Making a Tradition of Yourself, Composing, 26/01/2017

There’s plenty I find really fruitful for political and moral philosophy in Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem. I’m not even really sure where to start.

Most obvious at the moment are the political principles. Right now, in my research for Utopias, I’m looking in classical eras for theoretical resources. Drawing an inheritance of concepts for my own work that sits a little to the side of the typical mainstream.

The history of human ideas is a tangled, living library. The artist has
some very nice sci-fi landscapes.
A typical approach that a lot of philosophers have when they tackle current political problems, is to draw on the concepts of figures from farther back in history.

For instance, you want to understand the roiling, chaotic, frightening political turmoil of contemporary America under the Trump Presidency. Excellent – You’re not the only one. So you go to the source that may inspire your own thinking, or which has an immense influence in the field you work most in.

One of the first go-to figures is Immanuel Kant – alongside Aristotle, probably the most fundamental fulcrum in Western philosophy’s development. Also known for a substantial, and equally influential approach to moral and political thought. Why not start there? It’s obvious, isn’t it?

So you try to understand this intense problem in contemporary politics through the conceptual machinery in this noteworthy philosopher. Excellent – I hope we can learn a lot.

But I have my suspicions. The problem with returning to mainstream texts in the tradition is precisely that they’re mainstream. Now, I’m not about to become some kind of hipster of the history of philosophy.* But a suspicion about the relation between the widely-known ideas of a widely-known text, and the currents of wider culture.

* Not to say that I’ve never been one myself. Even a little.

A philosophical concept doesn’t become massively influential without having touched on some important aspect of its time – culturally and politically. It’s in dialogue with the world around it, influencing that world, and being influenced by it. So a concept that hits it big expresses a cultural theme that many disparate events seem to express as well.

For example, when I went back to Kant, I didn’t necessarily go back to his most typical ideas for moral and ethical thinking – the categorical imperative, what’s broadly called deontology.

For one thing, it might end up being bad history – Kant himself wouldn’t necessarily have been a Kantian, and might not even have considered himself a deontologist about morality.

But as far as I’m concerned, I wanted to find a few different ideas because I wanted to find a counterweight to the mainstream. The problem with concepts that connect sharply with mainstream thinking is this – What if the mainstream is the problem?

If you're wondering whether it's ethically right to punch Nazis, the
answer is a resounding yes. 1) Because alt-right goons threaten and
harass people continually themselves, and 2) Those who want to
destroy democracy must not be given a democratic platform if
that democracy is to survive their assault on it.
What if you’re trying to work out some concepts, ideas, and strategies for critiquing the mainstream? If your point is to find alternatives to a mainstream that isn’t going in good directions. That might be heading for violence on very large scales.

Violence for which concepts of nationhood, belonging, and ethnic-cultural conformity provide very explicit motives. So when I find a lot of the groundwork for this thinking in the presumptions and framework principles of how Kant writes about politics, I’m going to find my inspirations in different places.

The historical aspects of Utopias – at least its explicitly political sections – will go through two parallel routes. On the one hand, there’s sketching the origin of dangerous conceptions of race, ethnicity, state power, and the hierarchy of peoples, which lie at the heart of the terrifying disasters of Western history.

On the other hand, there’s the more important history that I’ll be making. Plucking concepts and thinkers that have offered alternatives to these mainstream ideas. They might not have been picked up at the time, but maybe they can provide some ideas and lessons for the concepts needed for our era.

I’m not making a point that this counter-tradition is an explicit project unfolding throughout history. I don’t know if Antonios Negri or Gramsci drew on Mendelssohn’s thought or Jerusalem in particular. And for how I’m approaching history, I don’t have to care. I’m not doing a scholarly history here. I’m using history to help me through a contemporary problem.

When Utopias gets into history, I won’t be commenting on an already-existing tradition. I’ll be weaving a tradition out of my own inheritance of ideas.

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