Saturday, May 31, 2014

Liberalism is a Tradition

Joan Robinson’s Economic Philosophy (1962) is a witty and concise polemic, the great theme of which is the seemingly unconscious way in which economists mistake their prior ideological and metaphysical commitments for scientific “discoveries” in the field.  Like most critiques of ideology, however, the book is better when it is tearing others down than when it offers its preferred alternative.  Robinson was a left-wing Keynesian of the middle years of the last century, and when she gets to modern macroeconomics and theories of development – the obsessions of her own career, era, and cohort – she suddenly adopts the same “As we now know…” tone that she finds grating among the Neoclassicals.
Particularly disappointing is the section on development.  Though Robinson makes vanishingly short work of W.W. Rostow, which is agreeable, she puts in his place the theories of C.E. Ayres (an unfamiliar name to me), which sound just as bad.  According to Ayres, -- in Robinson’s telling -- the reason Western Europe was the first to economically “develop,” in the modern sense, was that it was the first to escape the toils of tradition.  Robinson agrees: “The special characteristic of Western Europe was […] that ‘ceremonial patterns’ of behavior put up a weaker resistance there, than in the older civilizations, to the spread of new inventions.”  This helps in addition to explain, says Robinson, the relative success of the People’s Republic of China over post-independence India: “Western liberalism has only warmed the surface of the deep waters of Indian tradition, while in China a violent reversal of ideas has opened the way for rapid changes in technology[.]” (p. 113)

There are a lot of things to challenge there.  For one thing, whether the People’s Republic in the ‘50s is to be counted an economic success story compared to democratic India, when the former was losing tens of millions of people to famine, must be seriously called into question (the “reversal” may well have been “violent” in China, but whether it was anything besides that is less clear).  And yes, there's also some tremendous cultural arrogance on display here on Robinson's part, as well as a fairly shameless and unconvincing attempt to absolve the West of guilt for persistent poverty in the developing world.

These criticisms are obvious enough to us now, however, and I won't spend much more time on them.  Rather, I want to seize on another of Robinson’s assumptions that might not appear so obviously silly, and with which many of her critics might actually agree.  This is the assumption that "Western liberalism" is the antithesis of "tradition," and that when one has adopted the former one has necessarily cast aside the latter.

As I say, a lot of critics of Robinson and of “Western liberalism” would basically share this assumption; where they would break with Robinson is that they would not see the opposition of liberalism to tradition as an admirable characteristic, but as precisely the great danger and villainy of the thing.  Liberalism is “rootless” and “cosmopolitan,” it is argued— and for this reason it can never provide a basis for the sort of face-to-face ties on which genuine social values depend.  

Here is one of those occasions on which the way a group of people want to see themselves, and the light in which their opponents hope to cast them, are similar enough that neither feels obliged to give alternative -- and potentially more accurate-- interpretations a hearing.  In this case, both liberals and their critics wish to portray liberalism as universalistic rather than culture-bound, so they both do.  Of course, there are some critics of liberalism, usually postcolonial theorists in the academy, who wish to say just the opposite—that liberalism’s universalism is a grand pretension and the movement is really “ethnocentric."  But these same critics may be heard at other times leveling the “rootless” accusation, which suggests that the point of such writing is often more to criticize liberalism than to find a reason for doing so.

But the amusing thing to me about reading Joan Robinson is that she is so obviously not "rootless" at all, but is the product of a very particular cultural tradition-- one that could be described as “Western liberalism,” but that is in fact more specific than that.  It is the type of English liberalism that one would expect to find in an Oxbridge academic of the last century, with the same ethical values, the same sense of humor, and the same unstated assumptions one would find among any Cambridge Apostle and friend of Keynes or Russell of the age.  One has to giggle at Robinson’s notion that the distinguishing characteristic of her culture and milieu is its freedom from ritual.  Was there ever a place with more “ceremonial patterns of behavior” than Bloomsbury?

The critic of liberalism might press the point that the "rootless" accusation is not one from which Robinson herself wants saving – why dispute it then, if she believes herself to be free of "tradition"?  Ah, but this is exactly what gives the whole thing away as a tradition, you see! -- and not an ideology or self-conscious belief system.  The hallmarks of the latter are that they deliberately set themselves apart from and in contrast to other ideologies and belief systems.  A tradition, by contrast, is something that so deeply informs the way we see the world that it can only be brought to consciousness through a long process of self-reflection.  The person who is unreflectingly saturated with a tradition, as mid-century Cambridge academics tended to be, never thinks she has one – which, to repeat, is all the more sign that she in fact has an unusually mammoth and all-enveloping one.  

Traditions, paradigms, cultural patterns—whatever you want to call them, they do not present themselves to us as beliefs we have adopted, but as “what everyone knows.”  We only start to consider the possibility that they might be something else when we encounter someone who displays the shocking and unforgivable ignorance of not knowing what everyone knows.  This sort of encounter is very different from the experience of meeting someone who has a different ideology, which is a very familiar occurrence and not perplexing or mentally taxing to anyone involved.  The conservative cable news blowhard has a different ideology than the liberal one, say, but they have the same tradition.

Wittgenstein, as quoted in Monk’s biography, spoke of his own “world picture,” as “the substratum of all my enquiring and asserting.”  He was aware moreover that this picture came from somewhere—from a particular cultural training.  It was an “inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.” (See Monk, 572).  My point in this post is that liberalism seems to be the sort of inherited background W. had in mind.  It is a distinctive set of values and beliefs about what is ultimately important in life, and, like any other tradition, it depends for its survival on being inculcated by one generation in another.  For better or worse, it is no more “rootless,” intrinsically, than the “Indian tradition” rather sneeringly alluded to by Robinson.  If “tradition,” moreover, is what slows the “melting of all things solid” under capitalism, then liberalism is as much the nemesis of the latter as anything else (but more on that towards the end of this post).

Liberalism probably seems more like an ideology than a tradition for those who were not raised in it—and even more so to those who adopted liberalism as an ideology at some point in their adult lives, and then recoiled from it later upon realizing how greatly and deeply it differed from the tradition of their youth.  They have to understand that for those of us who were raised in liberalism, particularly in religious liberalism, it is the other religions, traditions, and "world pictures" that seem like ideologies to us, whereas the tenets of liberal religion are simply what “everyone knows.”  This is all the more confirmed for those who flirted with or considered adopting some other tradition in their adult lives, before realizing how deeply and inescapably they had been liberals all along.

A lighthearted example: I recently watched Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) with a friend.  It has a reputation for being the most dreadful entry in the Star Trek film franchise, featuring as it does a rather heavy-handed message at the end (and the unmentionable Nichelle Nichols “fan dance” scene that I will not attempt to defend).  The heavy-handed message in question is delivered as follows: the crew of the Enterprise fly into the center of the galaxy and encounter a being that describes itself as “God” and demands possession of their spaceship. “What does a God need with a spaceship?” cries Kirk, like an interstellar Prometheus.  He is promptly struck down by a lightning bolt, but have no fear: this act of Olympian fury appears to have no more dramatic consequence than that of leaving a small discolored patch on Kirk's uniform.  The crew of the Enterprise run away, and in the process of their escape, Spock shoots “God” with a phaser, which I think would have been a more controversial scene if the film hadn’t been such a tremendous flop that no one ever saw it.  After the ship leaves the planet, Dr. McCoy asks Kirk: “Do you think the real God is out there somewhere?”  Shatner draws a breath to enunciate the Point of the Story: “Perhaps the only real God is in the human heart,” he declares, tapping on his chest.  And there endeth the lesson.

No one is going to defend this as exceptional writing -- but the point is that I find this message fundamentally endearing, for all its bombast, and it inspires in me a feeling of trust.  It is the sort of thing that as a kid I would not have found remotely strange or even, more importantly, as reflecting a distinctive point of view: Kirk is just giving voice to what everyone knows, or so it would have seemed to me.  Nor did I respond to everything in this same uncritical way, even at a young age—I still recall burning with fury the one time I was exposed to “Veggie Tales” at a friend’s house, because the show was full of "Bible lessons" that everyone knew were wrong-- like the idea that one ought to root for Joshua in toppling the walls of Jericho, and so forth.

Nowadays, I am more self-reflective about these things.  I hear Kirk’s closing benediction and I realize that it came from somewhere, and not just from the common store of obvious human truths.  I hear it and think: okay, there’s some Emerson and the immanent divine in that, a pinch of Feuerbachian humanism, some “inner light” liberal Quakerism, and a hunk of William Blake (“the human form divine” and all that). But the point is precisely that I don’t actually have to do this sort of retrospective analysis to know that the filmmakers and I share a tradition (if I did, chances are that it would be an ideology we share, and not a tradition).  I know it, rather, because we both seem to think that the same things are just obviously and self-evidently true-- and these things constitute an "inherited background."  The fact that it's hard to attach a particular name to this background is all the more of a give-away.

One doesn’t come around to the Captain Kirk theology by a process of intellectual conviction.  Our intellectual convictions, rather, are mostly formed within the context of our “inherited background,” through a process of discovering and working through contradictions in the different elements we have received from it.  The background itself we can’t really challenge; nor can we persuade others to adopt it.  We can fight our way through various ideologies that we think are better or worse expressions of our background, but that is about it.

I think one can recognize this without falling into relativism, but the way to escape the latter is not by repeating the standard fiction that all inherited backgrounds are really just saying the same things, but with different words.  They are not.  The difference between Captain Kirk and "Veggie Tales" is more than semantic.   Rather, the escape from relativism comes from the peculiar nature of the beliefs we receive from our inherited backgrounds, and how little they prevent us from reasoning together about morals and science.  More on this in a minute; first, another example, this one drawn from Wittgenstein’s life.  

According to Ray Monk, Wittgenstein was much devoted to a play by Rabindranath Tagore, The King of the Dark Chamber. The piece is a religious allegory, summarized by Monk as follows: 
“The King of the title is never seen by his subjects, some of whom doubt his existence […] Others, such as the maidservant Surangama, are so devoted to the King and so worshipful that they do not ask to see him, they know him to be a being without comparison to other mortals.  Only these people, who have completely overthrown their own pride in subjection to their master, have a sense of when the King is approaching[.]”
The Queen is angered by the King’s refusal to show himself and falls in love with someone else:
“Only when she has been brought by this mistake to complete despair, when she feels utterly humiliated and degraded and has cast away her pride, can she be reconciled with her real husband [….] The play ends with her realization that everything of any real value is conferred upon her by the King[.]” (Monk 409).
Wittgenstein apparently did not much care for the writing of the play at first, any more than I am impressed with the dialogue in Star Trek V.  But he did regard its “message” as essentially the right one-- as reflecting a true allegorical description of the proper relationship of humanity to the divine.

To me, however, it seems quite obviously wrong, even as allegory.  The only character in this description I can find at all sympathetic is the Queen, in her anger, and I find myself quite disappointed in her when she allows herself to become reconciled to her husband.  And surely the villain of the piece is the King-- that Tagore did not portray him as such simply an artistic and moral error.  

I cannot provide a reason as to why my assessment is correct in a way that Wittgenstein’s is not. But within my inherited background, to say a play preaches that religious wisdom derives from a person’s humiliating and degrading herself is enough to say that the play is wrong.  Monk’s summary stands on its own to me as an indictment of the play’s contents.  Nor could Wittgenstein provide a better argument than I can for his opposite assessment.  His reasons for seeing wisdom in this play are just as ultimately unaccountable as are mine for being incensed by it.

Just as it is clear that one of us could not really find a way to argue the other around to our perspective, however, it should be equally clear that neither Captain Kirk nor the King of the Dark Chamber prescribes a very definite set of ethical or scientific beliefs.  Rather, the worldview presented by each is “metaphysical,” in the sense the logical positivists -- and Joan Robinson-- were always complaining about. That is to say, neither Kirk’s nor Tagore’s utterances are falsifiable, and it is not clear how the world we perceive around us would be different at all whether either one of them were true or false.  The same set of scientific facts about the world and precisely the same ethical behavior could be accounted for by either one. They operate more as guiding metaphor than anything else.

This is not to say that the differences between Kirk and the King "don't matter."  The two "inherited backgrounds" I am discussing here, mine and Wittgenstein's, do evidently differ in moral emphases, if not necessarily in definite moral conclusions.  As even Joan Robinson admits, metaphysical beliefs “formulate feelings that are a guide to conduct” and hence “are not without content” (p. 3).  Wittgenstein certainly employed those metaphysical elements to which he responded in the King in the Dark Chamber to justify concrete deeds and moral positions that I would find intolerable.  As a lukewarm supporter of the Soviet Union, for instance, Wittgenstein is reported to have said, when confronted with details of the Stalin purges of the early ‘30s: “Tyranny doesn’t make me feel indignant.” (See Monk 353).   It is clear how someone who admired the message of Tagore’s play might say that, with its emphasis on the importance of the submission of the individual will, and it is very difficult to imagine Captain Kirk or a person of his inherited background saying that.  

However, it is also quite easy to imagine a person of the latter background defending Stalin on a different basis (on the claim that Stalin was a great liberator, say).  Nor is it at all difficult to bring to mind the sort of person who might respond positively to the King of the Dark Chamber, but who would find Stalin’s regime utterly blasphemous and abhorrent.  As little as we can debate our metaphysical premises, therefore, they do not seem to entirely determine our moral destinations, though they may indicate the path by which we will reach them.  We seem to be able to debate morals and the physical properties of the universe, even when we are setting out from different metaphysical premises.  

We might go even further in this.  The fact that radically different metaphysical paths lead to the same moral conclusions so often might suggest to us, for instance, that we have a shared perception of moral truth that is prior to our different metaphysical trainings and inherited backgrounds, and in accordance with which we are drawn to interpret the latter.  This might be true even if we parrot the fiction after the fact that we derived our morals from our metaphysics, rather than the other way around-- an example of "one of those inconsistencies whereby," according to Schopenhauer, "[...] that of which one is immediately cognizant, or as one says, a felt truth, is redirected upon the right path by dint of forced inferences." (Aquila/Carus translation.)  One doesn't have to press the point, however.  In any case, the controlling influence of our metaphysical presuppositions is evidently rather limited.

I'm not trying to argue by this that we should simply “put aside” our metaphysical differences.  The riddle of it is, after all, that just as much as I recognize my metaphysical judgments to be to some extent culture-bound, a part of my “inherited background,” I am equally obliged to think that they are correct, and correct for everyone, not just for me.  I cannot coherently doubt this.  I cannot suspect that this background is false, that is, when it is the very thing by which I “distinguish between true and false,” to quote Wittgenstein.  

But just as we cannot “put aside” these differences, we can recognize how little they determine for us about how we reason together in the realm of the concrete.  We can agree with one another about the facts of the natural world and of the moral life without agreeing on our unfalsifiable metaphysics or our guiding metaphors.  We can also recognize that certain changes in the world may operate against our “inherited backgrounds” collectively, providing us with a reason to work together.  If it is true, for instance, as I find plausible, that there are tendencies in modern capitalist society that make it increasingly difficult to pass on cultural values and backgrounds from one generation to the next, then liberalism, particularly in the form of religious liberalism, is threatened by these forces just as much as any other tradition.   Even if, as I find somewhat less plausible, it was liberalism that first let these forces out of the bottle, that does not change the fact that it is now endangered by them. Traditions, liberal and otherwise, might therefore have a common enemy, and therefore a common cause.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't get a chance to ask about this earlier, but I'm curious about how you think about the process of moving from one tradition to another within this framework. It seems to me that the intelligibility of the idea of changing traditions (via religious conversion, etc.) poses a prima facie challenge for the idea that the tenets of various traditions aren't vulnerable to disproof. This is because (at the risk of being pedantic) people often make these changes very consciously and after significant reflection, which presumably means they're reaching the conclusion that one tradition is false and another true, and doing so on some basis.

    You might say that you only claimed that traditions are impervious to argument, from which it doesn't follow that people can't reasonably choose among them using non-discursive modes of knowledge (ex. bare intuition, the types of immediate knowledge we sometimes seem to gain from art and literature and reflection on our personal experiences, religious experiences if they exist). I have some sympathy for this view myself although I'm not sure it's completely right. Alternatively, you could say that even something like religious conversion is more like switching ideologies within a tradition than switching traditions, so that you and Wittgenstein could both convert to Islam and become liberal and fideistic Muslims, respectively. However, this seems to make a tradition something more like a temperament, which I don't think is what you're after. Anyway, I'd love to hear what you think when you get a chance.