Who Can Determine a Whole Culture? Research Time, 29/10/2015

Let’s look at this problem of fate again. Who we are depends on where and when we were born and raised. It’s not controversial to say that a wealthy man from Kolkata will have a different personality (and positionality) than a poor woman from Namibia or a working-class trans man from Toronto.

The problem of fate for our moral thinking goes deeper than personality. Leo Strauss gets so steamed with the social sciences because he sees what its historicism implies for thinking. 

Our place in culture and history determines the limits of our cognition. They make up the horizon of what we can even conceive. Historicism, as he understands it, means that what each of us can think about coherently is beyond our control. 

Is a world without absolute universals really a world
with nothing to believe in? I don't think the contingency
of reality needs to make us nihilists.
Because our culture determines the horizon of our thinking without any input from us, Strauss worries that total cultural relativism about moral and political values will result. It’s a nihilist’s world.

But there’s a limit to Strauss’ influential conception of historicism. It comes out of his own writing – against what Strauss himself believes – when he starts a long discussion of Max Weber.

Weber is one of the Big Three of the foundation of sociology.* Strauss was delivering the lectures that became Natural Right and History in the 1950s. You engage the fundamentals of Weber’s thinking, it means you’re engaging the fundamentals of the whole social science field.

* Say it with me everybody: Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber.

So Strauss talks about Weber’s key idea that social actions and changes are all constituted by individual agency alone. A society isn’t an entity with its own agency, but the accumulated acts of everyone in it.

Today, we know what that sounds like. It’s a chaotic system where a lot of individual units behave in ways that look unified, controlled as a whole. But they’re the much more complex causes of an aggregate.

When the whole is a culture, individuals determine what happens at the social level. Yet textbook cultural relativism implies that the society as a whole has all the agency over an individual. 

But this still works with Strauss’ worst notions of historicism, relativism, nihilism. Not some monolith like Society™, but all your ancestors’ and community members’ thoughts and actions make the fixed limit to your own thinking.

I’m not yet sure where Strauss is going with this. I’ve only read a little bit into this chapter so far, so I’m just explaining the idea and where I stand in relation to it. But this is how my ideas on it are shaping up. 

A philosophical inspiration to us all.
The real counterweight to this picture of historicism as nihilism comes from a simple fact. Social change is real. It takes time for the change to become comprehensive, but a culture’s attitudes and ideas change over time. If the horizons of our thinking are fixed by our ancestors and community, then each of us would be copies of the past. Social change would be impossible.

And social change clearly comes from individuals. Just roll with Weber’s idea that only individuals – acting in unplanned, messy aggregate – have agency in society. So individual activity prompts and leads social change. 

Each of us has the power, as individuals, to change how we think and understand the world. We can change those limits of our conception, figure out new possibilities for existence itself. 

Strauss says that philosophy is the search for wisdom, and he considers that wisdom the correct answers to universal metaphysical and moral questions. I say philosophy is the tradition of thinking of new ways to think. Social change in the mind before it proliferates through the world. Free your mind and your ass will follow.

Our motivations for agitating for social change might include fidelity to some moral value you consider universal. It might not. Unlike what Strauss believes, you don’t need a universal truth to motivate changing your society in a more just direction.

The quest for justice comes from a realization that anyone can have at anytime. Something is wrong. Something has gone wrong. Something is not working. We must repair it.

1 comment:

  1. I do agree with you about individuals having agency to cause social change. We aren't just passive blank slates at the mercy of our circumstances. I have another reason for believing it though. I think the technology, moral values, and ideas that we develop are actually discovered as if they are some form of "genetic knowledge", emergent properties of the human psyche, the imagination, and that social change happens whenever we have an "ah-ha" moment.