A Science of Humanity III: Only the Eternal, Research Time, 27/10/2015

When I was a grad student, I'd meet people who thought
philosophers came up with trippy, strange ideas. That
we were essentially professionalized hippies who
could explore the astral plane in thought. They were
always a little disappointed when I'd tell them how
sober, technical, and reserved most writing in
academic philosophy was.
Continued from last post . . . What is truth? It’s a question that can only be taken seriously when you mock it. “What is truth, man?” he said between puffs on his joint. Ask this question in a serious tone and you don’t sound like a reasonable person. You sound like a pretentious philosophy student.

I say student because, as I worked my way through the academy of university philosophy, you never heard the experienced, long-tenured profs speak this way. Their questions were always about Thinker X’s conception of truth, or comparing different isms about the nature of truth. It was good scholarship, but not innovative philosophy.

The students were no better. I’m counting myself among them, the kids who asked profound questions that they didn’t even know how to think about. After ten years of studying the tradition and writing books and articles that contribute to this tradition, I’ve still only just figured out how to ask the question thoughtfully.

You’ve got to know your way around that question – What is truth? – if you want to understand the most profound way Strauss got his hate on for sociology. Same with the rest of modern conservatism. 

Theirs is a very old-fashioned concept of truth that roots the true in the eternal. If a principle is true, it must be true eternally. Or else it’s meaningless.

The question gets appropriately profound when Leo Strauss asks about the truth of political principles – questions of natural human rights. The first major chapter of his Natural Right and History confronts historicism about political rights. 

His description of historicism: Because different cultures and eras hold different political principles, there’s no true natural right aside from these contingent shared beliefs. No universal standard of human rights. 
“There cannot be natural rights if there are no immutable principles of justice, but history shows us that all principles of justice are mutable.”
Strauss doesn’t say their names, but it’s clear to someone who knows their ideas that when he’s talking about the endgame of historicism, he’s talking about existentialism.

If Martin Heidegger is one of your
philosophical enemies, then you have
good taste in villains.
Mostly Heidegger, because of the brutal results of having your existence entirely determined by a fate beyond your control. You can’t control where and when you pop into being. So you can’t control what culture you’ll have. 

If you can’t control what culture you’ll have, then you can’t control what rights and principles will be universal truths to you. There were only two possible reactions to realizing this fact of your existence.

1) Embrace your contingent, happenstance existence for all it’s worth and dive in to whatever set of ideas drives your culture in your era.

2) Fight against the happenstance nature of your life, and live in angst trying to find space for genuine, meaningful choice. Individually, maybe through trying to live your life on your own terms. As a group or a society, building networks and friendships that resist mainstream trends. 

Strauss mostly talks about option one. Martin Heidegger was his most profound opponent, philosophically. I’m not sure how much Jean-Paul Sartre, who gets the most credit for option two, figured on his radar.

Embracing your contingent fate means that you entirely give in to whatever beliefs about rights and justice your culture finds intuitive. You don’t believe in a standard of justice that transcends what a given culture finds instinctual at a given time. 

If you believe in a universal standard of justice at all, it’s because you’ve uncritically accepted your culture’s intuitive beliefs. If you’re lucky, as Heidegger believed himself to be, you’re born in a culture whose intuitive philosophical orientations let him conceive of the contingent nature of human fate at all. 

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to conceive of the emptiness of universal concepts of justice. Strauss won’t stand for this. He won’t give up on the philosophical tradition’s quest to discover universal standards of justice. 

It's not to Strauss' credit that he seems to ignore Jean-Paul
Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir. Their existentialism
foregrounded human freedom and political action,
whether for his anti-capitalist social justice vision, or
her critical feminist priorities.
Existentialist philosophy is, for Strauss, only the most extreme and clear form of the historicist beliefs that dominated philosophy after Hegel and the social sciences that developed in the second half of the 19th century. The historicist frameworks of social sciences make them a factor that will inevitably obscure the search for universal justice.

But you don’t have to get stuck in the Strauss-Heidegger impasse. Believe in transcendent eternal truths of morality, justice, and politics. Believe in the historical contingency of all human existence, thought, and ideals. With all their problems. 

Or choose another way.

I think about the truths of justice ecologically instead of humanistically. We don’t need a set of rights that applies eternally, because no set of human rights claims will make sense in a world without humans. 

Human cultures have a lot of variant principles, and figuring out which principles of justice we should hold is a matter of figuring out which principles and demands for justice define our time. 

Underneath all that variation are some invariant truths about the human need to be happy, sheltered, joyful, and loved. In all the variety of human culture, we should strive to achieve that one common ground.

No comments:

Post a Comment