Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Philosophical Musing 1: Historical Determinism, Epistemology, and Total War

***This will be one in a series of probably three "philosophical musings" posts from me. They've been slowly written over the last month and a half or so. This one frames the total war of the first half of the 20th century as an important historical singularity that was made inevitable by the epistemological projects that emerged from the Enlightenment.***
A couple weeks back, I worked through this documentary on the Spanish Civil War, which is especially rewarding because it is interview-heavy. It, along with a lot of thinking I've been doing over the last year on the inter-war economy, has helped to focus my attention on broader, more fundamental questions about the period from 1914 to 1945 - quite possibly the most catastrophic and revolutionary period in human history.

Although we present WWI and WWII in light of "making the world safe for democracy", to a large extent this was not the point or purpose of the wars at all. To a large degree, this extended war was a war between communism and fascism. Fascism lost, liberals became quickly disillusioned with communism, and the Cold War slowly wore communism down as well. I think instinctively we don't like this understanding of the wars. Great wars should have "good guys" and "bad guys" and the "good guys" should win, right? The point that the defining conflict of the 20th century was a conflict between two "bad guys" comes across as somewhat surprising.

I want to argue that this interpretation should not be a surprising thing at all. In a lot of ways, total war was pre-ordained at the Enlightenment, which released the forces of Reason. Reason applied to society constructs social mega-programs built from considerably smaller logical axioms. Undue faith in our reason leads us to trust these mega-programs, which are iterated synthetic a priori propositions: "true" propositions which are not axiomatic but which are also considered "a priori" because they are true independent of experience. These rational mega-programs are what we also know as the "-isms": communism, fascism, libertarianism, syndicalism, anarchism, etc. All are thrust upon society with absolute confidence in their own self-evidence. They are not tested or evolved - they are deduced - that is their hallmark: logical deduction. This is the spawn of unchecked Reason.

In societies where Empiricism dominated or at least competed vigorously with Rationalism, these "-isms" did not take hold. The value of a mega-program had to be demonstrated, so change was slower and planning was less grandiose. The political, economic, and social systems of Empiricist societies evolved, and were generally conservative and relatively undisruptive.

I think it's reasonable to suggest that from the outset global, total war was an inevitable result of the rise of Reason. Reason results in social mega-programs and complete faith in the value of these mega-programs. Since the logical faculties of human beings are bound to fail or vary, a myriad of these self-confident mega-programs could have been expected to emerge, and indeed did emerge. In this sense, Reason is very likely to be a divergent epistemological endeavor, whereas empiricism can be thought of as a convergent epistemological endeavor (this is quite a claim, I know - at first glance you would assume that experience would vary much more widely between individuals than logic would - I don't think this is true, although I can't really prove it here... I'm thinking along the lines of "the wisdom of crowds" type argument).

If, back in 1700 or so, we had to predict what would happen in the far future given the emerging landscape of epistemology, what would we conclude? I would argue that we would conclude that Empirical societies would slowly change and evolve into more efficient societies. They would try out new forms of organization, evaluate the adjustments they make, and proceed forward from there. The outcomes can be expected to be roughly as variable as human experience is. In societies where Reason dominates, we can imagine social theorists not moving incrementally, but designing and promoting programs constructed from basic axioms of human behavior. Whereas in empirical societies, a program of social organization may take decades of incrementalism to evolve, in rational societies, a philosopher dedicated to the task of designing a program of social organization could produce his tailor-made program in under a decade. So, back in 1700 we could expect socieites grounded in Reason to produce a number of mega-programs that involved a radical alteration of social organization. These mega-programs would appear paradoxical to the empiricist, because they are (1.) entirely untested, and yet (2.) vigorously believed in.

Given a basic assumption that human collectives can be extremely violent, I think someone in 1700 could have concluded that the Enlightenment and the rise of Reason necessitated:

1. The emergence of several different mega-programs for social organization grounded in Reason and a unique, internally consistent deductive logic,

2. Which are both untested and attract exuberant devotees, and that

3. That the incompatibility of these mega-programs will lead to conflict between the devotees of the mega-programs, so that

4. As soon as technology allows, and as soon as a critical mass of states capitulate to the various mega-programs, a total war between the logically deduced mega-programs will errupt

Contingent on the presence of a decently large population of Empirical societies, the early 18th century observer might also conclude that:

5. The empiricists will be left to pick up the pieces, because empirical social organizations will always be more robust than logically-deduced social organizations. Therefore, any rationalists allied with the empiricists will share victory, but will themselves slowly be superceded by the empiricists.

We think of the world wars just another spectacular episode in the march of human history. The earliest we date the "inevitability" of WWII is November 11th, 1918. The earliest that we date the "inevitability" of WWI is perhaps German unification and the inauguration of the Second Reich under Bismark in 1871. I argue that we should have seen this coming much, much earlier than that. History is a series of choices by human beings, and human choice is dictated by the way we understand and interpret our world. As soon as Reason emerged in the modern world as a major and pervasive force for understanding the world, a global, total war was inevitable (clearly Reason pre-dates the enlightenment, but it seems to me it was kept in check by revealed religion before the modern era). The world wars were not another episode in history: they were a pre-determined historical singularity, necessitated by the epistemology of the Enlightenment. The precise actors and battles may not have been pre-determined, but the forces driving the conflagration were.

I've presented this largely as a modern drama: an internicine struggle among rationalists, as well as a contrast between rationalists and empiricists. Looking forward, what I think is significant is that modernism is not a foregone conclusion at all. First and foremost, pre-modern thought patterns have reasserted themselves in the age of holy terror. While the pre-modern factions in Islam that have lately resisted the West and sought to establish a new caliphate are the most prominent example, other (admittedly less problematic) examples abound as well. Christian Fundamentalism holds considerable sway in no less a polity than the United States. By "Christian Fundamentalism" I don't simply mean "Christian Conservatism," which can be entirely benign and often even beneficial. I'm refering to fundamentalism, which brooks neither logic nor experience as the primary path that humans must travel to find truth. In the former Soviet Union, many societies are reverting to their pre-Rationalist days, before the Communist mega-program, to the tsarism of a bygone era. This is also true of much of Africa, which, after throwing off the oppressive yoke imperialism (or more accurately, after having this yoke removed for them by a repentant imperialist) have not embraced constitutional democracy, but instead have relied on strongmen, warlords, and tribalism. And of course in other regions, Rationalism has not yet even been tempered. Marxism still dominates much of South America. Fortunately, East Asia has joined the empiricist camp with gusto, and even China and India are tentatively following in the footsteps of Japan, Korea, and Australia. On top of this re-emergence of pre-modernism, there is also the looming specter of post-modernism, which I honestly can't make heads or tails of in this schema.

This is one view of modern history, one that I find relatively convincing and meaningful. It doesn't answer every question, but I think it sheds new light on the world wars and the Cold War. These are epochal events, pre-ordained for centuries. We got through them. Thinking in these mega-epistemological-trend terms may be a useful guide for the future.

Or by promoting this view of modern history, perhaps I'm just setting up the prologue to a Rationalist mega-program of my own! In case that's what I'm inadvertently doing, I'll end on this entreaty: err on the side of evidence, experience, and caution.


  1. I think this is an interesting way of posing the problem of modernity, and I'd agree with a lot of it. I don't know how much the great wars were "pre-ordained" by the opposition of various Enlightenment factions, but certainly I think you're on to something about how reason and empiricism have contributed to the situation of the 20th century. I have some random initial thoughts right now, and I'll probably wait to write a full post on related issues until you're done with your series here.

    -You know more about the Open Society idea than me, but I wonder how this and other Cold War/post-Cold War structures could be examined in a similar light. Is this sort of political liberalism empiricist because of its openness? Or do these develop into their own sorts of ideological mega-programs? Along with this, I think there could be some useful contributions from postmodern thought, political theology, and continental thought that you and I probably just aren't equipped to engage... any lurking readers who are interested in sharing, though, feel free.

    -It strikes me that pragmatism since WWII is probably an important voice from the empiricist side of your equation that might be worth considering. We read Cheryl Misak's Truth, Politics, and Morality for the pragmatism seminar this past fall, and it gets at a lot of what you're talking about here. Misak discusses Carl Schmitt as a typical anti-liberal voice (and Schmitt is making a huge comeback in political thought these days... even in theological critiques of modernity), and also addresses the question of "truth", arguing for its importance against pragmatists that would reject too much concern for "truth" in political thought. So I think she tries to retain the best empiricist critiques of rationalist systems, but also preserve what's good about the total vision of Enlightenment projects of reason.

    -What I'm most interested in here is the current situation that you point out with regard to religion, and I think I may speak more to that in a future post. This comes back to the whole sharia law controversy with Rowan Williams as well. I agree with you that certain fundamentalist developments are problematic, but I also think that they are generally portrayed in too flat a fashion. You admirably attempt some nuance in your description of Christian fundamentalism, and I think we need more of that. It's not as if "pre-modern" (if we must call them that) social structures fail to function, or can be reduced to a totalizing violence. There are options for pursuing a political pluralism that can recognize and converse with these elements, and I think that modern liberal politics needs to be more open to this sort of development. Here you and I may disagree a bit... I think it would be an interesting thing to discuss in the future.

  2. On your last bullet point - I think you can gather that my primary problem is with unchecked rationalism, not with revealed religion really. I only thought that was useful to bring up precisely because of the reemergence of the pre-modern, given the heavy dependence on modernism for my thesis. I guess I'm saying I felt obligated to say something about it.

    And perhaps I also didn't emphasize enough that obviously there's nothing at all wrong with rationalism anyway - and by the same token there's nothing at all wrong with revealed religion. What strikes me as being problematic is an unchecked rationalism that depends only on an internally consistent "system" that has been built up from relatively simple axioms. When it comes to revealed religion, similarly, what's dangerous is an unquestioning assent to a revelation, not revelation per se. Because ultimately, acting on revelation-based knowledge or logic-based knowledge can be an individual endeavor and it can stand independent of verification. Acting based on empirical knowledge not only is more likely to be a collaborative endeavor: it's also definitionally open to reproof, disproof, and reevaluation in a way that reason and revelation are not.

    Presumably, all human action is intended to produce a result that can be EXPERIENCED. That's the whole idea. Empiricism requires experience before advocacy of action. Revelation and rationalism specifically eschew experience before advocacy of action. All three have a role - don't get me wrong. But in terms of faithfully producing a desired experience, it seems to me that you want to use the epistemological strategy that itself requires experiential evidence, right?

    So yes - by all means pragmatism is a great synthesis. I've been intrigued by the pragmatists you've shown me and I strongly agree. This isn't a rant against rationalism (and the last section isn't a rant against revelation). What it is is a recognition of the blindspots of rationalism, empiricism, and revelation and a caution that the blindspots of rationalism and revelation are FAR more dangerous than the blindspots of empiricism.

    Recently I've been re-reading portions of Keynes's General Theory. I suggest that everyone read the concluding chapter of the General Theory, which is titled "Concluding Thoughts on the Social Philosophy to Which the General Theory Might Lead" (can be found here: Aside from summing up his economic argument, it's an EXCELLENT study in how to construct new systems of social organization without overstepping your bounds. The treatise as a whole is pure theory - completely "rationalist", but the last chapter reveals Keynes to have a thoroughly empirical disposition when it comes to the implementation of his ideas.

    OK - I've said enough. I nodded my head to most of your arguments - I think the critiques are valid. That's the fun of explicitly publishing these as "musings". I'm aware their conjectural and grounded in a very basic understanding of the building blocks that I'm using for the thesis (namely, epistemology). At the same time, putting the musing together was so damned fun I had to share it.

    One thing I do think is less conjectural that should be more easily embraced is the idea that 1914-1945 was really more "a war between communism and fascism" than it was "making the world safe for democracy". That point, I think, is on much firmer ground and is very much driven home when you consider the Spanish Civil War as a prelude to WWII, and then consider how dumbfounded everyone was about Stalin's initial alliance with Hitler. There's a REASON why everyone was dumbfounded - it's because the real template for understanding the period was communism vs. fascism, not democracy vs. fascism.


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