Andrew Breitbart’s taught the right wing that politics is downstream of culture. He was right. But what’s upstream of culture?
Philosophy, that’s what.
Ideas developed in ivory towers years, decades, or even centuries before now shape the thoughtscape today. When the showrunner of The Boys says that next season’s theme is toxic masculinity, that concept isn’t emerging ex nihilo. It’s the result of academic work that began in gender studies departments in the 1960s.
Today’s politics is the result of yesterday’s culture, and today’s culture is the result of yesterday’s philosophy.
That’s why the Chinese take their philosophy seriously, and are right to do so. Xi Jinping Thought aims to use philosophy today to transform Chinese culture tomorrow.
American Leftists take philosophy seriously, too. Their successful Long March through the Institutions began with philosophical insights by the Fabians and Gramscians in the early 20th century. It took them 100 years, but they won. Their philosophy shaped our culture.
How did they do it? Superior weaponry in the war of ideas. And their greatest weapon, their weapon of mass destruction, is called critical philosophy.
Critical philosophy is a movement begun by Immanuel Kant that sought to steer philosophy in a new direction. Traditional philosophy sought to establish and demonstrate theories of reality and justifications of knowledge. Critical philosophy, conversely, sought to critique all theories of reality and justifications of knowledge.
Kant’s critical philosophy was developed in several famous works, including Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgment. Ultimately, Kant concluded that “everything intuited in space or time, and therefore all objects of experience possible to us, are nothing but appearances, that is, mere representations which have no independent existence outside our thoughts.”
Now, epistemological skepticism existed long before Kant. The Münchhausen trilemma, about which I have written several essays, was first elaborated by Sextus Empiricus in the Second Century AD. However, Kant’s critical philosophy was uniquely destructive. He was, in the words of Moses Mendelssohn, “the All-Destroyer.”
What made Kant different? Stephen Hicks, in his seminal book Explaining Postmodernism, writes:
Many earlier skeptics had denied that we can know anything… [b]ut earlier skeptics had never been as sweeping in their conclusions. [T]he conclusion of those skeptical arguments would be merely that we cannot be sure that we are right about the way reality is… Earlier skeptics had, despite their negative conclusions, continued to conceive of truth as correspondence to reality.
Kant went a step further and redefined truth on subjective grounds. Given his premises, this makes perfect sense. Truth is an epistemological concept. But if our minds are in principal disconnected from reality, then to speak of truth as an external relationship between mind and reality is nonsense. Truth must be solely an internal relationship of consistency.
With Kant, then, external reality drops almost totally out of the picture, and we are trapped inescapably in subjectivity--and that is why Kant is a landmark. Once reason is in principle severed from reality, one then enters a different philosophical universe altogether.
After Kant, Western philosophers began to abandon either reason or reality.
Metaphysical idealists claim our consciousness is real and our reality an illusion; eliminative materialists claim our consciousness is an illusion and our reality is meaningless.
Much of contemporary thought — broadly dubbed “postmodernism” — abandons both reason and reality. And this is the “philosophical universe” that we now find ourselves in. It is the philosophical universe in which progressivism has flourished, conservatism has failed, and physiocracy must somehow develop.
Ayn Rand called Kant “the most evil man in mankind’s history,” but Kant personally believed in the good, the beautiful, and the true; he was a man of deep faith. He did not intend to wreak evil, but to defend God. Unfortunately, his good intentions led us to Hell. He planted the seeds of a tree in the fields of philosophy that has born only poison fruit, laced with nihilism and despair.
By the workings of postmodernism nihilism, the good, the beautiful, and the true have been abandoned — nay, not abandoned; rejected as unreal and therefore unworthy of consideration. That is the radioactive fallout of the weapon of mass destruction called critical philosophy. Reason and realism are the slough, dead skin dropping off as it dies.
The good, the beautiful, and the true must somehow be defended from critical philosophy.
Contemporary conservatism has grounded its defense in the works of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and the Enlightenment. Now, the Founding Fathers were great men; the Constitution, a work of genius; the Enlightenment, a seminal point in world history. But the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and the Enlightenment cannot win our battles for us, because Kant has already defeated them. On the intellectual battlefield, we are flinging cannon balls while the enemy is firing nuclear missiles.
We need to do better than our great ancestors did.
To defend the good, the beautiful, and the true we must be able to know what is actually good, beautiful, and true — and then we must be able to persuasively demonstrate that to others.
For the good, beautiful, and true to be actual, they must in some way be real. Thus, to defend their actuality, we must be able to defend their reality; and that requires defending a theory of moral realism, a theory of aesthetic realism, and a correspondence theory of truth against those who would say they the good, beautiful, and true do not really exist.
But to defend these theories of realism, we must be able to defend the objective and knowable existence of the real itself against those who would say that reality as a whole is subjective or unknowable.
And to be able to defend the knowable existence of reality, we must be able to defend the evidence of our senses and the conclusions of our reason from skepticism.
To be able to defend the evidence of our senses, we must be able to defend direct realism, or something like it; to be able to defend the conclusions of our reason, we must be able to defend the laws of thought.
So we must do more than just identify the natural order, we must identify how we have identified it, and then defend both the method and the outcome.
The Enlightenment failed to do this. It failed to defend the evidence of the senses, it failed to defend the laws of thought, it failed to defend moral realism, it failed to defend aesthetic realism, and it failed to defend the correspondence theory of truth. It failed on every front and was routed from the field.
We must do better than the Enlightenment. We cannot return to classical liberalism. There is no retreat; the bridges are burned; the way is blocked. We must advance.
The good news is that we can do better, and are doing better. Here and there, working in isolation, brilliant minds have offered up new and cogent defenses that halt postmodernism and its premises in its tracks. But their work is scattered across academic journals, hidden in lengthy books, found only in seminar papers, kept stratified because it is low-profile work by independent scholars in separate fields, all working against the tides of mainstream ideology. Our defenses are isolated where they need to be united.
These defenses cannot be made in isolation. To defend the good, the beautiful, and the true, we must defend the whole of the Logos, in its entirety. We must engage in constructive rather than destructive philosophy again.
Any gap, any breach, opens the way for the postmodern destroyer to annihilate our position. The critical philosopher can defeat us in detail. The constructive philosopher must win every battle; the critical philosopher need win only one.
This is, to put it bluntly, going to be a hard war. Virtually every university, every academy, every church, every newspaper, has been won to the nihilism of contemporary thought. Meanwhile, our army has yet to be assembled, and the hour grows late.
Is it even possible to win at this point? It certainly seems unlikely. Why even ponder such topics? Why bother writing about them?
Because the alternative is civilizational death. Because courage and hope are good, beautiful, and true virtues.
In the John Milius film Conan the Barbarian, the hero is crucified on the eponymous Tree of Woe and left for the vultures. Having abandoned his allies, and been defeated by Thulsa Doom, Conan has no hope of victory; yet nevertheless, when a vulture comes to feed, he bites off its head. Conan postpones his death by mere moments - but it is long enough to see his friends come to his rescue. Fighting back when all hope was lost was a heroic deed that earned Conan the merit of rebirth. The possibility of eucatastrophe always remains.
And that’s why this blog is called “Contemplations on the Tree of Woe.” The vultures are circling over the dying West, nailed as it is to a tree of philosophical nihilism. We may not see how we can free ourselves from the tree; doom may seem certain; but let us still struggle at the branches and snap at the vulture as best we can.
Let us gather warrior-priests to wage an intellectual fight for what is good, beautiful, and true, and together show how our philosophy will lead America into the 21st century; let us create (for lack of a better name) “Physiocracy with American Characteristics for a New Era.”
Together, perhaps, we can defeat Doom.