All posts filed under: Philosophy

Postmodern Theory Returns to Continental Europe

The infusion of much of the social science and humanities scholarship in the Anglosphere by egalitarian social justice concerns is a much-discussed phenomenon. Less often noticed is an important distinction between overtly activist disciplines such as gender and postcolonial studies, on the one hand, and disciplines that are not intrinsically militant such as education, sociology, and literature, on the other, where intellectual uniformity has nevertheless allowed for the construction of an increasingly biased, insular, and empirically dubious body of scholarship. This scholarship draws heavily from the ideas of French poststructuralism and ‘continental’ European philosophy more broadly. However, it has gained a larger influence in the United States and other anglophone countries than on the continent. It has been hypothesised that this success has been due to the unique political context of post-war America, or that the then-new poststructuralist framework developed by a handful of French writers faced much less competition because Marxism was less entrenched in American academia than in Europe. Faculty in continental Europe already overwhelming lean left in the social sciences and humanities, …

Three Justifications for Liberalism

In his 1988 article “Unger’s Philosophy: A Critical Legal Study” William B. Ewald criticized young leftwing up-and-comer Roberto Unger for his simplistic characterization of liberalism.  Unger was one of the key founders of the critical legal studies movement, which philosophically oriented itself around his 1975 book Knowledge and Politics. In this seminal text, published when the author was only 28, Unger develops a systematic “total criticism” of liberal doctrines. He runs through broad interpretations of liberal psychology and liberal politics, arguing that these constitute a unified doctrine which “total criticism” largely knocks apart. In his response, Ewald argued that while Unger was often creative and occasionally brilliant, he had badly mischaracterized liberalism. Far from being a unified doctrine, liberalism had historically been justified from a number of different philosophical perspectives. This made it far less vulnerable to “total criticism” than authors like Unger supposed. Indeed, it was quite hard to even pin down what liberalism was in a concrete sense. As Ewald eloquently put it: Even at the level of concrete political discourse, the term (liberalism) …

In-Groups, Out-Groups, and the IDW

Over the past year or so, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein spent several tweets, a dozen emails, and a two-hour podcast vehemently disagreeing with one another. The ostensible cause of this disagreement was a dispute about whether or not there’s a genetic component to the black-white IQ gap in the US. However, neither was willing to commit to a concrete position on the issue. Both danced around the actual claim while deferring to various experts who may or may not suggest that a genetic component is more or less probable. Did they disagree about Charles Murray? In the podcast, Klein says that he opposes Murray’s social policies but allows that Murray is “a lovely guy interpersonally” who should not be silenced. Sam Harris agrees that Murray is a good guy who shouldn’t be silenced but caveats that “his social policies are not social policies I’m advocating.” So, what are these men actually disagreeing about? In a thorough analysis of the Harris-Klein controversy, John Nerst suggests that what is actually at issue is whether the discussion …

The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism

Few things agitate today’s intellectually informed conservatives and classical liberals like postmodern theory and its concretization in identity politics. In an article for the National Review back in 2014, Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institute compared postmodernism to “poison,” and decried falling standards of “truth and falsity.” Jordan Peterson has characterized postmodernism as dangerous, and identity politics as a kind of self-pitying victimization. In my home country of Canada, Rex Murphy of the right leaning National Post has characterized movements oriented around identity politics as “intolerant” and their participants as a “mob.” In Britain, Roger Scruton accused postmodern intellectuals of destroying “high culture” be effacing aesthetic standards. And so the litany goes on. It would be impossible to itemize the details of all these varied criticisms here. Instead, I will summarize them before moving on to the main topic of this essay: the emergence of postmodern conservatism and identity politics. The locus of many conservative criticisms of postmodernism seems to be twofold. Firstly, conservatives are concerned with the theoretical consequences of postmodern theory. In less sophisticated critiques, …

Can Liberalism Survive?

The political situation throughout Europe and North America has become increasingly volatile. For decades, a pro-business centre-right and a pro-labour centre-left have combined to dominate politics in most Western countries, allowing for a steady political situation with only modest changes between election cycles. Yet in recent years, this stability has come under pressure. Deutsche Bank’s Populism Index, updated after the recent Italian election, indicates that voter support for populist parties across key European countries is at its highest level since World War II, at over 30%. The Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index is more modest, measuring populist support last year at around 20%, having doubled since 1980. These figures might even underestimate dissatisfaction with the status quo. During the 2016 U.S. election, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran distinctively anti-establishment campaigns from within the established parties, meaning that voters didn’t need to shift parties to express their dissatisfaction. Trump has continued much of his anti-establishment rhetoric even after becoming president, and the Democratic Party has seen a surge in more left-leaning candidates who are convinced …

Two Arguments for Inequality

Social inequality is amongst the most contentious and prominent social issues in the twenty-first century. After declining significantly in the mid-twentieth century, inequality has now reached stark levels. A recent Credit Suisse report indicated that the globe’s richest 1 percent are on track to own half of the world’s wealth. In November 2017, Forbes reported that the three wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 160 million. The disparity between those who have a great deal, and those with much less, has grown so stark that in his bestselling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century economist Thomas Piketty warned that we might be entering a new “Gilded Age.” It would be driven by a global class of individuals who enjoy vast inherited wealth, demonstrate little allegiance to the nation state and its tax laws, and commit themselves to further entrenching their social power. These prompts raise the question of what can possibly justify such stark inequities; especially in a global context where the World Bank estimates that in 2013 roughly 767 million individuals lived on …

Liberalism, Classical and Egalitarian

Few reactions against postmodernism and identity politics have been as noticeable as the surging interest in classical liberalism. Against a hyper-egalitarianism concerned with safe spaces and achieving equality of outcome for all, modern classical liberals emphasize the importance of freedom of speech and meritocracy. Perhaps the most famous representative of this trend is Jordan Peterson. A self-described classical liberal, Peterson has offered scathing critiques of postmodern intersectionality and its concern with achieving equality of outcome for all people regardless of their inclinations and natural talents. He enjoys a lot of company these days. In a recent article for Quillette, Andrew Kelman condemns the influence of post-modern philosophy on the law via critical legal studies, and calls for a return to classical liberal principles in legal analysis. Recently fired Atlantic author Kevin Williamson has bemoaned the turn to radicalism on the Right and Left, lamenting that there is “no political home for classical liberalism at all” in contemporary society. Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame has written a dour book entitled Why Liberalism Failed …

The Philosophical Case Against Scientism

Scientism is the claim that science is the only source of knowledge. This claim has been the subject of intense controversy for years, and it has recently re-emerged in public debate following the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Admittedly, Pinker does not make this claim himself, but those who do are (mis)using his work in support of their claims, and the renewed controversy over the term provides us with an opportunity to revisit its validity. Representatives of the humanities, in particular, have had their feathers ruffled by the notion that empirical observation and hypothesis testing have a monopoly on rational inquiry as tight as that enjoyed by Andrew Carnegie on the steel industry in the 19th century; liberal arts need not apply. Much of the criticism of scientism has focused on the aesthetic poverty of abandoning the contemplation of Shakespeare for the study of synapses in humanity’s quest for knowledge of the world and of ourselves. These criticisms have some merit, but a stronger case against …

The Strange Truth About Alternative Facts

Facts are overrated in political and moral debates. They’re fragile and impotent. They don’t do the work expected of them. What follows is an explanation of why no one should be persuaded by most facts. This is not a rehashing of the well known inability of facts to persuade emotional beings. Nor is it a postmodern denial of truth. My point is that facts which are absolutely true can be absolutely irrelevant in overlooked ways. It’s obvious that facts can be irrelevant; everyone knows that. But some facts which seem relevant are not. For example, let’s say you ask me whether or not women face gender bias in grad school admissions and I tell you that hummingbirds can fly backwards. This is an obviously irrelevant fact. But if I told you that data shows female applicants were significantly less likely than male applicants to be accepted to grad school, that would also be irrelevant. How could that fact possibly be irrelevant? It seems like exactly the kind of fact that could help answer the question. But …

In Defence of Scientism

Nothing provokes widespread horror quite like science trespassing where it is said not to belong. This aversion is so powerful that it can unite the most disparate areas of the sociopolitical spectrum in a righteous fury. The extension of science into other spheres is typically decried as scientism, but the term is so broadly used that it’s often hard to pin down exactly what is being criticized. Applying science ‘out of context’ is too disenchanting, it is complained, too reductionist, too Western, too uncertain, too arrogant. Most of these objections are spurious. Science is not exclusively reductionist, nor uniquely Western, and its notoriety for disillusionment is as overstated as it is perverse. These objections are propped up by a litany of misconceptions about the scientific method and practice, and often make strawmen of themselves by attacking obsolete scientific philosophies. Turning to the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, we find scientism to be an inflated “trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (in philosophy, the social sciences, and the …