Save Us VI: How to Save Ourselves, Research Time, 17/12/2015

His argument that Modernity is essentially a worldview of total relativism and the impossibility of truth lays down precisely the role Leo Strauss will play in my Utopias manuscript. The symbol of the fear of humanity's smallness.

Steve Fuller and I may fight a lot, and snark at each other on Twitter, and got into quite a few philosophical dustups over the course of the longest book review ever written. But he taught me a valuable lesson about medieval Christian philosophy, theology, and culture.

Happy Xmas, everybody.
He taught me that this was a culture that believed the entire universe to be an open book. We just had to figure out the right way to read it. Nature is God’s expression, analogous to the Bible and the life of Jesus. Just as we become more divine by understanding the Bible and Jesus' life, we become more divine by understanding nature.

Metaphors and religion aside. Human knowledge is capable of understanding the universe. We just have to figure out the best methods and frameworks to do so. 

I say there can be many such methods and frameworks. They can vary by context, or what particular problems have to be solved, or some other fulcrum. Maybe we’ll drop some or add some or transform some over the years. Maybe we’ll discover that some need to be combined, or some need to be fragmented. 

The universe is really complex. We change and it changes. Our modes of knowing change as we better understand what we apply them to, and they change as we adapt to changing conditions in the world. But we can know it.

When I dropped the “metaphors and religion” there, I took you to my philosophical perspective about knowledge and the universe. This optimistic, practical, adaptable pluralism about knowledge is basically Gilles Deleuze’s solution to the problem of relativism.*

* The historical chain goes like this, very roughly. 1) Medieval theology: God made the world and made us to understand it. 2) Modernity: Human knowledge’s pinnacle is the absolute. 3) Post-modernity: There’s no absolute, and therefore no true knowledge. 4) Pragmatism: A form of knowledge is valid if it achieves the results we want. 5) Speculative Pragmatism: Knowledge has many forms and applications, and is valid if it helps us understand the world.

As for Strauss? He’s a retrograde. But an excellent representative of retrograde thinkers everywhere who think no knowledge is valid unless it expresses at least some of THE absolute. Basically, either religious or secular people whose only standard for valid knowledge is a religious or secular version of Category 1 or 2 above.

But Strauss is even more extreme, which makes his argument in Natural Right and History even more useful to me rhetorically. Because his analysis of Thomas Hobbes’ mechanistic view of reality centres the relativism that he thinks destroys knowledge in modernity itself, he can function as the ultimate conservative.

I fully admit this might be a ridiculous metaphor that
won't help anyone understand what I mean at all.
He and Heidegger both become – if you’ll let me make a completely weird metaphor that may not make any sense at all –  these weird neutron stars of arch-conservatism in the Utopias book. They emit totally different kinds of signals that resonate in a weird way, which expresses the same conclusion.

Only a god can save us. Either the universe itself changes, and takes us along with it, so that human nature becomes less destructive – God intervenes to save us. Or we return to a universal belief in a divine natural law that grounds the eternally true rights of man – we submit entirely to God to save ourselves. 

Modernity turns from this. As does liberalism, the definitive political philosophy of modernity. Liberalism is inadequate in many ways. Most notably in our current economic politics, its extreme individualism makes us hostile to our ethical obligations toward each other. 

In that, we have to move beyond traditional liberalism, to preserve its virtues like freedom of speech and thought, and the ideals of democracy, while overcoming its deficiencies.

And in this broader context about truth, knowledge, and our relation to the divine, we should be thankful for another aspect of liberalism, the West's first philosophy of freedom. 

I say Strauss feared humanity's smallness because of his presumption that human knowledge needs a divine or eternal ground (absolute and universal human rights, in the case of what I've been reading in Natural Right and History) to be valid. Without access to the eternal, we're eternally small, insignificant, and ignorant.

Modernity is the cultural way of thinking about ourselves as not really needing that eternal grounding. Knowledge can grow and progress. In giving us the tools to understand ourselves as free, liberal thinking gave us the ability to free ourselves from our limitations.

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