Monday, June 18, 2012

Conservatism Using 20th Century Ideas

For years I've been wondering how we get past the banalities of the liberal welfare state and develop a new basis for a free society.

But I've felt for years that the solution is not just imposing a conservative ideology, especially an ideology based on the pre-Kantians like Locke and Hume.  No, we must justify a new birth of freedom on the philosophizing and the thinking of the last century, not the 17th century.

That's a problem for a conservative because almost all the advanced thinking of the last century has been lefty thinking.  Yet, I felt, the only way to persuade our liberal friends that their unjust welfare state was an abomination would be to show how their own thinkers point to a world beyond the top-down bureaucratic state run by and for the educated elite.

It wouldn't hurt if it were German thinkers that would get us out of the mess. After all, it was they--Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx--that got us into it.

Central to the whole problem, for me, was the problem of understanding what on earth philosophy in the 20th century was all about.  Fortunately for my sanity, in the last year I have finally realized what was going on.  It was J├╝rgen Habermas that gave me the clue.  Here he is at the beginning of Volume Two of The Theory of Communicative Action.
Early in the twentieth century, the subject-object model of the philosophy of consciousness was attacked on two fronts--by the analytic philosophy of language and by the psychological theory of behavior.[my emphasis]
Instead of "self-knowledge, reflection, or instrospection" thinkers worked from "linguistic expressions or observed behavior" and did not appeal to intuition.

OK?  So what does all that Teutonic mush add up to?  Just to this.  When Descartes wrote "I Think therefore I am" and invented the modern idea of the "ego," he was talking baloney, because to articulate the ideas "I think" and "I am" you must first have language.  In other words, we develop our self-consciousness from the language in which we communicate to other people.  There is no "I" without a "You".  There is no "ego" without an "alter".  That is what Wittgenstein meant when he wrote that there is no "private language."  Language is something you do with someone else.

This is a momentous discovery, because it demolishes, e.g., the opposition between individualism and community.  Why?  Well, on the philosophy of language, the idea of the individual, me, is impossible without another individual, you.  Therefore I and You form a community.  There is no such thing as a mountain man utterly separate from human community.  The proof is Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.  He might have hid himself away in a hut, but he longed to communicate with the world, and he did, with his manifesto.  His thinking would have been a lot better if he had communicated with the outside world and aligned his fantastic world with the real, social world.

The word that Habermas uses for the shared world of I and You is "lifeworld."  He means the shared assumptions about the "always already" stock of shared knowledge and assumptions between any two  people or any group of people in the world.  He got to that idea from the problem raised by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment.  These Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany came to the view that reason is about domination.  We use reason to dominate nature and other humans. "What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men." This applies to capitalism, they reasoned, and also government.

So how do we get away from pure domination and into a less exploitative relation with our fellow humans?  We get away from the philosophy of consciousness and its focus on I, I, I, and start thinking in terms of a philosophy of language, of we, we, we.

To do this, Habermas differentiates the experience of the world into three: the objective world, the social world, and the subjective world.  His idea of communicative action "relies upon a cooperative process of interpretation in which participants relate simultaneously to something in the objective, the social and the subjective worlds".   Reality is not just me and my thoughts, as rectified by experience and experiment.  Reality is mediated also by social interaction--conversation with other humans.

There is nothing in conservatism that does not align with this idea of reality.  Our whole world view is founded upon the ideas of Edmund Burke and the "little platoon," the person to person negotiation of the lifeworld.  Capitalism too is understood by this view, for it is the moment to moment negotiation of making and serving and selling and buying from person to person, using the objective world, relying on subjective ideas, and testing them in the social world of the market.

But the liberal welfare state and its bureaucracies are built upon the restriction and the marginalization of the social world.  The liberal welfare state is 2,000 page bills setting forth the inflexible objective rules for behavior and interaction.  There is no room for a "cooperative process," no room for "we," nothing left of humans as social animals.

I ask you: What will our liberal friends do when we come at them with a conservatism built upon the latest ideas from the 20th century and the philosophy of language?

The answer is: They will not know what to do, because their whole world will seem to be collapsing around them in ruins.

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