Friday, June 21, 2013

Tradition and Empiricism

Unanimity of voting, — that will do nothing for us if so. Your ship cannot double Cape Horn by its excellent plans of voting. The ship may vote this and that, above decks and below, in the most harmonious exquisitely constitutional manner: the ship, to get round Cape Horn, will find a set of conditions already voted for, and fixed with adamantine rigor by the ancient Elemental Powers, who are entirely careless how you vote. If you can, by voting or without voting, ascertain these conditions, and valiantly conform to them, you will get round the Cape: if you cannot, the ruffian Winds will blow you ever back again - Carlyle

The rallying cry behind the neoreactionary movement seems to be one most aptly expressed by this oft-repeated verse from Thomas Carlyle. Whereas Carlyle focuses purely on the chaos of the so called democratic political system of modernity, I continue to find mostly an absence of the discussion of the Humean condition. More succinctly, the chaos surrounding basic human epistemology. Of course, most humans are naive realists when it comes to what they think it is possible to know, and how we can come to know it. Though we can trace the origins of modern epistemology back to more ancient sources, I'll start my brief essay with an examination that occurred during the period of enlightenment, which seems to be the most appropriate context in which to discuss this issue. This discussion can be framed as rationalism versus empiricism. Of course, the historical connotation of rationalist is far and away different than the general use of the word. Another way of putting the debate, is the tension between how much we can rely on experience versus how much we can know beyond experience. (If you're a reader of Nick Land and understand him for the most part, then this is probably elementary to you - and make no mistake, his writings are fantastic)

 If we subscribe to Cartesian epistemology, then we can feel rest assured that we have time for introspection and planning, as we slowly build our ship to take the trip around the Cape. You would tend to believe that we can structure our democratic institutions in such a way that will allow us to escape the gravity of nature's consequences. Beyond the basics of knowing what has been taught to us by experience as to what will allow us to effectively build a ship, Cartestianism will allow us to go beyond our experience. In essence, we will experiment with designs of knowledge that we feel are deduced from previous truths. Descartes assured us that the best way to formulate a method is to start with reason, our most certain of certainties, -the tired phrase "je pense, donc je suis" - from which we can deduce a system of thought which will lead us to truth and not error. In short, we will take some time off from the real world and lay out our schematics for the most perfect ship possible. Is this fracturing of knowledge from natural experience even possible? Can we ascertain as to how we can escape reality so that we can then create systems of thought that allow us to master the natural world? This is a very tricky area. For concrete and mostly unchanging subjects (i.e. physics), this seems to be somewhat possible, though the slight confusion in modern physics shows that we perhaps have had a bit of trouble of mapping out the structure of atomic interactions. Though, since I'm typing from a machine that utilizes electronic circuits that were derived from quantum systems, we have obviously done fairly well for ourselves in this regard. 

One can also frame the tension between the rationalist and the empiricist with the germ theory of disease (views in philosophy of science have different terms, but we're keeping it as simple as possible). Initially, it was obviously a rationalistic endeavor, as we couldn't see microbes. But the use of the theory eventually led empirically justified results. People's lives were saved. Disease was more effectively fought. The emphasis, without trying to sound like a member of the Vienna circle, was that it was empirically tested and verified. Whenever one gets into the examining other theoretical phenomenon, such as the ontological status of electrons or the like, things began to get more fuzzy. Regardless, these are [mostly] physical things that are substantially less dynamic than a single human being. And thus, quasi-infinitely less complicated than aggregations of human beings in terms of political systems. 

The theories of politics are hopelessly naive, in the non-pejorative sense of the word. Not only have we yet to formally systematize human behavior (I've yet to read more Mises, but I'm skeptical a priori of a priori systems of human actions, and you should be as well), but that fact alone shows how far (if it's even possible) we are from formalizing human behavior on a societal level. What then, can we hope to frame as the ultimate virtue of a political system?

I would argue that it is results or at the very least, a more future-oriented outlook. Without any sort of effective scientific or rationalistic way to analyze human political endeavors, we're left with a rather naive version of analysis that is similar to Aristotelian virtue analysis. Which is to say that what is effective and what works is what effective and what works. But before one can come to such dismally self-evident truth, the difficultly in such a framework of governmental analysis arises. Namely, we have to know what we are trying to achieve with a government before we rate it as effective and working. As much as I hate teleological language, you can't know what you're hoping to achieve without knowing where you hope to end up. What is the purpose of a political movement? Thus, one can easily see the errors inherent in something such as the Occupy movement, third-wave feminism, or really, any of the Cathedral's championed causes (strange how the Cathedral is able to concoct a movement against its self while at the same time remaining its self - but it seems that's one way in which legitimacy of the system is achieved - or to put it more concretely, the Cathedral knows exactly how to create a continued illusion of progress), as they strive for change.

When questioned as to what change, one receives vague terms such as fairness, justice, equality, or any other benign term of the Enlightenment. How can one effectively change without actual purpose or an actual goal that resides in reality - rather than appealing to some Platonic Form such as justice. This also raises the interesting fact that these post-modern movements, which are opposed Enlightenment thinkers in general (post-modernism, in its most simple form, being a reaction against modernity/enlightenment), sees it fit to employ the language of Locke, Jefferson, etc., though post-modern genealogy of thought abhors such characters and concepts - and that's ignoring the fact that they are hijacking the inventions of cis-gendered, "racist", WASP males (The most ultimate of progressive sin!). Perhaps we should imagine post-modernism as a carrion, picking what it wants from the (supposedly - though we know better) long dead carcass of past intellectual thought. 

The neoreactionary cause seems to be adherence to tradition. Which is where the title of the essay is derived from. What is tradition, if not other than the collective experiences of a group. In terms of very basic selective processes, we could argue that it is collective experience that has been empirically verified in a sense. It is safe and effective because we know it's worked because we have seen it work. It's almost a circular argument that nearly always goes back to experience. As Carlyle illustrated (with me horrendously paraphrasing), we think that we shall want to tear down one of the four walls holding our home intact, to open up the place and let in the light! But once the wall is torn down, we can finally observe that perhaps that wall was structurally necessary to keep the roof over our heads and to keep the elements of nature at bay. Essentially, we always want to do things differently and to change, but such drastic measures tend to have unintended consequences.

To finally complete the ship analogy with which I started, we'll examine the empiricists view of ship-building, the tired old philosophical cliche. Rather than believing that we have safe harbor from which to build our ship to navigate the Cape, empiricists know otherwise. We know that not only are we not safely tucked away in our dry dock constructing the next indestructible ship, but that we are already proverbially out to sea. We are in fact, floating out at sea on a piece of drift-wood, as we cautiously search for the next piece to add to our meager ship. There is no time to plan, for the temporal ocean jostles us back and forth as we attempt to construct a structure capable of keeping us afloat as long as possible, while we attempt to round the Cape - which we are increasingly skeptical of whether such an endeavor is even possible. Rather than adherence to grand plans and schemes that are oh so mighty in design and moral superiority, we know that survival is a fickle thing. How did the rationalist so misunderstand that he is actually already out to sea?

For further reading on tradition and empiricism:

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