Friday, February 22, 2013

The Philosophy of Culture and the Liberty Movement

In recent years, there has been a perceived effort on the part of Conservatives to identify what they mean by liberty in the intention of the Founding Fathers while simultaneously reading into this "liberty narrative" that policies of the Obama Administration transgress personal liberty. For this reason, liberty activists legitimize their own ideology by emphasizing they are more genuinely faithful to founding principles of the United States than those that disagree with them. The Students for Liberty are organizing conferences about liberty, and the Institute for Humane Studies is closely linked with them. Furthermore, the IHS think tank has generated concern in the profession of philosophy at large. Recall this discussion at Leiter's blog.

I wish to take aim at the "interpretive story" surrounding what I call liberty activists. These people are uncritically Lockean and while I have made this criticism in other venues, I think there is a tension what a proper philosophy of culture or philosophical anthropology would say to someone committed to this antiquated view of Locke and the 17th century. What these liberty activists accept uncritically is that the individual is a wholly formed autonomous rights-holder with an a priori personality. This individual thesis holds that characteristics of the individual are already attached to the individual and that all relationships are incidental to the atomistic individual. Most noticeably, 17th century social contract theorists assume the individual within the state of nature as the starting point of how they legitimate political authority. Jefferson inherited this conception of the individual from Locke, and the Conservatives appropriate Locke's skepticism about government in general.

If these liberty activists, which includes libertarians, Randians and Austrian School enthusiasts to name but a few, all adopt a view of the self as an atomic individual and that view is metaphysically nonexistent, then liberty activists are in trouble conceptually. They are basing an entire worldview on an illusion. The three main conceptual features of this liberty activist worldview are very reliant upon the ontological existence of the individual thus considered.

A) S is an individual only insofar as S is created by God.
B) If S is created, then S is entitled the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
C) States are created to protect the natural rights of S.

I wish to suggest a remedy to this worldview. The reason why the view of the individual is so thin is that liberty activists define what a human being is only in reference to the exercise of personal liberty. The thinness corresponds to the lack of a philosophy of culture/philosophical anthropology surrounding the depth of the analysis of humankind in the social sciences more generally, but for now this critique is only focused on the liberty activists assumption about individuals. As such, I see two questions necessary for the liberty activist to answer:

1. What is the essence and meaning of man? 

This involves the ontology of what human beings are. This question takes up our relation to others, God and the lifeworld. The latter is the overlap with the next question.

Primarily, this question addresses the ontological underpinnings of supplying an answer to what a self is in a larger context than simply the narrow ontological explorations of philosophy of mind. However, a 21st century would include the ontological explorations of philosophy of mind for a fully-integrated view.

2. What is the essence and meaning of culture? 

As the Germans did at the end of and into the beginning of the 20th century, all the social scientists (and this includes the economists) would offer a view as to what the essence and meaning of culture is. Max Weber is the prime example of someone aware of the acute forces at work culturally upon people with the publication of his 1904 The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Ferdinand Tonnies, a German sociologist, analyzed social groupings with a view to culture. Max Scheler, the renowned philosopher, also invented the sociology of knowledge. Thus, economic science is identified as taking place in a horizon of historical forces that come to determine the expression of the human being and her place in culture. Even a remote sensitivity to what it means to be human embedded in a cultural horizon would conclude that some ontogenesis of forces are at work upon the individual. We are not simply born in a vacuum, and the accounting for the individual is rather complex.

As is pretty evident, American social science did not evolve into exploring these questions. In fact, they went in a different direction. American social science studies the thin individual and the thin structural features that constitute a lack of understanding questions 1 and 2. Is it no wonder that conservative intellectuals in their want to celebrate American individualism in the Founding Fathers would find the same thinly veiled deception of the individual in its Lockean determination in the 18th century so appealing?

Why These Two Questions, Why Not Something Else?

Simple. Every social scientific interpretation that informs the value judgments typical of liberty activists relies on a set of implicit assumptions and the way in which these implicit assumptions shape subsequent inferences can be more truthfully brought to life. These questions force the social scientist and liberty activist to be honest about the depth and range of what is being talked about. In truth, this limitation is true of all social scientists, and any behaviorism adopted for analysis is simply the avoidance of thinking through 1 and 2.

By celebrating the thin individual as never having its origin in the mutual interdependency of others, the liberty activist is exposed. They are basing their entire system of thought on a shoddy metaphysical illusion. The purpose of this thin self is to promote two myths: the myth of the self-made man and the myth that being responsible for one's fate can be determined by doing work. Both of these myths can readily be dispensed with a modicum of self-reflection.

The self-made man is the same ontological view of the individual found in what I cited as the outmoded Lockean conception. The atomistic individual is solely responsible for her own fate. As such, if she is poor, suffering and down on her luck, she is eminently responsible. Nietzsche profoundly talked about a similar structure. In Christianity, we are made to think of ourselves as responsible for our own sinful nature. Though in asking someone to be responsible for something they clearly cannot control, the Christian is at odds with what it means to be responsible. We become self-deceived. Following Kant, we can say that we should only be responsible for what we can do. This insight is often claimed as "Ought implies Can." The same applies to being poor. The poor and the vulnerable are not responsible for the systemic forces that often overdetermine the possibilities they can actualize, and sensitivity to this insight does not delimit the individual from optimally maximizing what they can given what little they can.

The immediate objection to my denial of austere freedom inherent in the atomic individual would be to restate it boldly and confidently. A person can work themselves to a higher position. In some cases, this claim is true. However, the work on social mobility in the United States would firmly deny that we can be uber-responsible for a fate we cannot largely control. Moreover, the only recourse of the liberty activist is to then again assert the love of liberty, which attempts to make us responsible for our own success even though the forces conducive to that success are somewhat more determined than we would like to think. Capitalism requires the belief in meritocracy. If I start a business, I have a chance of being successful. While this claim can be true, the virtue of meritocracy is rather to promote a self-deception on the part of those have-nots who must be exploited for the maintenance of the wealthy. These have-nots will never question the self-reinforcing ideology liberty activists do not want questioned. For the most part, liberty-activists already come from money (all one has to do is following the money for the IHS and one finds the Koch brothers) and their possession of that wealth is predicated on a myth that they were solely responsible for their success and wealth. The mutual interdependency of communal forces had nothing to do with it. If they made it on their own, then they are simultaneously devoid of any responsibility for charity and to others. See how this myth of the individual plays out here.

Let me start to draw this post to a close. I will summarize my efforts thus far. First, I identified the philosophical underpinnings of the ontology of the individual appropriated from Locke. I argued that this view is suffuse in what I called the liberty activists, and this view of the human being is common to all species of liberty activists: Randians, Austrian economic enthusiasts, libertarians and American conservatives. While I do not take the theses up in any focused way, liberty activists are committed to this view in three ways: A, B, and C. In considering their commitment to A, B, and C, I offered a diagnosis as to why this is the case. I argued that a view of the thin individual can be mitigated by promoting the philosophy of culture and philosophical anthropology to underlie future efforts of looking at A, B, and C. A common feature of liberty activists shared with other social scientists is a lack of considering what human beings are and the meaning and essence of culture. I do not wish to advance any particular answers to these questions, but only to point out that the error of liberty activists might be avoided if they were suitably engaged with concepts that actually map onto reality.

Next, I argued there are two crucial myths that underlie why such a thin and over simplistic view of the individual: the myth of the self-made man and the myth of work. The latter comes out of the former. I make an argument of analogy of the self-made man to Nietzsche's analysis of sin. Both involve the strange self-deception that one is responsible for one's fate entirely even though there are forces at work that the individual cannot control, yet the individual is made to think they can control their fate. By extension that one may work to confer benefit upon their social standing is more illusory than real. Hence, these two myths help proffer the deception that capitalism is good for anybody, but in truth is more fixed than we would like to admit. In failing to admit this, proponents of capitalism continue to praise the system that benefits them through a fetishizing of "liberty" and the metaphysically absurd view of human beings common to the 17th century.

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