All posts filed under: Philosophy

Four Flavors of Doom: A Taxonomy of Contemporary Pessimism

In his short, provocative book Has the West Lost It?, the Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani identifies a curious paradox. In many respects, the world has never been in better shape than today. People live longer, healthier, more peaceful, and safer lives than at any previous time in history. According to Mahbubani, this enormous improvement in the human condition is a result of Western ideas and practices—modern science, liberal democracy, free markets—spreading to other societies. And yet, surveys show that nowhere on Earth do people have such a bleak view of the future as in the West. Has the West indeed lost it? Westerners today are pessimistic about a whole panoply of things: overpopulation, global warming (or “global heating”), the ravages of neoliberalism, rapid deforestation and species extinction, soaring inequality, the rise of far-Right populism, mass immigration, the epidemic of depressions and burn-outs, the creeping “Islamization” of Western societies, robots taking over the world, or perhaps just the terminal ennui awaiting us all at the End of History. Looking beyond their specific concerns, it is possible …

The Inner Nature of Freedom

All the while, that reign of desires savagely tyrannizes and batters a person’s whole life and mind with storm’s ranging in all directions. On this side fear, on that side desire, on this side anxiety, on that side empty spurious enjoyment, on this side torment over the loss of something loved, on the ardor to acquire something not yet possessed, on this side sorrows over injuries received, on that the burning desire to redress it. Whichever way one turns greed can pinch, extravagance squander, ambition enslave, pride puff up, envy twist, laziness overcome, stubbornness provoke, submissiveness oppress-these and countless others throng the realm of lust, having the run of it. ~St. Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will In an earlier article with Ben Burgis, we argued that it was a mistake to claim that the fundamental divide between the political Left and Right was between an emphasis on equality by the former and liberty by the latter. As we put it, almost “everyone values freedom” regardless of where they stand on the political …

Sedentary Revolutionaries: Two Academics Who Joined the Nazi Party

Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), two of the most prominent German thinkers of the twentieth century, became members of the Nazi Party in 1933, and briefly held positions of some prominence after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Heidegger spent just over a year as Rector of the University of Freiburg (1933–1934); Schmitt spent the years 1933 to 1936 as the “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich” whilst teaching law in Berlin. After the end of the Second World War, neither man publicly explained or apologised for his earlier political activities. In spite of his close association with Nazism, Heidegger’s reputation as one of the twentieth century’s preeminent thinkers has never faded: he ranks with Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) as one of the most influential philosophers since Nietzsche, and he has enjoyed particularly widespread admiration in France; prominent thinkers including Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), and Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) have all learnt from (and struggled with) Heidegger’s notoriously difficult oeuvre. Schmitt’s work, on the other hand, fell into relative eclipse after the war. …

My Testimony on Reparations

Editor’s note: Coleman Hughes delivered the following testimony at a United States House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Bill H.R. 40 on June 19, 2019. If passed, the bill would establish a commission for reparations. Thank you Chairman Cohen, ranking member Johnson, and members of the committee. It’s an honor to testify on a topic as important as this one. Nothing I’m about to say is meant to minimize the horror and brutality of slavery and Jim Crow. Racism is a bloody stain on this country’s history, and I consider our failure to pay reparations directly to freed slaves after the Civil War to be one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by the U.S. government. But I worry that our desire to fix the past compromises our ability to fix the present. Think about what we’re doing today. We’re spending our time debating a bill that mentions slavery 25 times but incarceration only once, in an era with zero black slaves but nearly a million black prisoners—a bill that doesn’t mention homicide once, at a …

The Conservative Manifesto Buried in ‘Avengers: Endgame’

For the last decade or so, American cinema has exhibited a paradox: Though Hollywood has become more and more liberal, especially on issues of race and gender, Hollywood blockbusters have become more conservative—not just by recycling old plot points, as Star Wars has done, but also, in the case of superhero movies, by indulging a politics of reaction. What might be called “Nolan’s enigma” began in earnest with The Dark Knight, which involved a tough-on-crime WASP using torture, intimidation, and surveillance to bring down a media-savvy terrorist. The Dark Knight Rises took things one step further with Bane, a menacing mix of Robespierre and Ruthenberg, whose pseudo-Marxist coup unleashes all manner of mayhem upon Gotham: banishments and public hangings, street brawls and show trials, and—in a scene lifted straight out of the French revolution—the storming of Blackgate (Bastille) prison. Not to be outdone, Marvel soon embraced its own brand of post-9/11 conservatism. In every Avengers film, Joshua Tait notes, “it really is 1938….The threats are real and the Avengers’ unilateral actions are necessary” to protect …

The Rise of the Illiberal Right

In recent days, American right-of-center Internet has been consumed by an often acrimonious and sometimes comical public drama: a polemical battle over an essay by author and New York Post oped editor Sohrab Ahmari entitled “Against David French-ism.” The subject of this philippic, published in the religious conservative magazine First Things, is National Review writer David French, who Ahmari considers to be emblematic of a conservatism too weak and effete for the modern-day culture wars. Some of this quarrel is plainly over the simple matter of allegiance to Donald Trump: French is a staunch “Never Trumper,” while Ahmari is a former Never Trumper who, depending on where you stand, either saw the light or surrendered to the dark side. However, it is also a dispute about more fundamental issues related to the future of American conservatism, and the future of liberal democracy. French, like Ahmari, is a Christian who subscribes to traditional sexual morality. But Ahmari’s quarrel with him is twofold. One, “Though culturally conservative, French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy …

Why We Should Read Machiavelli

In the mid-1990s, film critic David Denby wrote Great Books, in which he recounted a year spent at Columbia University taking two core courses in the humanities that focused on “Western classics” written by so-called “Dead White European Males.” It was “thirty years after [Denby entered] Columbia University for the first time,” when “[n]o one…could possibly have imagined that in the following decades the courses would be alternatively reviled as an iniquitous oppression and adored as a bulwark of the West.” Indeed, a prevalent critique was (and still is) that the classics were written by white men relevant primarily in connection to a regime of power that exerted cultural and political hegemony over large parts of the world. “Dead white males” had had their time in the sun. One of the most recognizable “dead white males” was Niccolo Machiavelli. Famous for having written the how-to book on power politics, Machiavelli might seem to have deserved special censure for writing about power at the dawn of the age of exploration which preceded European imperialism. Fortunately, however, …

Michael Oakeshott and the Intellectual Roots of Postmodern Conservatism

To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. ~Michael Oakeshott, On Being Conservative. In his seminal essay “The Intransigent Right at the End of the Century” in the London Review of Books, the historian Perry Anderson listed Michael Oakeshott as one of the four great right-wing thinkers of the twentieth century. Anderson acknowledges that while the other three—F.A. Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Carl Schmitt—remain well known amongst the literate public across the Western world, Oakeshott remains a somewhat elusive figure. That is unfortunate. Not only was his thinking highly interesting on its own merits, it was also ahead of its time in anticipating the emergence of postmodern conservatism. Oakeshott’s Life and Thinking On the surface, it might appear odd to characterize Oakeshott as a predecessor to postmodern conservatism. While the polemical …

The Crisis of Sense-Making

Political events in recent years have crept over the postwar order like dark clouds, and the heavy air has shaped public discourse and sensibility in ways that are unexpected and confounding. Words recited in the headlines every day give us a litany of agitation or exhilaration: Trump, Brexit, Populism, Impeachment, Social Media, Social Justice Warriors, #MeToo, Alt-Right, Troll Farms, the Death of Journalism, the Rise of Authoritarianism, Fake News, ISIS, and so on. A perceptive insight into this landscape has come from the “Intellectual Dark Web” and other commentators found on various internet platforms: we are facing a crisis of sense-making. The incongruity of decisions made in institutions against public feeling derives from a failure of individuals in society to make sense of the world together. It’s not hard to find an ostensible cause. The internet has transformed the medium of public discourse, with profound implications for how ideas and opinions are shaped and spread. At the same time, certain economic and cultural processes have begun to generate big problems for which we don’t yet …

Secular Morality Does Not Depend on Faith

In his piece ‘Values: Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne,’ John Staddon denies he ever claimed that secular humanism is a religion. Yet in Staddon’s original article, ‘Is Secular Humanism a Religion?,’ which I criticized in my response, ‘Secular Humanism Is Not A Religion,’ his very first sentence is this: “It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.” Has he already forgotten this? But forget Staddon’s rewriting of history. In his new piece, he concentrates on one similarity he finds between religious and secular morality—both, he says, are based on faith: . . . in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion. Nevertheless, he sees religious morals as superior because they rest on religious stories, stories that he admits are myths: The fact that religious morals are derived from religious stories—myths in Mr. Coyne’s book—does not make them any more dismissible than Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are …