looks intently at issues of language, and so I’ll go back to a great article by Stephen Hicks on “Free Speech and Postmodernism” (I was pointed there by Arthur Silber via Instapundit). In the article, Hicks says:

What we have then are two positions about the nature of speech. The postmodernists say: Speech is a weapon in the conflict between groups that are unequal. And that is diametrically opposed to the liberal view of speech, which says: Speech is a tool of cognition and communication for individuals who are free.
If we adopt the first statement, then the solution is going to be some form of enforced altruism, under which we redistribute speech in order to protect the harmed, weaker groups. If the stronger, white males have speech tools they can use to the detriment of the other groups, then don’t let them use those speech tools. Generate a list of denigrating words that harm members of the other groups and prohibit members of the powerful groups from using them. Don’t let them use the words that reinforce their own racism and sexism, and don’t let them use words that make members of other groups feel threatened. Eliminating those speech advantages will reconstruct our social reality—which is the same goal as affirmative action.

A striking consequence of this analysis is that the toleration of “anything goes” in speech becomes censorship. The postmodern argument implies that if anything goes, then that gives permission to the dominant groups to keep on saying the things that keep the subordinate groups in their place. Liberalism thus means helping to silence the subordinate groups and letting only the dominant groups have effective speech. Postmodern speech codes, therefore, are not censorship but a form of liberation – they liberate the subordinated groups from the punishing and silencing effects of the powerful groups’ speech, and they provide an atmosphere in which the previously subordinated groups can express themselves. Speech codes equalize the playing field.

I still find Objectivism kind of silly, but think this is one of the most incisive descriptions of the “speech and tolerance” issue that I’ve ever read, and believe that resolving this key issue…the place and power of speech and freedom of thought…is going to be the key battle in the War on Bad Philosophy.

Note that simply defeating the post-modern model isn’t an accurate reflection of my own views on where we should go. These are complicated, and as of now, still ill-thought through. Paradigms change for a reason, Kuhn suggests, and the insular paradigms of the ‘modern’ 1950’s changed because they couldn’t readily absorb racial or sexual equality as well as a host of other changes which were brought by the 60’s and 70’s and which I see as of value.

(note that I posted earlier on the Hicks article at Armed Liberal)

8 thoughts on “More on ‘Bad Philosophy’”

  1. My problem is twofold (actually, I’m sure folks can identify other problems I have, but I’m speaking in regards to this subject):

    1) I knew when I wrote the post that it could be criticized or dismissed (which you don’t do, but others might) on the grounds that its critique is from the Right, with sources almost exclusively from the Right (I note in passing that what you consider the most incisive description of the matter at hand is from a source derived from a viewpoint that is also generally considered on the Right).

    I’m largely unaware of, and think there is a great gap, in critiques of the philosophical roots of “Bad Philosophy” from moderate or (especially) Liberal positions. Which is ironic considering that in actuality the principle targets of this movement, that we both oppose, have foremost been Liberal ones (some Liberals, “Scoop Jackson” type Liberals, did confront this, but most of them, at least most of the ones I’m aware of, ended up being cast into the Outer Darkness and are now associated with Conservatism or “Neo-Conservatism” as a consequence).

    The best effort from a Liberal “place” that I’m aware of is Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Disuniting of America”, which is (IMO) a very good critique of one intellectual consequence/derivation of this movement, but which ultimately does not aknowledge/recognize, much less confront, the source or the larger ideology and its dogmas. Thus it is really in a way a critique of one of the symptoms rather than of a cause (but it’s very good for a short work – but, again unfortunately, as far as I’m aware of Schlesinger did not continue to pursue that line of scholarship).

    Perhaps this is just a gap in my knowledge. I would (and I’m sincere here, not trying to score a rhetorical point) be very much interested in links to Liberal critiques of the Frankfurt School’s intellectual vision (now I will, though, go for a rhetorical point – my direct familiarity with Adorno’s “The Authoritarian Personality” was in a class taught by a Professor, in a class on American Political Science, who – the Professor – was, I would say, a very mainstream Liberal – not a Marxist – who assigned the text and lectured on it rather uncritically; a method that is not by any means wrong but which does show, IMO, how these guys were and are able to take advantage of the fact that many decent Liberals do not want to be seen as giving credence to what they think are criticisms originating from the Right by expressing criticisms of their own).

    Thus, IMO, by these types of means, a lot of Liberal institutions found it very hard to defend themselves (as predicted by the originators of the Frankfort School, despite all their blathering about what a “repressive” society this was they counted on its open-mindedness in advancing their cause) from essentially having the Leftist “tail” wag them.

    2) My second problem will take less space to express and it is related to the final paragraph in the above; while by no means sharing Buchananite ideology, I am pessimistic – I do not believe this problem will be overcome by the means available to a classically Liberal society like our own (argumentation, persuasion, and the like), and would not support other means of defeating it (the “War on Bad Philosophy” abroad may actually be the easier one to win than the internal one, the “Pan-Western Culture War”). So I have analysis and description and critique but lack solutions.

    Ironically, even though I am unapologetically conservative (of the Hayekian type, even though Hayek himself rejected the lable “conservative”, like others who resisted that he was pushed, essentially, into the conservative camp), I think the solution might have to come from (actual) Liberals (such as yourself) asserting themselves and confronting the non-Liberals masquerading in their own institutions (or our own institutions, but ones largely associated with Liberalism). But I don’t see that happening on a wide scale any time soon, and even if it did, again, I’m not sure how it can successfully be done in a way that adheres to the principles we hold dear.

    (I guess this #2 wasn’t as short as I thought it would be).

    Barring that, I think we’re looking at a long-term problem (where “long-term” is defined in Civilizational terms) and the best we can hope for is sort of like the image of midieval monks – preserve a “saving remnant” that can be used to rekindle the flame of liberty and (classical and otherwise) liberal society at some point in the future, after the Gramscian paradigm has attained power fully – that is, the last stage, overt control over political institutions, and burned itself out in a way that IMO will not be all that different from how Stalinist Marxism burned itself out (but remembering that it was given external pushes that assisted, were vital in, toppling it; waiting till it went over of it’s own weight would likely have taken decades longer and thus resulted in even deeper societal damage).

    Myself I keep up my part because it’s a worthy effort even if it might be futile, and in the hopes that someone (or several someones) will see a solution where I do not. But I haven’t yet seen what I think would be an effective means of combatting and overcoming the procession of this paradigm (which, given the degree to which it’s adherents are impervious to empirical feedback, the Kunnian “collapse” will come only in a terminal stage, very late, when the corrosion is so severe that it imposes itself on things; that is, the danger is that by the time this paradigm collapses, it will do so only as the consequence of larger societal or civilizational collapse brought on as a result of the paradigm itself – in the way Thomas Sowell describes as the danger, in the quote from his book in my post). Civilizations have “a lot of ruin in them” (that is, they can take a lot of abuse and aren’t frail critters), and ours is pretty resilient. But nothing is impervious and it may be that the Frankfort School intellectuals and Gramsci identified a real opening to exploit – it’s almost ju-jitsu, in a way, using the very strength (the openness that, ironically, they claim does not exist in our society, the tolerance that, again, they claimed to not believe to be substantive in our society, and the like) of the liberal (small “l”) culture against it, in a way, as a means to (conciously and deliberately, if one reads their own writings) disolve and topple it.

    Again, I’d love to be wrong.

  2. Btw; I’m not exactly a prude and many of the critiques of “Bad Philosophy” from the Right have come from women (like Gertrude Himmelfarb, to name just one) who weren’t exactly the steriotypical image of ’50s June Cleaver Housefraus, and the long quote in my post are the words of a black man who was a Marxist in the ’50s (didn’t know Thomas Sowell had been a Marxist? I didn’t, either, till I read his book, “A Personal Odyssey”).

  3. No, I think you’re right, and that the group we’re both talking about has captured both the lecterns and levers of power of the Left in the U.S.

    Part of what I’m scratching toward is a “Reformation” for the Left, a coherent body of theory and arguments that are robust enough to stand against the pomo left, the new libertarians, and the right.

    It’s a task…

    A.L.

  4. A.L. –

    Resistance is futile. Return to the roots of liberalism, that which is now called “libertarian.”

    The Pomos are easy to beat out in the real world. All they have to offer is bluff disguised by cant. I have found the easiest way to deal with Pomos is to deny them the ability to discuss purely in terms of abstractions by confronting them with examples.

    “Oh, so no culture is inherently superior to another because the standards by which we judge other cultures are designed to empower ours and denigrate theirs. I suppose that female genital mutilation is just another cultural expression that we would be wrong to outlaw. Do you think it should be covered by insurance?”

    “Are there any grounds for cultures that hold that slavery is a proper expression of their superiority over more primitive tribes?”

    The shallowness of Pomo thinking is easily exposed by the complexity of the real world.

  5. Oops, should be:

    “Are there any grounds for criticizing cultures that hold that slavery is a proper expression of their superiority over more primitive tribes?”

  6. Porphyrogenitus,

    I disagree with your sense of pessimism regarding the power of what you call “Bad Philosophy” (and that I have called the hard left). I wrote an extended essay on the roots of the hard left perspective (in Rousseau’s critique of bourgeois society) over at WildMonk.net a few weeks back (search for “Cold War” to find the piece if you are interested). While it is framed in terms of foreign policy, it applies equally well to the internal cultural struggle.

    I think there is reason for optimism for two reasons. First, you worry that the liberal left has not developed philosophical antibodies to the hard left. You lament their assumption of the levers of power in key spots of the democratic party and in academia. To this extent, you are correct.

    But society as a whole *has* developed a philosophical resistance to these ideas. We see it in the rise of the blogosphere, the popularity of more conservative media outlets, and even in popular culture. We see it in the strong electoral advantage the Republicans enjoy over Democrats whenever a Democrat begins spouting the hard left line (Cynthia McKinney anyone?). Finally, we see it in the rise of alternative intellectual centers of power such as the conservative think-tanks. Which do you believe truly has more power – the Heritage Foundation or the Women’s Studies Department at Harvard?

    Furthermore, the arguments that you and others have made *are* being heard. I myself was quite deeply embedded in a hard left crew some years back and it took only a modest dose of real life experience for me to recognize the fundamental disconnect between the reality of American experience and the hard left descriptions of it. I remain committed to the ideals of liberalism that the hard left trades in but have come to recognize that the hard left is itself the biggest modern threat to those very ideals. I am not alone.

    Finally, Capitalism is itself a hard-assed beast. It has an amazing capacity to co-opt the forces that work against it; to assimilate them and render them impotent. I see little chance of it going willingly into that dark night.

    Best regards,

    Mark Brittingham

  7. I don’t understand Porphyrogenitus’ pessimism about a liberal society’s ability to resist Pomo bad philosophy. The free market is a very powerful force. There’s just two bits of enemy dogma that we need to overcome to get out of the apparent bind

    First is the standard intellectual’s trick of equating yanking their funding with censorship. It’s not. You have a right to say what you want, you do not have a right to my money to pay for your doing so. The absurdity of rich Hollywood types crying “censorship” when they don’t get an award is teaching this lesson very loudly and effectively. Free people have the right to withdraw support from that which they dislike.

    Second is the belief that certain institutions have to be reformed, and if we can’t reform them we’ll lose. Not so. Nobody is indespensible, and that goes for institutions too. That’s a lesson Bush is teaching the world right now, using the UN as his example. Those institutions that just can’t reform themselves will learn about “creative destruction” the hard way.

    Maybe there’s really no way for an institution like Columbia University to reform itself. But if dissatisfied customers withhold their support (i.e. students choose to go elsewhere, parents resist spending money on Pomo crap even if their kids want it, alumni start refusing to donate so long as anti-American professors are employed there – which is starting to happen) then they will have a choice: reform or die.

    Columbia is not Civilization. If they choose the latter, somebody else will buy their library and civilization will continue just fine.

    It’s kind of sad that the “Bad Philosophers” might destroy some famous old brand names (Harvard University, the New York Times, the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Democratic Party) but in the end it’s not a big deal.
    .

  8. What is difficult to understand for those immmeresed in thought and language is that even a wiff of classical 20th Century leftism is death these days.

    The left in America is dead.

    I was listening to a talk radio show today and heard a Democrat say she couldn’t stand the Democrat position on ANYTHING any more. The 9/11 attack and the war had cured her. At a practical level what used to be the left in America has lost it’s traction.

    I am working on a longer piece on the subject but let me give you the short version.

    Socialism/Marxism is DEAD. Pomo is just the florescense of the rot. It is not some new deadly version of the hated enemy. It is the result of decay.

    What we are seeing in politics is the calving of the iceberg of socialism from the body politic before it heads out to sea to melt away.

    What will be left is libertarian/liberal ideals on what will be the left/center and the cultural conservatives on the right.

    This is a HUGE shift in politics. It is plainly visible to any one who wishes to take notice but will not become obvious until after the next election. Even then what will be noticed is the demise of the Democrats. The rise of the libertarian center will take a bit longer to notice.

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