The way out of philosophy runs through philosophy

There’s a phrase I’ve been thinking about for years, ever since I read it somewhere or other in Freud: “the moderate misery required for productive work.”  It struck me as plausible; someone who isn’t miserable at all is unlikely to settle willingly into the tedious, repetitive tasks that productive work often involves, while someone who is deeply miserable is unlikely to tolerate such tasks long enough to complete them.  If blogging counts as productive work, I myself may recently have represented a case in point.  Throughout the summer and into the autumn, I wasn’t miserable at all, and I barely posted a thing.  Then I caught a cold, and I posted daily for a week or so.  If I’m typical of bloggers in this respect, maybe I could also claim to have something in common with a philosopher.  Samuel Johnson once quipped that he had intended to become a philosopher, but couldn’t manage it.  The cause of his failure?  “Cheerfulness kept breaking in.”

One item I kept meaning to post notes on when cheerfulness was distracting me from the blog was a magazine article about Johnson’s contemporary, David Hume.  Hume, of course, was a philosopher; indeed, many would argue that he was “the most important philosopher ever to write in English.”  Contrary to what Johnson’s remark suggests, however, Hume was suspected of cheerfulness on many occasions.  The article I’ve kept meaning to note is by Hume scholar and anti-nationalist Donald W. Livingston; despite the radicalism of Livingston’s politics (his avowed goal is to dissolve the United States of America in order to replace it with communities built on a “human scale”) in this article he praises Hume as “The First Conservative.”  Hume’s conservatism, in Livingston’s view, comes not only from his recognition of the fact that oversized political units such as nation-states and continental empires are inherently degrading to individuals and destructive of life-giving traditions, but also from his wariness towards the philosophical enterprise.  Hume saw philosophy as a necessary endeavor, not because it was the road to any particular truths, but because philosophical practice alone could cure the social and psychological maladies that the influence of philosophy had engendered in the West.

This is the sort of view that we sometimes associate with Ludwig Wittgenstein; so, it’s easy to find books and articles with titles like “The End of Philosophy” and “Is Philosophy Dead?” that focus on Wittgenstein.  But Livingston demonstrates that Hume, writing more than a century and a half before Wittgenstein, had made just such an argument.  Livingston’s discussion of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (first published in 1739-1740) is worth quoting at length:

Hume forged a distinction in his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), between “true” and “false” philosophy.  The philosophical act of thought has three constituents. First, it is inquiry that seeks an unconditioned grasp of the nature of reality. The philosophical question takes the form: “What ultimately is X?” Second, in answering such questions the philosopher is only guided by his autonomous reason. He cannot begin by assuming the truth of what the poets, priests, or founders of states have said. To do so would be to make philosophy the handmaiden of religion, politics, or tradition. Third, philosophical inquiry, aiming to grasp the ultimate nature of things and guided by autonomous reason, has a title to dominion. As Plato famously said, philosophers should be kings.

Yet Hume discovered that the principles of ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion, though essential to the philosophical act, are incoherent with human nature and cannot constitute an inquiry of any kind.  If consistently pursued, they entail total skepticism and nihilism. Philosophers do not end in total skepticism, but only because they unknowingly smuggle in their favorite beliefs from the prejudices of custom, passing them off as the work of a pure, neutral reason. Hume calls this “false philosophy” because the end of philosophy is self-knowledge, not self-deception.

The “true philosopher” is one who consistently follows the traditional conception of philosophy to the bitter end and experiences the dark night of utter nihilism. In this condition all argument and theory is reduced to silence. Through this existential silence and despair the philosopher can notice for the first time that radiant world of pre-reflectively received common life which he had known all along through participation, but which was willfully ignored by the hubris of philosophical reflection.

It is to this formerly disowned part of experience that he now seeks to return. Yet he also recognizes that it was the philosophic act that brought him to this awareness, so he cannot abandon inquiry into ultimate reality, as the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics and their postmodern progeny try to do. Rather he reforms it in the light of this painfully acquired new knowledge.

What must be given up is the autonomy principle. Whereas the false philosopher had considered the totality of pre-reflectively received common life to be false unless certified by the philosopher’s autonomous reason, the true philosopher now presumes the totality of common life to be true. Inquiry thus takes on a different task. Any belief within the inherited order of common life can be criticized in the light of other more deeply established beliefs. These in turn can be criticized in the same way. And so Hume defines “true philosophy” as “reflections on common life methodized and corrected.”

By common life Hume does not mean what Thomas Paine or Thomas Reid meant by “common sense,” namely a privileged access to knowledge independent of critical reflection; this would be just another form of “false philosophy.” “Common life” refers to the totality of beliefs and practices acquired not by self-conscious reflection, propositions, argument, or theories but through pre-reflective  participation in custom and tradition. We learn to speak English by simply speaking it under the guidance of social authorities. After acquiring sufficient skill, we can abstract and reflect on the rules of syntax, semantics, and grammar that are internal to it and form judgments as to excellence in spoken and written English.  But we do not first learn these rules and then apply them as a condition of speaking the language. Knowledge by participation, custom, tradition, habit, and prejudice is primordial and is presupposed by knowledge gained from reflection.

The error of philosophy, as traditionally conceived—and especially modern philosophy—is to think that abstract rules or ideals gained from reflection are by themselves sufficient to guide conduct and belief. This is not to say abstract rules and ideals are not needed in critical thinking—they are—but only that they cannot stand on their own. They are abstractions or stylizations from common life; and, as abstractions, are indeterminate unless interpreted by the background prejudices of custom and tradition. Hume follows Cicero in saying that “custom is the great guide of life.” But custom understood as “methodized and corrected” by loyal and skillful participants.

The distinction between true and false philosophy is like the distinction between valid and invalid inferences in logic or between scientific and unscientific thinking. A piece of thinking can be “scientific”—i.e., arrived at in the right way—but contain a false conclusion. Likewise, an argument can be valid, in that the conclusion logically follows from the premises on pain of contradiction, even if all propositions in the argument are false. Neither logically valid nor scientific thinking can guarantee truth; nor can “true philosophy.” It cannot tell us whether God exists, or whether morals are objective or what time is. These must be settled, if at all, by arguments within common life.

True philosophy is merely the right way for the philosophical impulse to operate when exploring these questions. The alternative is either utter nihilism (and the end of philosophical inquiry) or the corruptions of false philosophy. True philosophy merely guarantees that we will be free from those corruptions.

This is rather like one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s parables, from Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885).  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra preaches that the superman must become a camel, so as to bear the heaviest of all weights, which is the humiliation that comes when one discovers the extent of one’s ignorance, and the commitment to enlighten that ignorance; that he must then put the camel aside and become a lion, so that he may slay the dragon of “Thou-Shalt” and undertake to discover his own morality; and that at the last he must become a child, so that he may put that struggle behind him and be ready to meet new challenges, not as reenactments of his past triumphs, but on their own terms.  According to Livingston, Hume, like Nietzsche, sees the uneducated European as a half-formed philosopher, and believes that with a complete philosophical education s/he can become something entirely different from a philosopher:

Philosophy was not a problem for ancient Greek and Roman society because few were literate and could take an interest in it and because the pagan authorities confined it to private sects. By the 18th century, however, philosophy had become a mass phenomenon shaping all aspects of culture. As Diderot said, “Let us hasten to make philosophy popular … let us approach the people where the philosophers are.” Contrast this with Hume, who contemptuously described his own time as “this philosophic age.” It was and is an age in which the world inversions of false philosophy would generate mass enthusiasms, especially in politics. King Midas would become a political leader transmuting everything he touched into a favorite philosophic superstition.

How did this happen? Hume’s answer is unexpected and turns on his understanding of the relation of philosophy to religion. Both have distinct origins in human nature. Religion springs from fear and humility, philosophy from curiosity and pride. False philosophy, said Hume, is “the Voice of Pride not Nature,” and he observes that the countless sects of philosophy in the classical world were more fanatical than ancient religious cults. The reason was that ancient religion was polytheistic and rooted in sacred traditions; as such it moved easily within the sphere of common life. Each religion could be different without being contrary.

Christianity was also rooted in sacred tradition, but unlike paganism it is universalist and cannot tolerate other religions. In this it resembles philosophy, which is also universalist and cannot tolerate the world inversions of other philosophies. When Christianity appeared, philosophy was widespread in the learned world, and so Christian sacred tradition had to defend itself with philosophical arguments. The result was theology, a merger of sacred tradition with Greek philosophy.

This was a dangerous compound because it combined the hubris of philosophy with a jealous theistic religion motivated by fear. What caused Christendom to become the scene of implacable conflict and persecution was not its content as sacred tradition but its false philosophical content sublimated in theology.

So in Christendom philosophy became the handmaiden of theology. In time it grew weary of this secondary role and by the late 17th century had freed itself from sacred tradition and appeared on the scene as the pure unmoderated philosophic act, just as it had first appeared in the ancient world. But modern social circumstances were different. In the ancient world philosophy never reached the masses. But in Christendom everyone was a theologian of sorts, and a theologian is a philosopher constrained only by sacred tradition. Unlike the ancient Greeks, all in Christendom had an ear for the philosophic idiom.

As the authority of sacred tradition waned, secular philosophical movements would take their place and battle each other for control of the state—an instrument of centralized control that was itself a creation of modern philosophy. Hume wrote: “no party, in the present age, can well support itself without a philosophical or speculative system of principles annexed to its political or practical one.”

For Livingston, philosophy is a deadly menace in the Christian and post-Christian world.  Philosophers like John Locke tried to derive theories of liberty from abstract principles, while Hume studied the history of people who had enjoyed liberty.  Livingston follows the a trail that runs from Edmund Burke to Irving Babbitt to conservative thinkers in our own day in attributing civil wars and revolutionary despotisms to Locke’s style of thought:

Locke explains individual liberty in terms of timeless abstract natural rights possessed by all individuals in an ahistoric state of nature. And public liberty (government) is explained as an institution made by a contract between these individuals to protect their natural rights. In the philosopher’s “vacuum,” Locke has taken a part of common life (making contracts) and transmuted it into the whole of political experience. To this Hume replied that government cannot originate from a contract because the concept of a contract presupposes government for its enforcement.

Further, the notion of “consent” framed in the “vacuum” of the state of nature is abstract and indeterminate, and so there is no non-arbitrary way to apply it. If consent is taken in its ordinary sense, then no government in history has been based on consent, but it would be nihilistic to say that no government in history has been legitimate. On the other hand, if consent is relaxed to include “tacit consent,” as Hobbes does, then any government that is obeyed, however tyrannical it might be, is based on consent. The famous contact theory, from Hobbes to Rawls, is not a searching insight into our political condition but a philosophic superstition that hides that condition from us and perverts critical judgments about it.

In contrast to Locke, Hume does not seek to understand liberty as an instantiation of abstract principles. Indeed, Hume offers no theory of liberty at all. Rather, he thinks of liberty as a historic practice, like a natural language or like the convention of money, that has evolved over time—the practical work of many hands, acting in ignorance of each other and planned by no one. So Hume could speak of “the wisdom of the British constitution, or rather the concurrence of accidents.” This notion of an objective social order created by individual intentions but intended by no one was developed by the Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, who acknowledged Hume’s influence.

To understand the practice of liberty requires a connoisseur’s knowledge of its history, its current condition, and—since it is still evolving—a critical exploration of its potentialities.  And that is what Hume undertook in his History of England and in many of the Essays Moral, Literary and Political. Hume hoped that a concrete understanding of the practice of liberty and its potentialities would free political discourse from Lockean and other Whiggish superstitions. These had distorted understanding of the past and present and created a paranoid style of politics.

And so:

Hume distinguished between parties of interest (for example, agricultural versus commercial), affection (loyalty to one’s people or a ruling family), and those of philosophical theory. The last were a uniquely modern phenomenon: “Parties from principle, especially abstract speculative principle, are known only to modern times, and are, perhaps, the most extraordinary and unaccountable phenomenon, that has appeared in human affairs.” Here was the first identification of that cacophony of ideologies and “isms” that would disorder modern political discourse.

Hume viewed the English Civil War as the event where the philosophic act began to break free from sacred tradition. This was possible because the authority of sacred tradition had eroded to the point that modern religion had become “nothing more than a species of philosophy.” Of Puritanism he said, “being chiefly spiritual [it] resembles more a system of metaphsyics” than a religion. Puritanism was false philosophy in a religious idiom. The Puritans, and the even more radical sects in orbit around them, did not seek reform but total transformation. And “every successive revolution became a precedent for that which followed it.”

Hume’s account of the Puritan revolution was a textbook case of false philosophy in politics—what Oakeshott would later call “rationalism in politics,” Voegelin “Gnosticism,” and Camus “metaphysical rebellion.” His History of England was popular in France and had been read for some 30 years before the Revolution. When the storm broke, both left and right viewed what was happening in France as a reenactment of the English Civil War and took Hume as a prophetic guide. The Jacobins were the Puritans, Louis XVI was Charles I, Napoleon would be Cromwell. The Catholic right held up Hume as the “Scottish Bousset.” Louis XVI, who as a boy met Hume at court, became obsessed with parallels between himself and Charles I. Upon receiving the death sentence, he asked for Hume’s volume on Charles I to read in the last days of his life.

Hume’s account of the English Civil War as an act of false philosophy in politics was a foundational text for conservatism in France. So close was the identity of Hume’s account of the Puritan revolution with the French that Joseph de Maistre, a founder of French conservatism, could title the last chapter of his popular Considerations sur la France (1796), “Fragments of a History of the French Revolution by David Hume.” Burke’s Reflections were written just as the Revolution was getting underway. The account was prophetic in part because when Burke looked at what was happening in France he saw what Hume had prepared him to see in his history of the Puritan revolution.

What does Hume’s dialectic of true and false philosophy have to do with conservatism? The term “conservatism” itself provides a clue. Other ideologies wear something of their meaning on their face. The term “liberalism” is somehow about liberty; “feminism” about the rights of women; “communism” about community; and so forth. But “conservatism” provides no indication of what is to be conserved. This vacuity, I suggest, is due to its philosophic character.

The term first appears in Chateaubriand’s counterrevolutionary Le Conservateur (1818). As a self-conscious movement, “conservatism” begins as resistance to the world-inverting ideologies of the French Revolution. It has no particular content because, as a philosophical position, what the conservative is trying to conserve is not this or that particular policy or institution but the pre-reflectively established world of common life itself against the world inversions of false philosophy.

We might call this “ontological conservatism.” The conservative tradition is true to itself only insofar as it has this ontological character. Whether this or that policy or institution should be preserved, eliminated, or reformed, is a question to be settled by Hume’s “true philosophy” within the world of common life.

For all that he follows and cites conservative thinkers in his critique of ideology, and for all that the article appeared in a magazine called The American Conservative, Livingston is as wary of self-described “conservatives” as of any other political group:

Although conservatism originated in a critique of false philosophy in politics, it is as much disposed to that pathology as other political systems. And use of the word “conservative” makes the pathology more difficult to detect. De Maistre went to Russia after the French Revolution hoping, he said, to find a country not “scribbled on by philosophy.” What he found instead was a Russian intelligentsia eagerly embracing the philosophic superstitions of the French Enlightenment. Hume recognized—much earlier than de Maistre—that we live in the first “philosophic age.” There is no longer a country not scribbled on by philosophy. The only question is whether it will be written on by a true or corrupt form of the philosophical act.

Livingston’s opposition to the continued existence of the USA makes a good deal of sense if one accepts the idea that what is needed to build and sustain a humane community is liberation from ideology.  Aristotle thought that the right size for a sovereign state was the space a person could walk around in a single day; unity, in a place that size, could grow out of shared experiences and a realistic expectation that fellow citizens would come to one another’s aid in times of need.  But what common experiences can bind more than 300,000,000 inhabitants of a continental empire, if not the experience of sharing an ideology?  What can the members of such a multitude expect of one another, except that they will cheer the same, highly abstract, slogans and hate the same, comfortably distant,  enemies?  The half-formed philosopher may be driven to create a political unit at least on the scale of a nation-state; the resident of such a political unit will certainly be driven to become a half-formed philosopher.

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