Centrism Debate, Politics, Social Science

Universalism Not Centrism

The notion of “centrism” aims to stake out ideological ground between the extremes of contemporary left and right. But the centrism-extremism distinction fails to get at essential differences. Finding those means going deeper into Western intellectual history.

Ideologies are like organisms, and tracing their origins back to common ancestors starts with a system of classification based on careful observation and comparison. Our goal is ultimately to unravel the DNA of ideological movements. However before DNA, you need Darwin and Linnaeus.

So let’s start with some actual specimens of “centrism.” Here I mean ‘neo-Enlightenment’ thinkers like Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, George Will, Maajid Nawaz, Scott Alexander, Christina Hoff Sommers, Christopher Hitchens, Bret Stephens. And their ideas have a clear line of descent from core Enlightenment values, which are under attack from factions on the left and right today.

Anti-Enlightenment ideas are springing up from the left in: attempts to shut down speech in the academy, increasing toleration of violence in “anti-fascist” and “anti-racist” protests, and rhetorical strategies aimed at opponents’ racial or sexual attributes rather than the content of their ideas.

Likewise, from the right: economic protectionism, scapegoating of foreigners, conspiracy theories, and explicit neo-Nazism.

What’s wrong with the centrism-extremism lens on these three camps (e.g., as ably outlined here)? Centrism is said to be a “consistent philosophical system” based on the idea that “progress is best achieved by caution, temperance, and compromise, not extremism, radicalism, or violence.” Centrism is for constitutionalism over identity politics and absolutism. And it eschews “grand theories” whether of the altruistic-authoritarian or extreme-libertarian variety, in favor of a more “pragmatic” issue-by-issue analysis, rooted in science and evidence.

How are any of these propositions justified by a core principle of moderation? There is no fundamental account of what moderation means here. There is just a vague sense that whatever the mainstream views of our culture happen to be, centrism is somewhere around there, sufficiently far away from what crazy people with crude posters or frog memes think. But why our culture? Indeed, why the particular sub-culture of smart cosmopolitans rather than that of fly-over radio stations or intersectional poetry jams?

The American founders were in fact radicals not moderates — just ask George III. Of course so was Mao. The point is that we need a clear ideological criterion for distinguishing good revolutions from bad ones, which centrism fails to provide. Or good absolutisms (like free speech) from bad ones (like papal infallibility or the dogma that the sexes are psychologically indistinguishable).

Also, about the idea of defining a philosophical system on the simple, pragmatic basis of science and evidence, because that’s what works, not grand theories — it’s already been tried. Indeed it was called “pragmatism,” and it crashed at the epistemological dead-end of denying the very concept of “truth” (insofar as “truth” refers to mental objects having some kind of correspondence with external reality). Pragmatism is what produced Richard Rorty. But let us turn back down that road in a bit.

If centrism-extremism doesn’t provide a good taxonomy, how do we find one? Biology gives us a model. Richard Dawkins’ famous insight here is to think of ideas — “memes” as he coined the term, in its broader sense — as the genetic units of our constantly evolving belief systems, mutating and replicating like genes do.

Once biologists identified the biochemical mechanism of inheritance and mutation through DNA, a whole world of analysis opened up. They could sequence (partial) genomes from thousands of subjects and then perform detailed, quantitative studies on genetic similarities and differences using the mathematical technique of Principal Components Analysis (PCA). An example of the results of applying PCA in a study of 3000 European subjects is shown below. It identifies two main axes (PC’s) of genetic variation among these subjects, which allows you to visually depict them all on a two-dimensional map.

A “genetic map of Europe” showing the close connection between information extracted from genetic samples and the geography of sample donors.

What’s amazing is how closely this map, generated purely by looking at people’s genes not their addresses, corresponds to the actual map of Europe. Your genes alone are giving up the deep truths about where your ancestors were from in the world.

Sequencing genetic codes is a rigorous, scientific process. How does one sequence a memetic code? We are in the position here of biologists before the structure of DNA had been elucidated. They knew some such heredity mechanism had to exist, but they couldn’t yet measure it quantitatively in individuals.

Sequencing the Memome

While genetic codes are just linear streams of information, memetic codes have a complex hierarchical structure and are more dynamic in mutation. This will prove critical.

Essentially all heritable genetic mutation occurs in a single shot at the moment that sperm meets egg. Your genetic code is basically fixed after that point, through the rest of your life. Your memetic code, however, is constantly changing over your life, because you are constantly analyzing and updating your own ideas in intricate non-linear ways. (This essay, like any other, is trying to make you do just that!)

In other words, the key difference between biological and cultural evolution is the power of human reason as a means of reshaping the complex structure of people’s ideas in real-time. This is what explains the vastly higher rate of cultural vs. biological evolution. And here we have a big clue about which ideas are most important for cultural evolution: ideas that regulate the operation of reason itself — ideas about ideas as such.

The hard left has embedded within it certain deep views about reason. So does the hard right. And so does the nascent neo-Enlightenment movement. How do they all differ?

On the left we see the rise of micro-aggression and triggering theories founded on the idea that language is a game not a quest for truth. So if your team plays mean don’t try to justify it by saying your game is “true.” Campus speech codes: needed to rebalance power relations, which is what matters — not “truth” as filtered through your white consciousness. Oh now you are being oppressed by leftist authoritarianism, which violates your Enlightenment values? Stop logic-splaining to us! That’s just a meta-narrative you have constructed to deflect what we’re trying to tell you. Listen! Stop gesturing! So what if we roughed up that racist speaker while he was trying to escape our mob? He was here spewing white supremacist eugenics from his book on rural, white drug addicts and their dangerous cognitive deficits. “Free speech”!? Thomas Jefferson raped his slaves!

These slogans and intellectual norms did not spring spontaneously from the minds of twenty year-old college students. There is a clear and by now well known link between their professors’ ideas and the mid-20th century philosophical movement of postmodernism. Some key figures and theses:

  • Michel Foucault reduces what the West had regarded as rationally derived knowledge to a means of power over the oppressed.
  • Jacques Derrida gives us the deconstructionist language game, in which no objective meaning need be sought in a text. It’s all oppressor-speak.
  • Jean-Francois Lyotard tells us to discard Enlightenment “meta-narratives” about human progress, which are just masks for the exercise of power.
  • Thomas Kuhn turns the long arc of scientific progress into a geeky popularity contest. Paul Feyerabend adds that, epistemically, it might just as well have been a contentious game of D&D.
  • Herbert Marcuse edifies us that ideas like “free speech” are merely a ruse performed by rich oppressors to trick the working class into subservience.

Perhaps the best single, compact resource here is Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism. The present account is patterned on his essentialized dive into the deep origins of postmodernist ideas.

So where did these ideas come from? That perpetual focus on the oppressed goes back to Marx. And postmodernists were almost all committed socialists left holding the bag as the Soviet Union began to be exposed in the 1950’s. Their relativism was a convenient way out of this predicament.

But nearly the whole postmodernist brood was fathered by one early 20th century German philosopher. Martin Heidegger viewed man as wracked by the impotence of reason to deal with deep paradoxes like: Why does the universe itself exist? Why not just nothingness? Since reason cannot even comprehend such questions, our only recourse is to accept feelings of fear, guilt, dread as our natural state in the face of inscrutable Being.

Heidegger was reacting to his teacher Edmund Husserl and the phenomenological tradition. Phenomenology had sheepishly avoided metaphysical questions by studying only the pure actions of consciousness, not worrying about their relation to some hypothesized external world.

Another important influence on Heidegger and the postmodernists was, unsurprisingly, the explicit irrationalism of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard. They shared the phenomenological premise that there is no objective way to connect rational thought with external objects. But they sought a supposed deeper access to reality via pure acts of will — i.e., via feelings, not reason.

And here we arrive at some common ancestors of the contemporary left and right. The alt-right, gaining steam today, is a younger movement, with more volatile foundations. But one central idea here is a racialist power-struggle metaphysics of the sort prominent in early 20th century German-socialist thinkers who cast Aryans into the Marxian role of the oppressed. Heidegger himself was notoriously sympathetic to National Socialism (Nazism). And one can trace other lines of influence from Nazism back to thinkers like Spengler and Moeller van den Bruck, who were themselves products of Nietzsche and the other irrationalists.

Tracing back even further leads to Georg Hegel, who influenced both Marx and the irrationalists. Hegel’s metaphysical idealism dealt with the objectivity problem (the severed link between mental representations and external reality) by simply denying that such a mind-independent reality even exists. Problem solved!

Looking over all these strands of thought, the objectivity problem stands out as a shared premise underlying all the factions — from Hegel to Heidegger and beyond. One can observe the objectivity problem already starting to surface mid-Enlightenment with George Berkeley and David Hume. But their main influence was just to raise questions. The hands shaping the West’s ultimate answers, according to Hicks, were those of Immanuel Kant. I have illustrated this grand narrative in the below diagram.

Some pathways of philosophical influence, leading from Kant to the postmodernists.

Kant’s critical innovation was the idea that rational consciousness is by nature distortive — cut off from “things-in-themselves,” the true, undistorted objects of reality that constitute a separate “noumenal” realm. Man can only access the “phenomenal” realm in which he, as a mortal being, is incapable of distinguishing between what comes from the true nature of things and what comes from the distortive lens of his reason. Kant explicitly named the motivation for his system: to save the innocent claims of religion from Enlightenment predators. Nevertheless, he formulated it as a secular, logical critique of reason from within, aimed to subvert the predators by their own claws.

There is scholarly disagreement about characterizing Kant as a fundamentally anti-rational force. What’s important here is not an evaluation of Kant’s thought in its entirety, but the inner logic of his key philosophical innovation (reason-as-distortive) and its explosive replication over the 19th century.

This punctuated the Enlightenment equilibrium that existed prior to Kant. Surrounding ideas needed to be adapted, and different adaptive schemes emerged: idealism, phenomenology, irrationalism. As we have seen, these all spawned their own intellectual lineages that later incestualized into postmodernism.

Principal Components of the Mind

Consider the above as our sequenced memome data. Now it’s time for PCA. Hicks gives us a lead by defining five essential aspects of reason — principal components, if you will:

  • Objectivity: reason is not inherently distortive
  • Competence: it is capable of comprehending reality
  • Autonomy: it’s not subordinate to other means of knowing
  • Universality: it applies to all areas of inquiry and all inquirers
  • Individuality: it is an attribute of a single mind, not a tribe

To which let’s add:

  • Emergence: it can be coordinated between minds without a central plan

(This is meant in the broad Hayekian sense of spontaneous orders arising under certain systems of economic and/or memetic exchange). Hicks also splits post-ancient Western history into three major intellectual eras: the premodern, modern, and postmodern — roughly corresponding to the Middle Ages, Enlightenment, and recent continental scene. I would isolate the aspects of reason strongly affirmed in each era as follows:

  • Premodern: (O C U)
  • Modern: (O C A U I E)
  • Postmodern: ( )

Indeed any particular ideology, of man or movement, may be broken down according to our six PC’s and then compared to these three clusters. Observe that this fine-grained picture does have not have any place for a centrism-extremism axis. (Mathematically, such an axis can be understood as lying roughly perpendicular to the plane defined by our three cluster points —i.e., centrism-extremism is just not informative in describing ideological variation over these eras.)

Here’s how I break down three movements of present-day interest:

  • Pomo-Left: Purely postmodern
  • Neo-Enlightenment: Mostly modern, but weaker (E) due to origins on the center-left
  • Alt-Right: Strongly postmodern (with white men cast in the role of the oppressed) but with certain smaller premodern (O C) and Nietzschean (A I) contributions

See the below cluster-plane diagram of these classifications, also including my estimates for the positions occupied by a sample of thinkers who could easily be misclassified under the centrism-extremism lens.

Three contemporary movements and some individual thinkers situated on the cluster plane capturing our trichotomy of intellectual eras.

This analysis puts universality as the strongest differentiator of the Neo-Enlightenment (high U) from the Pomo-Left and Alt-Right (both low U). Fundamentally, the last two are both identitarianisms, far closer to each other than either cares to understand. The most obvious difference between them doesn’t even rise to the level of this analysis. It is merely which groups are taken as the truly oppressed ones — intersectional hierarchies for the Pomo-Left, whites and men for the Alt-Right. (Think of these oppressed-category variables again as additional axes roughly perpendicular to our cluster-plane, as it would be embedded in a high-dimensional total-memome space.)

One can imagine memeticists of the far future, equipped with hard, neurological measurements analogous to sequenced genomes. What we have here is a toy model of that vision, crafted by the iron tools of intellectual history available today. But iron tools far surpass the broken stones of our occultist ancestors or the loose twigs of our pomo-monkey cousins who haven’t yet died out.

30 Comments

  1. Pingback: Quillette on Universalism vs Centrism – tomorrowwrites

  2. Without commenting yet on the whole picture, I want to take up one thing:

    ” the key difference between biological and cultural evolution is the power of human reason as a means of reshaping the complex structure of people’s ideas in real-time. ”

    That is not how the pioneers of the cultural evolution – say Bob Boyd, Pete Richerson, Joe Henirich, or say Fr. Hayek – see it. Cultural evolution is about 1) cultural mutations which maybe about rational new ideas or innovations or maybe very non-rational things at all but .

    But it is also about 2) transmission through immitation (“social learning”) which may be very unrational and 3) selection which in practice often happens at group level.

    • Reason is used to formulate “directed” cultural mutations but, of course, they are just mutations and their survival depends on evolutionary social forces.

      Note that only humans create new social games. Animals play games, but only those inscribed in their genomes.

  3. Starts off well, but there seems to be a big gap in the authors understanding of the philosophical problems that emerged with the enlightenment. The fact value distinction, the is/ought problem leaves us with a problem as to what foundation to put morality on. To look at “objectivity” as a likely foundation shows you don’t get the problem. And as regards doing a taxonomy, it is circular.

  4. If you or someone you know decides to start writing the software future memeticists will use to gather and analyse data, please contact me. I am a software engineer very interested in this topic.

  5. That’s a wonderful way of investigating ideas/memes, creative and yet still very well adapted from biology. It’s definitely a method worth building upon.

    However, despite the underlying principle of the method being excellent, it’s not yet mature and its application here subsequently leads to wrong results, as it contradicts real world data. First, choosing reason and its components (OCAUIE) is an arbitrary choice – which doesn’t make it a bad/wrong choice – but it requires very good reasoning why reason is chosen as measuring principle of memes, and I don’t think this text provides sufficient reasoning for this choice:

    > Your genetic code is basically fixed after that point, through the rest of your life. Your memetic code, however, is constantly changing over your life, because you are constantly analyzing and updating your own ideas in intricate non-linear ways. In other words, the key difference between biological and cultural evolution is the power of human reason as a means of reshaping the complex structure of people’s ideas in real-time.

    Reason is simply introduced as measuring principle of memes without much explanation as to why reason instead of anything else. It’s simply assumed that it has to be reason, that decides which memes change culture and which memes don’t.

    I think this falls short of the previous adaptation/comparison to biological evolution. Evolution, including human evolution, is not driven by reason, love, or any other willfull (human) action, but by a more competitive (genetic) adaptation to the environment. This is missing here completely: Which (dis)advantages to these specific memes convey to their adherents? What makes a meme more likely to survive in culture and what makes it less likely?

    Your inquiry about memes uses the method of evolution, yet it excludes evolutionary pressure (a core principle of evolution), and this lack of pressure renders the method somewhat pointless right now. We can’t judge whether reason or something else should be decisive in meme investigation while there is no environment to test it against.

    Therefore I would suggest to first look into what makes a meme more likely to survive in its environment, i.e. inside the human psyche/thought. No meme, however reasonable, is able to survive if it is detested by all individuals who come across it: Nobody would allow the meme to reside within his mind or spread it to others (procreation), which equates to the meme’s death. In order for a meme to survive cultural evolution it needs to be tailored to the human mind, and reason is only a small part of that.

    Lastly, I said earlier that the conclusions are in contradiction to real world data. Unfortunately I cannot point to a single study or similar to make that point clear. I admit it’s more of a gut feeling that hit me when I saw your result of the “pomo left” and the “alt right” being close together. When you scour the internet for interesting thoughts, you will quickly notice that this is one of the most widely spread ideas among centrists: “pomo left” and “alt right” being “two sides of the same coin” or “being very similar to each other”. I have come across it time and time again, ad nauseam. This idea, however, seems to be rooted much more in centrist prejudice rather than actual data, as anyone who I have pressured to provide some reasoning for that statement always resorts to very superficial similarities (like identity politics).

    Yet actual data, from decades of studies, in terms of psychology and neurology have proven very well that there are significant differences between left (leftists) and right (conservatives). The “pomo left” (I prefer the funny term Ctrl-Left in reference to Alt-Right) is born from the left, while the Alt-Right is born from conservativism. They Ctrl-Left shows typical behavioral patterns of the left and the Alt-Right typical conservative behavior patterns. As such, one would have to discard decades of replicated studies that found profound mental differences between left and right – and this seems like a really bad idea. We should change our ideas according to the data, not disregard data that doesn’t fit our ideas. Ctrl-Left & Alt-Right seem only similar from a centrist perspective, i.e. their perceived extremism (being further away from the center), yet you said yourself at the beginning that

    > the centrism-extremism distinction fails to get at essential differences.

    The difference between Ctrl-Left & Alt-Right is quite large, mentally as well as physically: Ctrl-Left people are often very thin or very fat, their sex is often not identifiable, they are very aggressive vs people & things, they prefer to attack vulnerable targets (like unsuspecting people, attacking from behind, attacking from afar with weapons, often attack women), … while those on the Alt-Right are either of normal weight and/or muscular, very distinctive male/female appearance, they are very composed & hard to anger, they are very defensive & often don’t even retaliate and never damage property.

    I invite you to check these claims I listed, and take a closer look at it to check whether I am wrong. I used data, that has been gathered about Antifa (Ctrl-Left) and PEGIDA (similar to Alt-Right) in Germany, and the same patterns repeat in the US, especially obvious in terms of violence: There is only ever violence (against people or property) once the Ctrl-Left is involved, regardless of the presence of Alt-Right or not – in Germany we saw that powerful on display again during this years G20 summit in Hamburg.

    But I’m wandering off. My point is: Any methodoloy that results in Ctrl-Left & Alt-Right ending up close to one another in ideological/meme perspective breakdown is most likely off the mark and might just be an elaborate way of reaffirming your own centrist bias.

    • I am hard pressed to see substantive differences between the KKK and BLM, or Nazis and Communists. Or the Alt-Right and Ctrl-Left. I think the unifying meme is Statism. The difference is merely which tribe you favor.

      https://otherclub.blogspot.com/2017/08/cosmetic-distinctions.html
      https://otherclub.blogspot.com/2017/09/identitarian-politics-distinctions.html

      Neither is centrism, defined as something in the middle of two extremes, immune to the Statist impulse. Centrism not defined by an independent philosophy of “centrism,” is a drifting point between the vagaries of two extremes – both of which are Statist.

      • If you make statism the central meme, then there is hardly any difference at all between left, right, liberal, conservative, fascist, technocratic, effective altruism, ctrl left, alt right, and pretty much every other political philosophy of the past 3000 years. That seems more like trying to signal your own libertarian/anarchist values rather than useful analysis – the very same mistake the OP made.

        Analysis is only possible once you have an environment to test your memes against. Right now, the entire article is based on survivorship bias, i.e. the OP only ever looks at memes, that achieved notable long-term recognition. What are the dead memes and why did they die? If you want to find out why some people survive an infection while others die, you’ll need to look at the differences between those two groups.

        Same with memes: What does a meme require to survive, how and among which groups of humans do they compete for survival? What happens to memes overlapping each other? Are there ecological niches for memes?

        The OP makes a creative first step with his analogy of evolution and memeolution. But it still happens in a sterile laboratory environment. We’re not yet ready for an ivory tower Richard Dawkins in memeology, we need a Galapagos Meme Island exploring Charles Darwin first.

      • You say “They Ctrl-Left shows typical behavioral patterns of the left and the Alt-Right typical conservative behavior patterns.” What are these? I think the alt right and ctrl left behave quite similarly (hatred of the other, inability to dialog, rigidity of principles, primacy of emotion, dogmatic single-mindedness, willingness to impose their values by force). German National socialism differs little from Soviet Communism in that regard.

    • Rising above our instinctual intuitions regarding these issues, comparing groups with dubious borders against each other, and all the other hard work of achieving a cogent perspective based on memes requires adopting a whole host of memes that will run counter to the ones we generally rely upon for comfort. Only a fervent dedication to the “there is an objective reality and I strive to align my neural activity to reflect it as accurately and completely as the limits of my meat will allow” meme will allow the right memes in. This requires severe introspection and dedication and will probably never catch on until AI makes it easier to visualize what’s going on. Getting beyond the usual taboo against ad hominem will also be necessary and might pose an incredible risk to the entire endeavor. Uncareful assessments of the meme-biomes you posit might be inhabiting people other than yourself will lead to easy dismissals of “foul: ad hominem”. I fear that memeology might be the only way for us to truly rise above the fray of current political discourse, and it is doomed to failure by simply not being a viral meme itself.

  6. Sarah says

    Thanks. Interesting stuff making sense of the crazy place we have got to. [bad joke alert] Isn’t a trichotomy splitting hairs?

  7. Pingback: Centered – FTN Blog

  8. Fascinating POV, thank you.

    >> It is merely which groups are taken as the truly oppressed ones — intersectional hierarchies for the Pomo-Left, whites and men for the Alt-Right.

    I’m admittedly out of my depth for a lot of this, but the quote above shows you don’t understand the “ethnic nationalist/white nationalist” (aka “Alt right”) movement.

    The alt right is not trying to win the “victim game.” That’s purely the SJW/Pomo “violent compassion” crowd.

    The ethnic nationalist types (of which I claim no membership) are confident. They are proud and strong. They hate weakness (and pomo loves to coddle weakness). Only the biggest whiners in that crowd would claim to be “oppressed.” The 4chan kids would use that phrase in sarcasm. The oppression claim is an angry-defeatist lefty claim… That is not ethnic nationalism. Not at all.

    The ethnic nationalist types point to Pomo anti-white/anti-male sentiment on the far left. True. They are correct about that, it’s easy to see. It’s a weakness of far-left hypocrisy… Racist pomo in the name of “ending racism.” Comically ironic (thus 4chan memes).

    But the ethnic nationalists are “cool kids” to pomos “dorks and ugly kids.” Radically different attitudes. Don’t miss that.

    Ethnic nationalism is 80’s coke-fueled confidence, vs pomo’s 2016 “broken snowflake” culture.

    I would point to the conservative/”liberal” (not real liberalism) split here… With pomo being “aggressive/violent openness” (thus the embrace of any flavor of “freak and weirdo”, and 2 years of “trans activism” in 2015/2016, despite trans folks being >1% of the pop) and ethnic nationalism being about a closed, orderly, narrow conservativism. (Credit Jordan Peterson for the openness/orderly distinction).

    Night and day difference.

    I’d argue that in a social context… The ethnic nationalists (of which I have no allegiance) are much closer to objectivity in terms of their relationship to arguments you might hear from Pinker, etc. The religious right may be anti-science, but the ethnic nationalists are a sober, smart bunch in terms of objectivity.

    • Carl Sageman says

      I could not have said it better myself daysofgame. The author missed some fundamental differences in the political spectrum.

      • I think these are minor differences and emphasizing them clouds perception of the underlying unity of fascist thought and emotional patterns.There are zero substantive differences. They are all pigs.

        • There are significantly large heritable, cognitive, emotional and personality differences between people of different ideologies. If you think the average Neo-Nazi is the same kind of person as the average Marxist or that either of them are interchangeable with the average Randian or Neo-Conseravtive then you must be socially inept.

          Traits like bigotry and collective violence are too broad and generic to be a sign of similarity.

  9. Michael says

    I tend to see a number of problems with Hicks’ understanding of Reason. It really seems to be that it is a manifold which describes a large number of diverse faculties and capacities. There’s a lot of good scientific research out there for example by Khanemann and others talking about the role of cognitive biases in human thinking, and how logic, pattern recognition, etc. is more often than not a thin film around the animalistic brain we have to confabulate and justify particular behaviours. Theoretical and abstract thinking is easy; but it takes an entirely different quality of thought and discernment to understand how thought relates to action in general, and in particular action of a political nature where a large number of personal and social interests conflict.

    I did like the conclusion that the alt-right and the pomo left have more in common with one another than the classical “neo-enlightenment” thinkers. It’s very much in keeping in line with Carl Jung’s logic about enantiodromia, or how an extreme conscious belief or sentiment often indicates an extreme unconscious opposing view that may arise spontaneously, which they then project onto other social groups. In other words, the extreme left and extreme right create and feed off one another, which is why their modes of thinking are similar, and just flipped.

    Lastly, the idea of universalism, that we all have the same minds and the same capacity to see truth, is a bunk idea. Our ability to see and understand the behaviour of others is only as good as our ability to understand our own thinking and motivations. Furthermore, there are concrete examples of people with non-neurotypical psychology, such as psychopathy and schizotypy, which do see the world in a fundamentally different way than normal, emotionally balanced human beings. These aren’t even differences in terms of upbringing; they often have a genetic basis according to the polish author Andrzej Lobaczewski, who wrote an invaluable book on the subject called Political Ponerology. When these types of people write books on how society should be, they use themselves as the measuring stick, which is quite a different fit from the majority of humanity. This is the basis for the arising of numerous anti-human ideologies in the 20th century and elsewhere.

  10. Evan O'Leary says

    This is a great article. Something was left out though: David Deutsch is the best modern exponent of all these concepts (universality, memetic theory of rationality and reason, emergence, objective knowledge, political progress), but he doesn’t appear anywhere in here! He’s formally stated all of this way before anyone else, and is criminally underappreciated.

  11. Kelly says

    I totally agree with your thesis here but why doesn’t anyone ever mention Edward Said and his “Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies”? I would say this has had just as much if not more of an influence than the post-modernist thinkers. Can you do an exposition on the damaging and lasting effects of this professor on the American University (humanities anyway) system?

  12. Rick Sint says

    Jukka, I agree with your observation. My take on cultural evolution is a bit different in emphasis. And that passage gets at what I think is underemphasized. The ability to do real-time modification of the memetic code–by the code itself, intelligently, not just by random mutations–is very important.

    Daniel, The is/ought gap is a big issue indeed. So are deontology vs. consequentialism, the nature of individual rights, and other ethical and political questions. I didn’t have space to explore all of these here, but I maintain that they are connected in important ways to the objectivity problem and our deeper conception of reason.

    Theaitetos, There is certainly a much more in-depth case to be made for my focus on views of reason as the dominant PC’s. Interesting points regarding psychological differences between the Alt-Right and Pomo-Left. But it is quite possible for deep, shared premises of a philosophical nature to combine with and influence very different psychologies, to whit:

    daysofgame, The Pomo-Left is pure pomo of course–focused on the oppressed–whereas the Alt-Right is only partially pomo. But there is a clear Alt-Right narrative of the urban, establishment elite oppressing defenseless, rural whites. It is this well of frustration–based on some legitimate and some illegitimate grievances–that catalyzed Trump and that fuels the Alt-Right. Nazi ideology itself focused on Jews not because they were regarded as feeble and inconsequential. Rather, it’s because they were regarded as intelligent, cunning usurpers who infiltrated elite cirlces and posed a serious threat to Aryan society. Again, Nazism contains Marxist and Nietzschean elements–so there’s the ubermensch story woven in, but there is a distinct anti-oppressor story as well. (Also I think, psychologically, the Alt-Right and Pomo-Left both comprise frustrated mediocrity types who tend to respond in overlapping ways: both involving a kind of Munchausen syndrome, but the Alt-Right with additional narcissistic modes.)

    Michael, Universalism does not require exact equality. It just recognizes that Socrates and Newton are doing something very similar as compared to a cougar or an Evergreen marcher. (See David Deutsch on this.)

    Evan O’Leary, I have a big surprise for you! Look more closely at my last diagram.

    Kelly, Edward Said should indeed be mentioned. There is a whole intellectual transmission mechanism from the original postmodernists, whom I focused on, to the current scene–via people like Said and the critical race theorists.

  13. Mr Rick:

    >> But there is a clear Alt-Right narrative of the urban, establishment elite oppressing defenseless, rural whites.

    Yeah… that’s there. I think the “victims” on the right are much less comfortable with that position. The right doesn’t harbor victims. It’s more about having a grudge against the elitists than about embracing being down-trodden or “oppressed.”

    I think the ethnic national leadership are exploiting the “victims” on that side. I agree there.

    The right is about individual achievement, not “group based” oppression… that’s a big distinction (also credit to Jordan Peterson for spelling this out for me). So the “victim” status doesn’t get as much mileage.

    “Alt right” (beyond the ethnic aspects) is an exaggeration of conservative themes. There is something else here in the rural “right” tribe that is NOT victim, but is distinct from liberal elitism. Think of the rural Californian agricultural type (which is a LOT of CA by geo)… they are not victims… they are traditional/conservatives. Which is another example of pride (justifiable in many cases as they lead very successful/upright lives). Alt-right sees those folks in heroic terms. This is interesting when we see “right wing” Latinos in rural CA… again, proud and conservative. “Do for self.” Fundamentally hard working. No victim culture. Low entitlement.

    >> both comprise frustrated mediocrity types who tend to respond in overlapping ways: both involving a kind of Munchausen syndrome, but the Alt-Right with additional narcissistic modes.

    Yeah. That is very close to what I see.

    Narcissistic is a good word for it. I’d never associated any of this with “80’s confidence” until my comment above… but I like that comparison. Trump is a perfect 80s anti-hero… coked up and proud… narcissistic.

    Cheers.

  14. “So let’s start with some actual specimens of “centrism.” Here I mean ‘neo-Enlightenment’ thinkers like Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, George Will, Maajid Nawaz, Scott Alexander, Christina Hoff Sommers, Christopher Hitchens, Bret Stephens.”

    It’s interesting how ridiculously off-base this website is on what centrist means… listing Sommers (conservative think tanker), Hitchens (who is rolling in his proverbial grave, hearing this nonsense) and Will (staunch conservative intellectual) as centrists… you have no clue what you’re talking about.

    • Rick Sint says

      Uniters,

      The point of the piece is that “centrism” is not a coherent category to begin with, but it’s quite plausible that those you name (a feminist, a neo-connish liberal, and an atheist drug legalizer) could be grouped under it.

  15. This is a comment, not a reply. I don’t know how to enter a comment.

    Thomas Kuhn was nothing like a postmodernist. His work is solid science, history of science, and philosophy of science. He was a great thinker.

    Not just Marcuse, but virtually all Marxists were post-modern in the sense of denigrating the autonomy of ideas. Rather, ideas are class-generated and class-valid. Consider the disgusting book Critique of Pure Tolerance by Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr., and Herbert Marcuse. I knew them all at Harvard where I was a grad student and an SDS radical student. I waas shocked when I read that book. They made made sick.

    By the way, Jurgen Habermas’ work is aimed precisely at this sort of Marxist reasoning.

    • Rick Sint says

      Herbert,

      I take Kuhn’s main ideas to be: concepts from different scientific paradigms are incommensurable, therefore there is no way to assess progression toward a truth, there is just a sequence of exploded paradigms, and the paradigm shift dynamics are largely sociological. This is a recipe for discrediting the entire idea of science in the minds of intellectuals and ultimately the public–fits into the postmodern project nicely. Feyerabend was even worse.

      Marxism was still an attempt, albeit an erroneous one, at rationally understanding the world, through a grand narrative involving cause and effect. There were shades of polylogism in the account, but the premise was that ‘we Marxists have transcended mere class bias and can understand the true nature of the world using the methods Marx laid out.’ You can find, for example, many scientists who were committed Marxists and highly rational in understanding nature. Not so with postmodernists.

  16. I think this article is stimulating, but fundamentally wrong. Postmodernism has little to do with the left and right fascist activists. They are personality types, not philosophical positions. The idea that Heidegger and Lyotard are related to campus regressive Leftism (or Rightism) is pretty far fetched.

    Rather, (a) there are real values distinguishing right and left (Jonathan Haidt has written cogently on this, and (b) there are authoritarian and democratic personality types (again Haidt is good on this). That leaves a 2 x 2 taxonomy. Authoritarian right and authoritarian left are both fascist.

    • Rick Sint says

      Herbert,

      Let’s even assume your psychology is fully determined by your genes (which it is not). Before your psychology pushes you toward one ideology or another, there has to be one ideology and another. Philosophy, first of all, shapes the menu of ideologies in a culture. Europeans in 1500 weren’t too genetically different from us. They had an entirely different menu to choose from.

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