Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Raft of the Medusa

The past, as has been observed, is another country. Much of what we acquire as education and understanding takes us further away from the possibility of entering into that foreign land, with each generation that passes. As a consequence, piecing together the past can sometimes involve a good deal of supposition, and much of this is done without any real consciousness that suppositions are being introduced.

In an age where both ideas of realpolitik and the centrality of ideology and different varieties of determinism (philosophical and economic in particular) are knowingly supposed to be the constants in history, knowledge of which eluded our predecessors, it is easy to introduce suppositions into historical analysis without any sense of violating the proper context of the evidence.

These suppositions create difficulties which stand between us and use of evidence which does more than fit the pieces crudely into a pattern of meaning which does more than simply conform to something like our expectations, and what we are prepared to countenance as a credible model of the past.

More significant than individual difficulties however, is the complex interaction of one with the other, and the effects of successive layers of these interacting obstacles to our understanding.

Any age has a raft of of commonly understood truths, sometimes contradictory and multiple, and differing across social groups, societies and nations. They are not examined closely (if at all) because they have the special status of commonly understood truths. Not common in the sense that they are base or full of superstition, but common in that they are universally agreed from the top of society to the bottom. These vary from age to age.

In my own lifetime, I have seen many patterns of belief change – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Many of these ideas have changed so dramatically that the world in which I spent my first ten years now looks as strange and remote to me as (for example) the world of nineteenth century rationalism. Mostly (in both cases), the changes which occurred in the years following were unregrettable. What is regrettable however, is that one set of unquestionable certainties has been replaced by others.

In fact, we have gone much further than acquire new unquestionable certainties: we have gone so far as to create an approach to reality which is designed to support the enlightenment agenda without a theoretical basis, It is worth drawing attention to this approach, since it illustrates a certain naivete about our own times, and the worth of our own advance on our predecessors. We assume our enlightenment, though it is hard for us to prove it. 

The philosopher John Rawls, in his Theory of Justice, published in 1971essentially uses a normative approach as the basis of determining what is or is not just. The idea is that, though we might not any longer agree on the kind of quasi-theological or philosophical theoretical basis for what is just, which one would have found in past cultural contexts, in many cases we can agree on what is just without such a basis.  This represents a break with former traditions in which justice was understood to emerge from philosophical principle, and be instantiated in particular cases. For Rawls it is about the calculation of self-interest. 

To some extent it can be understood as a reformulation of the idea of common law, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, where law can be decided by judges on the basis of their personal judgement,  and the circumstances, without any necessary reference to a body of specific precedent, or an established legal principle. However, Rawls’ book attempts to enshrine this normative approach to justice as the successor to all philosophical approaches to the establishment of the idea of justice. 

At a stroke, all the difficulties raised by the nature of former approaches to the problem of what is just fall away. Where the old approaches provided little or no support for things which we needed to root as fundamental in our culture, if it is to function rationally, we, by the adoption of normative criteria, could begin the advance to that position.

The downside to this is becoming all too clear. A generation of lawyers and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic is now steeped in this way of thinking. If what you want is reasonable (and of course it is, since we are all reasonable people), then the precedent of other legal systems, legal prescriptions, agreements and contracts, are, from beginning to end, no more than limitations imposed by past ways of thinking. Where there is a conflict with what is clearly ‘normative’ to the reasonable mind, existing arrangements are obstacles. Those who would stand on these arrangements in the face of the normative desire, are using the past as a way of impeding the future.

 The normative view is now the just view. We are now in a period where ‘pre-emptive’ self-defence is understood to be a legitimate policy for a powerful state. And important international agreements such as the Geneva Convention can be ignored provided some kind of normative legal excuse can be provided. What it is reasonable to think, appears to be in the course of a substantial revision. Our idea of reason is changing.

We are by and large, by reflex, so sure of the rightness of our ways of thinking, particularly in the modern Western world, that we have now elevated that reflex to a place above all other rational and legal responses to the world, in the whole of history. 

Such a thing has happened before.  It is reminiscent of the elevation of the Roman Republic above all other constitutional forms, as described to us in the pages of Polybius, so that the Republic was not any longer subject to the forces that (it was understood) other states were. The ancient world had several models for state constitutions available, and Aristotle (we are told) had arranged them into a cycle. Rome fitted into this construction, but at some point the Romans decided that they had transcended that cycle, and that both Rome and its constitution transcended all other forms of polity. Rome stood apart, and was just and eternal.

The pursuit of the normative also can be seen in the culmination of the rationalist and humanist agenda of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rationalists and humanists understood themselves to be struggling under the deadweight of accumulated belief and superstition, as well as the institutions and powers which drew their authority from the religious structures dominating the intellectual landscape. 

Drawing on the intellectual models of nature which developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the rationalist perception of the world constantly sought to describe reality in terms of the laws of physics and mechanics. Nature became something which could be the subject of operations, rather than an outward expression of the mystery and character of the divine. The latter approach was derided and  progressively ignored. 

Descartes first shut out this aspect of reality as unnecessary for the analysis of the world, without significant supportive argument in favour of this, beyond the simple assertion that the world of the divine need not be invoked in order to explain physical reality. This severing of the link had enormously beneficial results in terms of the development of the sciences in general – matters were simplified enormously if all that was being considered was what could be measured, counted and weighed; and there was no imponderable interference from the intrusion of the divine. 

Though it was not the case that the world of the divine had been shown to be of no account in the development of an understanding of nature, as the sciences progressed, the quality and power of the descriptive models of nature created supplied what appeared to be the proof that a knowledge of the world of the divine was unnecessary for an understanding of nature. Thereafter, the divine became, in the world of the sciences, something to be scorned, as a relic of the days when the human race lived in a state of irrational superstition. 

The exclusion of the divine was normative, in that it seemed to make rational sense, even if it could not be supported by rational argument. In fact, no argument could be brought against what is essentially a supposition - the idea that the divine has no impact on the world of physics. Before long, any argument for the impact of the divine was necessarily an irrational argument.  

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