Mapping Thought II: Can the Ideal Save Us? Research Time, 24/04/2018

So that's a look at the history of philosophy. What about the philosophy of history? A concept develops in response to a particular, singular problem as it arises in human society. The concept itself then develops historical power.

We don’t often think of concepts as having historical, material power. It’s an unfortunate tendency of the way the Western tradition of thought has separated thinking and the mental from the material, physical world of institutions and acts. But concepts do have material power.

Concepts are the components of people’s education and socialization. Let’s go back to our example from yesterday, the concept of the social contract.* It’s a concept, and so a matter of thought. But it’s thought that guides action in a very complex, profound way.

Does the violence of revolution overcome our ideals of freedom,
even as it overcomes whether we can actually use that revolution
to achieve anything like freedom in our own lives?
* There’s going to be a pretty intense interrogation of the concept of social contract, particularly its authoritarian characters, in Utopias. Not sure where in the book I’ll put it.

As a concept that sits at the heart of so many approaches to political thinking throughout the Western tradition, the different iterations of and approaches to the concept affect how we think about our relations to each other and to our state institutions.

Those thoughts inspire our actions. More than that, they drive our actions from central locations in our understanding of our social world.

Now I want to ask one more question – Do our concepts still have value when the events and movements they inspire become violent, corrupt, or self-destructive?

I’m going to step my example away from the social contract, and toward the more general concept of freedom. Freedom is a concept that means a lot of things to a lot of people, and has over centuries – And I’m just restricting my thinking in this case to my general knowledge of the Western tradition, what I know best.

Horrifying things have been done in the name of freedom. A contemporary example is Operation Iraqi Freedom. A classic example is the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was the subject of speculation by some of the leading philosophers of the time, who became some of the most influential philosophers down to the present day. So those complex examinations and investigations of the French Revolution have incredible influence on the Western tradition of philosophy as it stands today.

Because the truth is, just like the absurdity of a popular heartthrob like
1950s Marlon Brando playing Napoleon, the political events that saw
imperialism and wars of conquest emerge from the French Revolution
were contingent events. It need not have happened that way. Every
material event need not have happened that way, and only did
because of a complex interplay of events and relationships. The
slightest disturbance in this networks can have massive effects. So
should we resign ourselves to the fragility of our ideals? Or hold
onto them because that possibility of real success always remains?
The problem is that the event itself betrayed its motivating concept. The French Revolution was the successful overthrow of an absolutist monarchy in favour of a system of government that was more accountable to ordinary people. But the revolution itself quickly descended into the first major purge of modernism. The Terror was the assembly line of execution that continued for years after the overthrow of the monarchy.

Beyond this, within a decade, France was ruled again by a dictator. Napoleon was something of an improvement over the decadent, incompetent monarchy of Louis XVI, in that he actually introduced a system of law that governed even the practice of the state. Civil law was an improvement. The attempt to conquer Europe and the Mediterranean coast of Africa, not so much.

The same is true for so many other revolutions and revolutionary periods in politics. Civil war and Stalin’s system of governance by secret police destroyed any potential for genuine freedom to come from the Russian revolution, for example.

Same goes for the absolute dictatorship of Fidel Castro, the corruption of the United States with slavery and its cultural legacy, the revolutions of Simón Bolívar, José de San Martin, and Bernardo O’Higgins that descended into squabbles among warlords, and the deranged mass mobilization schemes of Mao Zedong, among many others. Revolutions in the name of freedom either fell into corruption or were quickly overcome by revanchist reactions.

So what’s the good of revolution? Paul Patton’s answer, riffing on the concepts of Gilles Deleuze, was the preservation of the idea of freedom. The total realization of the ideal freedom in the world is impossible, just as no one ever really signs a social contract. But the idea, the concept itself, is its own reason for existing – to inspire us to fight the reactionary forces that would take even our partial freedom away from us.

Is that alone worth it? I don’t know.

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