Words like these, I think, are very hopeful. It is worthwhile — not in vain — to seek the truth. To be honest about the hard “facts of life” and one’s self. And in thinking that your truly seeking it will be of benefit to others as well. Even as, of course, all of this is not easy. Again, I share one of my favorite quotes from E.F. Schumacher (from his his 1977 book Guide for the Perplexed):
Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127 (listen to this gentlemen eloquently express much the same idea)
To my knowledge, Schumacher identified as a Christian believer, and here, I note, his words seem very compatible with the general account of the world that Christians tell (i.e. creation, fall, the desperate need for wisdom, redemption, salvation). That said, since the revolution of “postmodernism” even wise words like Schumacher’s seem too certain. And here, I try to push back:
When the influential Richard Rorty defined truth as “what our peers will let us get away with saying”, how does this not, in effect, make truth liable to being nothing more than a power play for one’s advantage? From which it follows that it is really true (!) that it is ultimately only things that overpower other things that can be said to exist – to be. This certainly puts a new spin on what Aristotle said about truth, namely that “to say that which is, is and that which is not is not, is true”! With this assumed, the best among us can only be those who take – and lead – leaps of faith into oceans, hoping that the evolving beliefs we think are “good” – and not just our genes – will be spread and passed on. Here, any classical notions of knowledge as “justified true belief” are banished, as whatever can function to win, if only temporarily, is all that remains for us to hope in. On the other hand, what if what we ultimately need is just such knowledge… and real wisdom… perhaps even involving a truth that even goes beyond “accuracy” – implying perhaps even a goodness that goes beyond our own subjective impressions? (comments from my paper published in the Christian Librarian).
I thought that was a well-thought-out way of challenging the postmodernist and those with postmodernist sympathies. But perhaps I largely missed the point. After all, sometimes we become convinced that winning is important — maybe even more so in an age where people are not as sure about their ability to agree with others about what is right! Why do so many continue to act as confidently as they do, taking the actions they do, trying to accomplish what they think must get done? Just ressentiment, power, selfishness… with no concerns about real justice? It seems wrong to think this… Rather, it is because they are confident, more or less so, that they are being true, right — even if, for them, what is “right” is always changing. Therefore, keeping in mind this practical concern with morale….
Many contemporary elites do, of course, believe that the matter of ethics is a completely contingent matter – they think we human beings could have been very different than what we are and, of course, that we are still changing (not to mention variations on themes found in different cultures). For example, persons of a more “progressive” mindset, influenced by Hegelian philosophy (whether they know it or not), see the matter of seeking justice very differently from, for example, those influenced by more classical notions of Christianity.
In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “[progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… [Today,] we are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (1909, p. 195). Of course, the more knowledgeable among non-Christians realize, en route to the positive change they seek, that building up morale through what can only be called lies and half-truths will eventually backfire. At the same time, it seems that for the Hegelian mind it is basically only a matter of time and right circumstances that determine whether we can make something that is evolving/emerging true – that we can “get away with it,” as Richard Rorty would say. In other words, going back to Chesterton, they alter the ideal, and then follow up by altering the real too (for more on these kinds of questions, see Haugaard M. (2012), “Power and truth”, European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 15 No 1, pp. 73-92).
Knowledge certainly does have a very dynamic aspect – for Plato, for example, it is always “solid” in the Heavenly Forms but, significantly, here on earth our ideas can be quite off, as we struggle with the Shadows. This, of course, is taken to new levels with Hegel (where there cannot be a statement made by human beings that is true by itself and that endures throughout time). The core idea here is that Laws, Forms, or the Ideal to which we are grasping might not change, but our interpretations of them — as elites get both more educated and smarter — does. For example, our past representations of some forms (e.g. marriage, father, mother, male, female, etc.), it is reasoned, were evidently off as we, under less reasonable influences, misinterpreted the Appearances.
But now, we are being enlightened, pulled along by Something, helping us get on “the right side of history.” Even postmodernists find themselves talking this way because they to have teleological impulses that sync with stable (for the moment!) notions of right and wrong that should be expected from all.** They must, because they are human beings. Even if one is uncertain about their views, traditional notions of law — based on Christian ideas — must be updated and/or replaced. In other words, they might not be certain about Right and Wrong, but they are confident enough about what they don’t respect and appreciate to act. And it seems to me that any conservatives looking to Plato who want to say there is some permanence in the world — and not just in the heavens — are absolutely helpless in light of this. For permanence is the illusion of the Appearances, and Hegel, bolstered of course by Galileo, Darwin, etc. rules the day (see * below). What is deemed credible by majorities or those able to influence them is “true”.
At the same time, what if they can only alter the real so much (perhaps, at least to the extent that it can be done by changing laws and mores), given the presence of things that one can’t not notice and must notice? And things that, in truth, will not alter their being — what they, in fact, are — for them?
In other words, there is a key question here not asked much today: How much do core things we can’t get away from basically stay the same?…
This idea of presence and presences does not fit with the modern elite mindset which makes interpretation (or hermeneutics) — and evolving interpretation — king of all. Modern philosophers who want to put in a word for permanence often seem to believe that Hegel’s steamroller cannot — and should not? — be stopped, but perhaps only slowed down (to prevent backlashes, “reality bouncing back,” etc). After all, Aristotle’s idea that some things and the world are eternal no longer seem credible at all… Likewise, for many, the teachings of the Bible which speak of stable realities and truths.*** They therefore try to salvage some permanence not via a defend-able principle, but simply because they feel they must. Simply to prevent chaos. Hence, Hans Gumbrecht:
“What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”. To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become synonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves. We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot” (Gumbrecht, Production of Presence, pp. 53 and 54).
So is it, fundamentally, dogmatic understandings that are responsible for human conflict? What if, instead, uncertainty about too many things – especially those things seemingly most precious to all human beings – is to blame for exacerbating the problems caused by our more base impulses as human beings?
Definitions, seemingly, are “up for grabs” like never before: What is a human being? A man or a woman? What is a father? A mother? Who do children “belong” to? What is marriage? What is justice indeed? What indeed, is guilt if the old saws don’t seem to get to me like they once did? Even if one thinks that things like this point to desirable changes, what, overall, might be the wider implications of such rapid-fire change?
The phrase “words only have the power you give them,” might be of encouragement when an individual is trying to downplay the effect of words which, in fact, hurt. At the same time, it is disconcerting to think that there are groups with influence or power that think they can make certain determinations about hitherto-considered-stable concepts – whenever they are able to “get away with it” – and that there is no power or reality recognized by them that might make what used to think were “our words,” once again, have something in common….
What is left when even the most socially conservative of secularists cannot affirm, in the end, any rationale higher than the “human dignity of autonomous choice” (see, for example, the perceptive comments made about George Will here)? How is this not also, though perhaps more slowly, swept up into Hegel’s Mind devoted to understanding and managing constant instability? How is this not a recipe for despair – for a kind of diversity which is, at bottom, disastrous?
*In “conservative” forms of historicism, things in the cosmos (“realism”) and/or in the transcendent realms (“Platonism”) exist, but are not the focus of the philosophy. For a very helpful summary and unpacking of historicism, see my summary of Martin Noland’s PhD thesis here. Note these comments from Descarte’s nemesis, Vico: “Abstract, or general truths are eternal; concrete or specific ones change momentarily from truths to untruths. Eternal truths stand above nature; in nature, instead, everything is unstable, mutable. But congruity exists between goodness and truth; they partake of the same essence, of the same qualities…” (p. 96) Also, this comment from Wayne Hudson, in his recent article, “Theology and historicism”, thesis eleven 116(1) 19-39, 2013: “Put bluntly, it is not clear why…. recurrent structural features should not also be historicized if things change in the course of history as much as historicists suggest. Conversely, if things do not change that much, then historicizing may have limited applications in other areas as well.”
**A friend notes: “There are people who will tell you that their own deeply held moral convictions are simply epiphenomena of their own evolution, upbringing, and personal interest. They are “a law unto their own selves” not just practically, but theoretically too. And even while fighting and killing for their own view of the world, they may frankly consider it to be an amoral conflict, nothing but survival of the fittest.” My response is that persons like this are few and far between but even they will not be content to keep this belief to themselves. Rather, they want to be seen as moral: to be known as those who are courageous (still, what is the standard?) and someone who lives honestly (i.e. they don’t lie about what is, to themselves, etc. – this is necessarily a standard that is not just about their own measures also!). And of course (I say this as an added bonus) even if they are total evolution-driven nihilists, they will not want friends who, when they ask them practical questions, continually insist that none of us can really begin to know anything about objective reality – particularly when we make careful and disciplined efforts to do so.
***Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.” More from Noland: “In summary, historicism was both a worldview and a method. As a worldview, it was identified with anti-naturalist and post-speculative realist perspectives, emphasizing the themes of the malleability of human nature and individuality. As a method, it operated with the principles of criticism, analogy, correlation, development, and the historical idea.” (p. 83) It also “looks at the world from the standpoint of intellectual, spiritual, and psychological entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all natural phenomena as a cultural growth. Unlike the model of Newtonian science, which posited the fixed nature of entities and the mathematical description of processes, historicism recognizes that entities change and develop over the course of time. Such change of an entity, requiring a historical account of its origin and growth, is thus the root issue dividing naturalism and historicism. (p. 47)”
****from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGMKnG2yEc8: The Shulman Lectures, “All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present”