27 January 2012
In yesterday’s Addendum on Neo-Agriculturalism I made a distinction between political ideas (with which, to use Sartre’s formulation, essence precedes existence) and historical ideas (with which existence precedes essence). Political ideas are formulated as ideas and are packaged and promoted as ideologies to be politically implemented. Historical ideas are driving forces of historical change that are only recognized and explicitly formulated as ideas ex post facto. At least, that was my general idea, though I recognize that a more subtle and sophisticated account is necessary that will take account of shadings of each into the other, and acknowledging all manner of exceptions. But I start out (being the theoretician of history that I am) in the abstract, with the idea of the distinction to be further elaborated in the light of evidence and experience.
Also in yesterday’s post I suggested that this distinction between political and historical ideas can be applied to communism, extraterrestrialization, pastoralization, singularization, and neo-agriculturalism. Thinking about this further as I was drifting off to sleep last night (actually, this morning as I was drifting off to sleep after staying awake all night, as is my habit) I realized that this distinction can shed some light on the diverse ways that the term “globalization” is used. In short, globalization can be a political idea or an historical idea.
I have primarily used “globalization” as an historical idea. I have argued from many different perspectives and in regard to different sets of facts and details, that globalization is nothing other than the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution in those parts of the world where the Industrial Revolution had not yet transformed the life of the people, many of whom until recently, and many of whom still today, live in an essentially agricultural civilization and according to the institutions of agricultural civilization. While is the true that industrialization is sometimes consciously pursued as a political policy (though the earliest appearances of industrialization was completely innocent of any design), politicized industrialization is almost always a failure. Or, the least we can say is that politicized industrialization usually results in unintended consequences outrunning intended consequences. Industrialization happens when it happens when a people is historically prepared to make the transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization. This is not a policy that has been implemented, but a response both to internal social pressures and external influences.
In this sense of globalization as the industrialization of the global economies and all the peoples of the world, globalization is not and cannot be planned, is not the result of a policy, and in fact almost any attempt to implement globalization is likely to be counter-productive and result in the antithesis of the intended result (with the same dreary inevitability that utopian dreams issue in dystopian nightmares).
However, this is not the only sense in which “globalization” is used, and in fact I suspect that “globalization” is invoked more often in the popular media as a name for a political idea, not an historical idea. Globalization as a political idea is globalization consciously and intentionally pursued as a matter of policy. It is this sense of globalization that is protested in the streets, found wanting in a thousand newspaper editorials, and occasionally touted by think tanks.
Considering the distinction between political ideas and historical ideas in relation to globalization, I was reminded of something I wrote a few months back in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 2:
If you hold that history can be accurately predicted (at least reasonably accurately) a very different conception of the scope of human moral action must be accepted as compared to a conception of history that assumes (as I do) what we are mostly blindsided by history.
A conception of history dominated by the idea that things mostly happen to us that we cannot prevent (and mostly can’t change) is what I have previously called the cataclysmic conception of history. The antithetical position is that in which the future can be predicted because agents are able to realize their projects. This is different in a subtle and an important way from either fatalism or determinism since this conception of predictability assumes human agency. This is what I have elsewhere called the political conception of history.
What I have observed here in relation to futurist prediction holds also in the case of commentary on current events: if one supposes that everything, or almost everything, happens according to a grand design, then it follows that someone or some institution is responsible for current events. Therefore there is someone to blame.
Of course, the world is more complicated and subtle than this, but we only need acknowledge one exception to an unrealistically picayune political conception of history in order to provide a counter-example that demonstrates not all things happen according to a grand design. Any sophisticated political conception of history will recognize that some things happen according to plan, other things just happen and are not part of any plan, while the vast majority of human action is an attempt, only partly successful, to steer the things that happen into courses preferred by conscious agents. If, then, this is the sophisticated political conception of history, what I just called the “unrealistically picayune political conception of history” may be understood as the vulgar political conception of history (analogous to “vulgar Marxism.” Vulgar politicism is political determinism.
This analysis in turn suggests a distinction between vulgar catastrophism, which maintains dogmatically that everything “merely happens,” that chance and accident rules the world without exception, and that there is no rhyme or reason, no planning or design whatsoever, in the world. From this it follows that human agency is illusory. A sophisticated catastrophism would recognize that things largely happen out of our control, but that we do possess authentic agency and are sometimes able to affect historical outcomes — sometimes, but not always or dependably or inevitably.
In so far as globalization is global industrialization, it is and has been happening to the world and began as a completely unplanned development. Since the advent of industrialization, its global extrapolation has mostly followed from the same principles as its unplanned beginnings, but has occasionally been pursued as a matter of policy. On the whole, the industrialization of the world’s economy today is a development that proceeds apace, and which we can sometimes (although not always) influence in small and subtle ways even while the main contours are beyond direct control. Thus globalization begins as a purely historical idea, and as it develops gradually takes on some features of a political idea. This pattern of development, too, is probably repeated in regard to other historical phenomena.
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22 November 2009
On the flights from Tampa to Portland I started reading Herbert Marcuse’s essay on Sartre, “Sartre’s Existentialism” from 1948, collected in Marcuse’s Studies in Critical Philosophy.
In reading Marcuse on Sartre (with the subtle, sublimated hostility of a Marxist to the early Sartre, who went out of his way to distance himself from Marx and Marxists), it occurred to me that what we could call historical existentialism or historical naturalism are the heirs and continuators of historical materialism. That is to say, they are (or would be, if they were systematically formulated) the philosophical development of Marx’s historical materialism in the light of subsequent philosophical developments.
An existentialist philosophy of history begins from the premiss that existence precedes and creates essence — thus every conception of history that has recognized that individuals and societies are shaped by geography, topography, landscape, and earlier history is history understood in terms of existence preceding essence. Earlier history is, in its turn, a function of earlier naturalistic forces that have shaped that history. Ultimately we must trace this chain of earlier histories backward to the point that human history disappears imperceptibly into natural history.
This idea of an existentialist philosophy of history is very much in the same spirit of what I recently wrote in A Formulation of Naturalism, and, in fact, is not only in the same spirit but may be considered an extension of that post. In that post I argued that contemporary philosophical naturalism could be considered a conservative extension of materialism: naturalism is materialism wherever materialism was adequate, and only goes beyond materialism where materialism fails. Just above I suggested that historical naturalism and historical existentialism are synonymous. In so far as historical existentialism — in which historical existence precedes historical essence — is simply another formulation of historical naturalism, and in so far as naturalism is a conservative extension of materialism, historical naturalism “naturally” becomes a conservative extension of historical materialism.
I make no claim for the novelty of the position stated above; it is nothing but an alternative way to formulate the geopolitical perspective that current events must be seen in the context of history, and history must be seen in the context in which history is made, and that context is geography. I have only cast the net a little wider, and the more comprehensive nature of the thesis makes it appear that much more radical. This is one of the virtues of abstract and general thinking: once particular issues are framed in these terms, matters otherwise only implicit become explicit.
Perhaps more problematic yet is that I should burden the above formulation with the tag “existentialist,” since existentialism suffered from the irredeemable fate of becoming a briefly popular sensation in the middle of the twentieth century, so that it now sounds terribly dated. On the one hand, I should not allow popular taste to prejudice a valid philosophical position. On the other hand, it could be argued, in a similar spirit to the argument in made in A Formulation of Naturalism that the essential conceptions of existentialism have been superseded by more recent, and more accurate, philosophical formulations. For the moment, I will allow the label to stand.
I have, in this forum, several times quoted Ortega y Gasset’s famous line that man has not an essence but a history. This is also in the spirit of an existentialist philosophy of history. One might take Ortega y Gasset’s bon mot as an alternative formulation of Sartre’s famous dictum that existence preceding essence. In both, the emphasis falls upon man’s historical, temporal, actual existence and denies that there is any eternal, essential nature of man. In so far as Ortega y Gasset’s formulation sharpens the point by denying the essence that Sartre delayed and subordinated, he sharpens it to a point that an existentialist philosophy of history so conceived comes into conflict with other conceptions of history.
Recently in The Incommensurability of Civilizations and Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations I wrote, “Each civilization is not only distinct, but each is based on a distinct idea of civilization.” And, citing a particular example, “We can explain both the continuity and the periodizations of Western civilization by reference to a basal ideal that changes over time.” Now, in so far as the idea of a civilization is similar to the essence of man (and, while the two are clearly distinct, I think it is fair to say that each conception is integral with the other), and in so far as an existentialist conception of history requires that we abandon any essence of man, then an existentialist conception of history, it would seem, must abandon all pretense of history that makes reference to idea, ideal, and essence.
This is the dilemma that faces me now. I do not say that these two approaches cannot be reconciled and rationalized, but I do say that some effort at conceptual clarification is necessary to that reconciliation and rationalization.
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More on the Philosophy of History
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1 August 2009
Sartre’s skepticism regarding human nature (discussed in Human Nature) is not arbitrary and nihilistic skepticism, but has a theoretical basis in Sartre’s pure philosophical work. And while Being and Nothingness is a daunting and difficult work, in the same famous lecture we have quoted in which Sartre expressed his skepticism regarding human nature, Sartre also summarized many of his technical doctrines, and even reduced them to aphoristic sententiousness, as with existence precedes essence.
What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be.
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” 1946, translated by Philip Mairet
In what sense are we to take “precedes”: in a temporal sense, or an ontological sense, or both? One could well maintain that the relation is one of deductive precedence, so that once given the extant, such as it is, the essential can be systematically derived. This is one form of ontological precedence, but it seems to be almost the negation of what Sartre was suggesting. The obvious interpretation, though not the only possible interpretation (or even the only plausible interpretation), is that the precedence of existence before essence is a temporal precedence: first there are existing things, and then there are the essences of existing things. This alone doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of essence. It does not even imply the derivative character of essence (in contradistinction to the non-derivative character of existence) as does an interpretation of “existence precedes essence” in terms of deductive (or ontological) precedence, as mentioned above.
To make the point that essence is derivative while existence is primary (that is to say, primitive, non-derivative), and to retain a naturalistic interpretation of the world, one must insist that the slogan “existence precedes essence” must be interpreted both in terms of deductive and temporal precedence. But in so doing, it becomes obvious that a great many other considerations have been imported into the formula: not least the imperative to maintain a naturalistic understanding of the world, however grossly nature is undervalued. But expressing an ontological doctrine in the space of an aphorism is likely to result in a certain degree of compression and thus ambiguity, so we ought not to fix too much on this simple formula, as Sartre’s longer treatment is readily available elsewhere.
Given a formulation of a philosophical principle as clear and as simple as existence precedes essence, it would seem obvious that Sartre’s principle can easily be confronted with its opposite by inverting the formula: essence precedes existence. How are we to interpret this? We must travel rather beyond the bounds of popularized philosophy to find an adequate philosophical embodiment of this, and we can find it, to a certain extent, in Alexius von Meinong.
Meinong’s principle of independence — that being is independent of being-so — may be contrasted to Sartre’s dictum that existence precedes essence, which is a principle of both ontological and temporal dependence. For Meinong, in other words, the way a thing is, or how a thing is (its “being-so”), is independent of the fact that a thing is. Meinong’s principle of independence would appear to be more strictly and purely ontological than Sartre’s principle. We know for a fact that with human manufactures essence precedes existence, and therefore for at least one class of existents — the class of manufactures — that Meinong’s principle holds: the being-so of what it is to be an article of manufacture is independent of its being. A design may or may not be put into production; there is, with the principle of independence, a recognition of the disconnect between idea and reality. An architect can design a building that is never in fact built, as with Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton. Thus also Meinong’s principle of independence does not hold for the complement of the class of entities for which Sartre’s principle holds.
A doctrine of relative degrees of independence could be readily formulated, (i.e., being might be dependent to a greater or lesser extent upon being-so), as could a doctrine of relative independence analogous to relative identity, (i.e., some individual aspects—properties—of an object might possess independence while others did not). Independence, like identity, is a concept that invites interpretation in terms of totality and absolutization, as exemplified by the implied tertium non datur : either being is independent of being-so (Meinong’s principle) or being is not independent of being-so (the negation of Meinong’s principle). If being is not independent of being-so, there are many ways in which it might be dependent, but if being is independent of being-so, then it is independent and there is nothing more to say.
One way in which being might be dependent upon being-so, or vice versa, is if existence always precedes being-so, that is to say, if existence precedes essence. So we see that Meinong’s principle of independence is somewhat more general that Sartre’s principle of existentialism. As we have seen, there are many ways for existence to precede essence, any many ways for being to be dependent upon being-so (and there is at least once sense in which the two coincide), but the independence of being and being-so (or, if you like, the independence of being and essence) seems to be of a more general character — a more sweeping principle, as it were.
There is not a perfect symmetry between Sartre’s principle and Meinong’s principle, although the two are sufficiently interrelated to be suggestive. But if we go beyond the realm of pure philosophy we can find a doctrine more perfectly in symmetrical opposition to Sartre. The inversion of Sartre’s principle – the principle that essence precedes existence – is clearly a teleological principle, and as such it could be considered a central principle of theism. Existentialism, under this interpretation, is not opposed to any other philosophical doctrine as much as it stands in opposition to theism.
But even here we run into trouble. In the same lecture of Sartre’s quoted above, Sartre makes a distinction between act and potential not unlike that promulgated by the schoolmen, and, again like the schoolmen, gives action priority over potential (this is a doctrine especially associated with St. Thomas Aquinas). Indeed, it could fairly be said that Sartre rejects potential as invidious to the understanding of human action.
“…in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the totality of the works of Proust; the genius of Racine is the series of his tragedies, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to Racine the capacity to write yet another tragedy when that is precisely what he did not write? In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait. No doubt this thought may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life. On the other hand, it puts everyone in a position to understand that reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, expectations unfulfilled; that is to say, they define him negatively, not positively.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” 1946, translated by Philip Mairet
This is a radical doctrine. And there is a sense in which it is astonishing that there should be any commonality between Sartre and the scholastics, not merely because Sartre was an explicit atheist, but rather because Sartre’s atheism runs deep, at a primordial level, and, though felt profoundly, was expressed in abstract and theoretical terms.
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