Josh Dunigan |||

The root of philosophy is the political


I take it that the opening of the Left Of Philosophy podcast expresses a deep commitment to the hosts’ approach to philosophy. They start off expressing this sentiment by posing examples of some academic philosophy conference, presumably with some grey hairs talking abstract metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, maybe that 1 box 2 box shit. And so the hypothetical LeftOfPhil host asks something along the lines of

What is this useful for?

This expresses a view I am sympathetic to, but with some slight caveats. If I didn’t have any slight disagreements I couldn’t be a philosopher I guess!

The first is semantic. I am not sure that political” is the best the word for the title of this post, but it seems to be the one that is used most often! There is another way to say this, which I think might be the more historically accurate term, which is pragmatics. In that, if we had a conceptual hierarchy of philosophy, the first would be the pragmatic. It would be something along the lines, as the host said, what is philosophy useful for”, or who/what is this useful for”. As the types of beings we are, we necessarily must do something, we need reasons for what we do, a methodology, ideology, a way of thinking.

The reason I have some disagreements with political over pragmatic is small and I am not tied to this view. The problem with many labels like this is that speak to those that agree with you. Some right-wing person, say Jimothan Concepts, might be like nooo the starting point of philosophy is apolitical”. You have already in some sense turned someone off to your entire view! But with this, one can also put intellectual blame on Mr. Concepts for being a baby, being bad faith, and not being genuinely curious. So maybe these reasons are not good and we should keep the word political.

The other issue with political is … we already use it for something else, politics in terms of debate, policy, political events. The starting point of a philosophy is not a political event or policy!

The reason I believe many use the word political, not even just twitter leftists, is that people have realized how these fundamental starting points, these fundamental ways we approach all of philosophy, are indeed political. If we look at the ridiculous 2+2=5 fiasco, one can see that merely QUESTIONING the presumed mathematical and scientific truths became a political question. The post-modern neo-marxists are taking are destroying our beautiful science of algebra!

But even in the dry ass tomes (well not to me) of philosophy of the Critique of Pure Reason and the Science of Logic, Hegel criticized Kant about his argument that 5+7=12 is synthetic cognition. The beauty of Kareem Carr’s thinking here was that he has done enough math and science to realize that we do not even know how to properly think about what type of knowledge simple addition even is, how do we know it. Anyone with a modicum of mathematical knowledge knows that fundamental mathematical truths can be overturned. My favorite example is the revolution of non-Euclidean geometry, where the problem Euclid’s fifth axiom that bugged mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists for 2,000 years was finally figured out”. If Mr. Concepts was some right wing pundit in the 1700s he might have been dunking on the woke” academics for questioning the certainty of the great Euclid!

Even to this though, someone might reply well, the philosophy is not political, it is just true”. This may be so! How I imagine the counter argument is that, someone may go

There IS a correct way of doing science or mathematics or philosophy. But if we have a political or pragmatic beginning we end up in a totalitarian death spiral where all objective knowledge is used for political gains!

I imagine they are thinking of a scenario not just where the CDC becomes an arm of politics, but physics, engineering, economics, and philosophy. The state will then, logically, ban these fields of thought that are against the political purposes of people in power. Maybe some people think this! I do not, I do not think many left people are, at least the serious or well-read leftists.

LeftOfPhil host’s are talking about Lenin as their archetype of this type of person. What they really should do to nail home this point is use someone who is perceived as not a political thinker in the way Lenin was. The best example I can think of actually is our boy Immanuel Kant himself!

I dove heavily into Kant’s practical philosophy for my primary research areas in undergrad, so I never read the actual first critique front to cover til I graduated last summer. One thing that was curious to see was all these seemingly metaphorical statements about things such as taking reason to court”. Now things like this were sprinkled throughout the first critique, but one could easily ignore them as just metaphors. But the well respected Onora O’Neill does not read Kant this way in her Constructing Authorities, as just metaphors.

Although I had previously worked on some of Kant’s central texts, and in particular on his accounts of action and of ethics, I was struck afresh by the fact that he beings the Critique of Pure Reason by asking how reason can take on anew the most difficult of all its tasks, namely, that of self-knowledge and secure its rightful claims’. Like many others, I had repeatedly read these words, yet had shoved the questions they raise aside, thinking that there was plenty to explore and investigate without addressing them.

Another good passage is

The first thought is that reasoning is fundamentally practical: it aims to provide standards or norms that thought, action, and communication can (but often fail to) meet. The second thought is that norms of reasoning must be followable by others, they must be norms that can be used by a plurality of agents. These two thoughts, Kant argued, set certain minimal constraints on anything that can count as reasoning.

O’Neill gives an example of why reason itself has a practical, political, or pragmatic task

Kant’s approach to the requirements of reasoning draws on an account of what we may call (by analogy with Hume’s account of the circumstances of justice) the circumstances of reasoning. Kant sees those circumstances as arising when a plurality of potential reasoners finds that their communication and interaction are not antecedently coordinated (for example, by instinct, divine plan, pre-established harmony or other sorts of authority). Uncoordinated agents who may disagree with one another can at least offer one another reasons for believing their claims or following their proposals for action. But they can do this only if they put forward considerations that (they take it) other could follow in thought, so understand, or could adopt for action. … So the basic thought is simply that we do not even offer reasons for belief unless we aim to be intelligible to them, and do not even offer reasons for action unless we make proposals that they could take up.

A plurality of agents, offering reasons and disagreeing, and being uncoordinated are things that come up quite often in political scenarios! O’Neill goes on to discuss how Kant’s small but fantastic essay called What is Enlightenment provided her with a lot of textual support that we should read Kant’s system as this. In there, Kant develops a distinction between public and private reason that seems to be quite similar to the distinction between heteronomy and autonomy of the Groundwork. O’Neill is not alone in this interpretation either it seems.

Marcus Willaschek’s new book Kant on the Sources of Metaphysics discusses this as well. The first half of the book is primarily on logic, while the second half of the book is about the transition to Kantian transcendental logic. In the first half, he discusses something called the“logical maxim” of Kant which is

If there is some piece of cognition that is inferentially or epistemically conditioned, seek the cognitions that are its inferential or epistemic conditions, respectively. If these conditions are themselves inferentially or epistemically conditioned, seek the cognitions that are their cognitions that are their inferential or epistemic conditions, and so on, until you find cognitions that are both inferentially and epistemically unconditioned.

Kant’s transition from logic has to do with what it takes for something to be real or a real condition, to be an object of possible experience as they say, the transcendental conditions of objects.

A transcendental principle corresponds to a logical principle in that it concerns the same logical relations as the logical principle but applies them to the objects of our cognitions rather than to cognitions in abstraction from their objects. … Put differently, a transcendental principle is the descriptive version of the corresponding logical principle plus purported objective validity. Thus, a logical principle becomes’ a transcendental one by being used a descriptive principle for objects.

AND in a footnote he says

Compare the Categorical Imperative, which requires us to act in such a way that one can will one’s maxim to become a universal law” (e.g. 4:402). That a maxim becomes’ a universal law means that there is a principle that has the same content as my maxim (e.g. ‘not to lie’) bu tits valid not just for me (as my maxim) but for everybody. Important differences between practical and theoretical principles notwithstanding, in the practical case a subjectively valid principle’s becoming’ an objectively valid one likewise consists in applying the same content to a new domain.

Now, let us examine one final passage of Kant, from the Doctrine of Right

Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law.”

If then my action or my condition generally can coexist with the freedom of everyone in accordance with a universal law, whoever hinders me in it does me wrong; for this hindrance (resistance) cannot coexist with freedom in accordance with a universal law.

It also follows from this that it cannot be required that this principle of all maxims be itself in turn my maxim, that is, it cannot be required that I make it the maxim of my action; for anyone can be free so long as I do not impair his freedom by my external action, even though I am quite indifferent to his freedom or would like in my heart to infringe upon it. That I make it my maxim to act rightly is a demand that ethics makes on me.

The common thread here is that there is something similar with what O’Neill says of the first critique’s preface, What is Enlightenment, Willaschek on Kant’s transition from logic to transcendental logic, his footnote about the Groundwork, and what freedom means in the domain of space-time or rather the domain of externally interacting with other people and corporeal objects.

To bring it back, Kant had a task to do, he was answering a question that the LeftOfPhil hosts might ask. Kant was answering the greatest task of all for philosophy, how does one think, act, and communicate with other people. We went from a political, pragmatic, or practical starting point as we might say, to logic, to transcendental logic / metaphysics / epistemology, all the way to the political philosophy, the other politics!

Kant is not alone in this tradition. Plato might be the originator in Western philosophy, with some of the successors of Kant such as Fichte and Hegel understanding the intimate connection between reason itself, philosophy, and politics. It is no wonder that Hegel will discuss examples of the state in his Science of Logic, since all these questions are related! From what I understand about some Asian philosophy, Lao Tzu and Confucius had similar fundamental, political/pragmatic/practical starting points of reason. One may even go so far to read other philosophers as doing similar things. Take Hobbes for example,

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry… no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

I am always put off when conservatives or whatever they are say that basic facts” are not political, that there is such a thing as the apolitical. I just showed how we started with a political beginning of reason itself, we have politicized” philosophy, math, and science! Even with someone as close to Kant as Hegel does reason look quite different. If Hegel rejects Kantian autonomy, Kantian public reason, it changes quite a bit! Maybe there is no such thing as human rights” if Hegel is correct, there may be reasons that all of humanity share as one global society, but it is not in virtue of reason itself. A Kantian would like to think that in principle it is possible to give a reason to every human. A Hegelian might think that it is in principle possible two people share none of the same social reasons, we might even read the Lordship and Bondage passage of the Phenomenology of Spirit this way, surely this conception of reason is very political and has great political consequences!

So I agree with our podcast hosts here, and I say the ball is in the court of people who do not think this to sort of Wittgenstein’s ladder” the rest of us, show us why this question does not make sense starting from this question. I also would advise people who share these philosophy is political”, Kantian-Leninist (yes I wrote this whole article to create this catch phrase) sympathies, to not be so adversarial to those who disagree. Ask them why they think there conception of philosophy and reason is not political at all, or might end up political. How even seemingly apolitical things have very practical pragmatic, and political roots.

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