Vienna Forum 2010

Wystąpienie Prof. Ryszarda Legutki podczas Vienna Forum 2010 w kwietniu tego roku. Wystąpienie w języku angielskim.

Ryszard Legutko

The Philosophical Crisis of the West

We have been aware for a long timethat the west is in a state of philosophical crisis. The most eloquent expression of this awareness was in 1935, when Edmund Husserl published a book on this very subject and talked about the weariness or fatigue of the European spirit. We have lost our philosophical self-assurance, he said, and we are so over- preoccupied with nature and technology that we tend to forget the fundamental questions or dismiss them as insoluble, unanswerable and irrelevant.

What has happened since Husserl’s book? Not much in terms of the number of factors that accounted for his diagnosis of the philosophical crisis. However, the symptoms of the disease have become more acute, more widespread and more conspicuous. If I had to point to one factor which explains the acuteness of the present crisis, it would be our attitude of suspicion (sometimes taking the form of a hermeneutics of suspicion). Heavily influenced by Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and their modern followers – Derrida, Foucault, and a legion of others – we have grown to believe, much more than our predecessors, that ideas and arguments should not be judged by the criterion of truth and falsehood, but by their genealogy, as Nietzsche put it; it is more important to us, when judging ideas and arguments, to know who articulated them, what political interests they are alleged to serve and what context generated them, than whether they are true. And since every idea and every argument can be traced back and provided with a genealogy – real or imagined – the atmosphere of suspicion intensifies, so that now no philosophical statement is believed to be free from this political entanglement in race, class, gender and other social contexts. All statements and all thoughts are deemed essentially political, including statements which until recently were considered so general that they were acknowledged to be results of a disinterested pursuit of truth: metaphysics being a case in point. Today, to be a philosopher, an intellectual, a scholar, a student, an analyst of society, history and literature usually implies that one’s primary duty is to unmask the hidden agenda of writers and thinkers, and of their theories, by showing what power structure looms large behind their abstract arguments and identifying those structures by names we have come to know all too well: eurocentrism, logocentrism, racism, homophobia, exclusion, discrimination, male domination, imperialism, colonialism, etc. Besides unmasking hidden agendas, today’s intellectual or artist today labours to emancipate groups, voices, and desires which are alleged to be excluded and victimized.

Of course, not all philosophical investigations today assume this approach. But it is very influential, not only in terms of the number of people who adhere to it, but also in that the bulk of its message is tacitly accepted – as a sort of general political and moral orientation – even by those who methodologically practise a different type of philosophy (e.g., analytical philosophy); there is nothing in analytical philosophy that would make one immune to these ideas. And it is tacitly accepted not only by philosophers, but by scholars in a variety of disciplines, by journalists, teachers and politicians. This approach is so compelling to the modern mind that a lot of its tenets have become deeply embedded in modern political sensibilities and political prejudices; so much so that it is virtually impossible to oppose them openly. Such opposition is no longer treated as a legitimate divergence of opinion or as an argument in an intellectual debate, but as an act of hostility towards what is decent, right and self-evident.

A short digression from an East European perspective. It has indeed been shocking for an East European like myself to discover, after the fall of communism, that in the transition from the old regime to liberal democracy a sense of continuity rather discontinuity was felt in many areas of life. It was one of the unbearable characteristics of communist Marxism that social and economic suspicion was omnipresent: class determined who said what, and why he was right or wrong. I remember vividly the times in my country when one was not allowed to be bourgeois, colonialist, imperialist, Western-oriented: all those qualifications undermined the value of what one said and did. This politicisation of the humanities – literature, history, philosophy – did not diminish after the abolition of the regime. In fact, it increased; it lost its old crudeness and was now welcomed as something fashionable, supermodern, chic and – hard to believe – intellectually refined. In the past it was the communist party headquarters that instigated this politicisation and kept it going; today, it emanates from the very heart of western culture, the same culture which those employed in the communist headquarters once wanted to annihilate.

The politicisation of everything, including metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and religion, has further consequences. Whereas philosophically the hermeneutics of suspicion deprived philosophy of its intellectual self-assurance, casting doubt upon even most elementary claims, reducing our ideas to social and cultural games, idiosyncrasies, self-delusions, subconscious drives, mystifications, obfuscations, ideological offshoots of power structures and vehicles of domination, politically this strategy is absolutely simple, unequivocal and non-negotiable. Philosophically it is uncertainty that rules; politically, we have rigid dogmatism. It is something of a paradox that philosophical uncertainty generated political self-assurance. The more uncertain we are intellectually, the more dogmatic our politics becomes.

This politicisation lives on dualism. The dualistic approach so widespread today is shared by two groups of thinkers who have claimed to represent the tide of modernity: modernists and postmodernists. The former identify themselves as followers of the Enlightenment; the latter are ostensibly anti-Enlightenment. The former believe people to be free-floating individuals; the latter maintain that those individuals are always part of larger, ever-changing and overlapping communities of meaning. Both groups are self-proclaimed apostles of pluralism: the modernists make this pluralism an element of – to use Rawls’s phrase – comprehensive systems, while the postmodernists derive pluralism from an anti-systemic attitude. But the sanctification of pluralism should not deceive us. Both groups have a strong sense of the enemy, which makes their thinking inherently dualistic: it is essentially Us against Them, Us being pluralists and Them anti-pluralists, Us being open, tolerant and inclusive, Them being authoritarian, essentialist, foundationalist. This dualism is considered to run through the whole of human history. If we take, on the one hand, Isaiah Berlin, and on the other Richard Rorty – two very different thinkers, the first a traditional liberal, the other a postmodern pragmatist, yet both proclaiming their unflinching dedication to the cause of pluralism and both trying to inscribe this pluralism in their thought – we will discover that they are in fact not pluralists at all, but dogmatic dualists. From the earliest stages of philosophy, they both contend, from the times of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, there has existed a tendency to impose a dense metaphysics on human nature and human life which resulted in political, social and moral authoritarianism. And from those same early stages there has co-existed with it the tendency to reject this metaphysics and open the way for freedom and pluralism. The future of the world should belong to the second tendency, which will win if mankind resists the temptation to yield to the first; this can be done by delegitimizing it – an end which in turn can be achieved either by pointing to its deplorable political consequences or by a gradual process of disenchantment (Entzauberung) which means abandoning metaphysics altogether. As Stephen Macedo once wrote: a glass of beer in one’s garden at sunset should satisfy our stillborn metaphysical inclinations.

Not only is this dualistic thinking essentially militant, as every sort of political thinking usually is, but it also strikes a heavy blow at philosophy itself.

First, it marginalizes what is most valuable and richest in the history of philosophy – the classical metaphysics of the Greeks and Christians – by pushing it into the camp of political enemies. Hence – and this conclusion is evident from the educational point of view – we need not bother with the masters of classical metaphysics because their message was politically dangerous and has been overcome historically and politically. This is indeed a relatively new approach to philosophy. It boils down to this: it matters less whether this or that philosophical thesis is true; what matters is that it should be politically safe. Plato and Aristotle are generally not safe; neither is St. Thomas Aquinas. And if we want to defend them by proving them relevant, we must demonstrate their political safeness: for instance, by presenting Plato as the first feminist philosopher. Generally, however, the classics belong to the past; it is part of history, not of the indispensable inventory of a philosophical mind.

Second, arguments which purport to explain the political implications of philosophy are usually arguments by analogy or slippery slope arguments, which means that they are not good arguments. An example from Isaiah Berlin: the division of the higher and lower parts of human nature is dangerous, because some group, tribe, church or political party might usurp the right to represent this higher part and coerce other people’s lower natures. Or take Foucault and Lacan: the Cartesian mind as a guardian in lunatic asylums or Kant as an equivalent of the Marquis de Sade. Other examples: logos as phallus, mastery of nature as rape of women, essentialism as totalitarianism, Aristotle’s view of man as a justification of slavery and the subjection of women, etc.

Third, the politicisation of philosophy is of a particular kind: it is a liberal democratic politicisation, which means that the key organizing principle is equality. Egalitarianism is of course inherently political, more than justice, or freedom, or truth, or virtue. Equality requires a powerful political structure and political procedures that would ensure that each agent is given an equal amount of every good available. Equality permeates modern thinking, including modern philosophy. This expresses itself in a constant levelling of hierarchies: natural, moral, social, artistic, even anthropological. The distance between the high and the low has been radically shortened in many areas of life; in some it has virtually been abolished, and any attempt to reintroduce it is treated as an assault on the foundation of modern civilisation. The modern view of man is much more egalitarian than the classical one: the distinction between the higher and the lower parts of human nature is treated with suspicion, not only for the reason given by Berlin, but because hierarchy as such, any hierarchy, is inadmissible.

For philosophy the consequences are catastrophic. The most accurate expression of the change was Richard Rorty’s. In his well-known piece he maintained that philosophy is being replaced by democracy, or rather that democracy now has priority vis-a-vis philosophy. This means that we no longer philosophise; we negotiate. Democratic negotiation is always between equal parties: a solution arrived at through negotiation is not measured by truth, no matter how defined, because truth is no longer the objective of the philosopher, just as it is not, and has never been, the objective of a politician. The objective of both is the same: a successful cooperation between the parties involved. Classical philosophy – hierarchic and truth-oriented – was divisive and sanctioned the rule of one group over other groups; modern democratic philosophy gives every party the opportunity to contribute to the rules of cooperation, and no view is given a privileged position.

Richard Rorty, as we know, was very much in favour of this egalitarianism, because he was convinced that philosophy as it has existed since the time of the Presocratics was about to come to an end. He was right in a way. If democracy replaces philosophy, then there will be no more philosophy. This reasoning is hardly eye-opening. The problem is what to do in order to prevent this predicament.

There are many reasons why philosophy moved in this direction and why so many philosophers, artists and intellectuals have welcomed this development and done their best to support it. There is no simple answer to the question of why we have rejected the eternal questions of philosophy as not worth bothering with; or why we have become so indifferent to the problem of western identity and why we are undermining a philosophy which for centuries was considered to be the pillar of this identity; or why we have lost the courage to defend substantive ideas, seeking refuge in the procedures and rules of cooperation; or why we are no longer thrilled by the big questions, and why we have let ourselves be blackmailed so easily by the hermeneutics of suspicion and by genealogies; or why so many people are fooled by the rhetoric of pluralism while they live in a stifling atmosphere of militant dualism.

I cannot answer these questions here, for obvious reasons. But let me conclude with one final point. For decades we have been witnessing growing democratization: we have seen more and more institutions, communities, social and cultural phenomena democratized, either spontaneously or through outside pressures. Families, schools, churches, even art have become subject to democratic processes, democratic criteria and democratic sensibilities. The democratic obsessions with power – who holds it, how he acquired it, what legitimizes it, etc., – have gradually gone beyond the traditional political sphere and have infected the non-political aspects of our lives – the organization of the family, the structure of universities, the organization of churches and their teaching, etc. The politicisation of culture and of philosophy in particular can be seen as a further step in this process: philosophers have come to consider themselves responsible for the performance of democratic duties – fighting discrimination, securing pluralism, defending the underprivileged and mobilizing forces against the privileged, upholding the cause of equality, toleration and cooperation. The problem is that having engaged in this fight they committed an act of self-obliteration, of which, surprisingly, they seem to be proud.

How to stop this inexorable march of democratization is, to my mind, a very important question today. But it is a question that verges on blasphemy, so I had better stop here before I plunge into an abyss of unpardonable heresy.

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