Philosophy  •  July 31, 2004

Freeing Philosophy from Politics

By their intellectualism, the academic Left has alienated the very people they purport to help. They called them “the masses”, an entity consciously distinct from and inferior to themselves, the people who do not know how to think for themselves and are helplessly manipulated by the enemies of the Left. It is the duty of the academic elites of the Left, so they flatter themselves, that they protect and educate the ignorant masses. I believe this intellectual condescension and arrogance is partly responsible for the present popularity of the Republican Party. The masses do not want to be patronized by the intellectual elites. At last, they are speaking up against their own paternal figures.

The Intellectual Chauvinism of the Left

The origin of this disconnect between the working-class people and the intellectual elites, I believe, goes back to Karl Marx himself. He disconnected himself from the very people he sought to empower by accepting financial support from Friedrich Engels who was born into a wealth family. The philosophy of the Left, in this sense, has always been about the guilt of the cultural and financial elites.

What is deceptive, however, is that the financial elites I speak of are not the upper class, but the middle class (especially the upper-middle class) who live in metropolitan cities, are well-educated, and enjoy gourmet food, fine wine, postmodern art and literature. The upper class cannot even pretend to understand the predicaments of the working class, so they do not. But the middle class, on the other hand, often fancies itself to understand the suffering of the working class. In our yourth, passionate socialists, or even communists, are often the upper-middle class kids who grew up in comfortable suburbs. The poor kids who are given the opportunities to succeed usually do not feel guilty about their dreams of becoming millionaires. In this sense, the upper class has more in common with the working class than the middle class does.

Another naiveté of the middle class which is not shared by the rest, is its reliance on logic. Endlessly facing injustice, unfairness, and irrationality, the poor has no choice but to accept that life is beyond reason. Ironically the rich faces the same but from the opposite end. They know that their wealth is unfair, unjust, and irrational. If they thought logically about it, they would have no choice but to commit financial suicide. From fear, they avoid questioning themselves deeply, and accept that life is just not logical. It is only the middle class who can afford to believe that life can be logically explained, ideologically formulated, and ideally structured, which is what Marx set out to do. This naiveté, I believe, is the origin of the intellectualism of the Left. The middle-class intellectual elites use their proximity to the lower class as the justification for criticizing the upper class. Ironically, now the lower class and the upper class are uniting to attack the middle-class elites for their arrogance and condescension.

When we face difficulties in our lives, we cannot help questioning the reasons why: Why am I suffering? At the level of middle class, these questions can still be answered logically by reading self-help books, by seeing therapists, or by studying philosophy. Those in the lower class realize at some point, no matter how logically intelligent they may be, that these questions cannot be answered logically. So, they often turn to god, but the intellectual Left ridicule them by calling it “the opium of the masses.” The assumption is that they have answers for everything, or that they could come up with answers for everything, and therefore no “opium” is necessary. Intelligence for them thus became their own opium.

Intellectual Chauvinism in Action

In the movie “Fahrenheit 9/11”, there is footage of Britney Spears expressing her respect for George W. Bush. Michael Moore then sarcastically remarks that if Britney Spears said so, it must be true. The implication is clear: Spears represents someone stupid. The point is to prove that those who support Bush are stupid.

I would imagine that no president of the US has ever been called “stupid” as frequently as George W. Bush has. What many Democrats do not seem to realize is that they are playing into his hands by calling him stupid. Bush has no interest in proving himself smart, because the whole point of his battle is to prove the existence of wisdom beyond logical intelligence. The masses are tired of the intellectual chauvinism of the Left. They want to get back at them by proving the power of sheer faith. Had the intellectuals of the Left never ridiculed or patronized them, they would not have had to react this way.

Here is another example of how intellectual chauvinism manifests. This is Jacques Derrida being interviewed on TV:

The interviewer: “I’ll give you an example of what I often thought to myself: Seinfeld, which is America’s most popular, ever, sitcom, Seinfeld. Do you know the Seinfeld, sitcom in America... If you think of classic American, Jerry Seinfeld made this sitcom about a group of people living together. Everything is about irony and parody, and what you do with kitchen cupboard is imbued with as much feeling or thought as whether someone believes in God, if you like. Do you see anything in it?”

Derrida: “Deconstruction as I understand it, doesn’t produce any sitcom. If sitcom is this. If people who watch this sitcom think Deconstruction is this, the only advice I have to give them is: Read. Stop watching sitcom. And, try to do your homework and read.” [1]

Although Derrida is not a passionate Leftist, his answer here is typical of arrogant academics who see themselves to be above the masses. Playing into the common feeling of guilt associated with watching TV, he ridicules those who watch sitcoms, even though watching them should not preclude understanding what Deconstruction is, and even though Zen Buddhists understand perfectly well the essence of Deconstruction without having to read anything whatsoever.

The philosophical mastermind of the Neocons, Leo Strauss, on the other hand, admitted that he did not understand a word when he attended lectures by Martin Heidegger, humble honesty foreign to most Leftist intellectuals.

I recently received a piece of junk mail from a liberal magazine called “Free Inquiry”, and immediately noticed a line on the envelope: “Why almost all top ranking scientists reject God?” (The emphasis theirs.) Inside, they proudly quote Thomas Jefferson: “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.” Their message is clear: Say no to god and yes to logic.

Postmodernism as a Bastard Child of the Left

What is even more ironic about the present state of the Left is that its own thread of philosophizing has lead to its own logical undoing. Postmodernism, especially poststructuralism and Deconstruction, has logically proved that the truth is untenable, which supports the position of the Right. And, they arrived at this, not through the pressures from their opponent, but as a logical consequence of their own investigation. The Left has inadvertently proved its own contradiction and the validity of the Right, and now they are scrambling to discredit their own creation. The liberal magazine mentioned above describes one of their articles:

“What Happened to Truth?” -- A scathing critique of “postmodernism” in higher education, an academic fad that rejects objectivity in science, ethics, and society. It seems that, despite its seeming profundity, postmodernism is empty but, alas, few will say that the emperor has no clothes.

The essence of what was realized in postmodern philosophy, especially Deconstruction, has always existed in the East. Akira Kurosawa’s film “Rashomon” should serve as a handy illustration of the East’s attitude towards the notion of truth. To call it “fad” would be to call the whole of Eastern philosophy a fad. It is true that postmodernism is empty, but what it proved was not only that it is empty itself but also that the entire edifice of Western philosophy was. That is, the Western philosophers never had any clothes to begin with.

For the Left, this is a massive headache. The ideas of postmodernism is more sympathetic to the Right who never touted logic or “reason” as the ultimate judge of truth. Furthermore, deconstructive thinking has destroyed their own unity. Listening to the calls to action by thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, they indiscriminately rejected all forms of centralizing structure, and ended up with nothing but internal squabbles.

If the deconstruction of their own political ideologies reached as far as going beyond partisan politics, it could have had some merits, but all they did was to get excited about the destruction part of postmodernism without understanding the whole point of it, like a kid taking apart his own toy. After it was all but destroyed, they realized that they were not yet ready to face the emptiness of the truth. They could not overcome their fear of losing of their own identity, and so held on to the banner of the Left as if it was a lifesaver.

Wittgenstein: Separation of Politics and Philosophy

There is nothing wrong with postmodern philosophies. Where the Left went wrong was to think that politics is about realizing philosophical ideologies. Philosophy as a logical investigation of life, should not be confused with politics. As described by Ray Monk, Wittgenstein understood why the two should be independent of one another:

“Wittgenstein’s conception of a philosopher: one who in the ruthless search for truth would willingly abandon whatever ‘pet notions’ he had formed. At this time [Rush] Rhees felt he ought to join the (Trotskyist) Revolutionary Communist Party... Wittgenstein was sympathetic, but tried to dissuade him on the grounds that his duties as a loyal party member would be incompatible with his duties as a philosopher. In doing philosophy, he insisted, you have got to be ready constantly to change the direction in which you are moving, and if you are thinking as a philosopher you cannot treat the ideas of Communism differently from others.” [2]

Also:

“‘Just improve yourself’, Wittgenstein would later say to many of his friends, ‘that is all you can do to improve the world.’ Political questions, for him, would always be secondary to questions of personal integrity.” [3]

Unlike the armchair intellectuals of the Left who lost touch with the realities of the working-class people, Wittgenstein had always preferred to work as a manual laborer, and encouraged his students to do the same. Even in his later life, he worked as a drug dispensary porter at a hospital. Although he inherited a great fortune from his family, which made him “one of the wealthiest men in Europe” [4], he gave it all up. He was also sympathetic to Christians. He had great admiration for Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky. He realized at some point in his life, the knowledge of the truth cannot be explained logically.

“There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.” [5]

And:

“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” [6]

For those who believe that the truth is unspeakable, the politicians who are driven by their passion to realize their theoretical ideologies, might as well be space aliens, like someone who believes that there is a logical solution to love. Much of the masses feels this way about the intellectuals of the Left. The latter was so concerned about the ignorance of the others that they never questioned their own ignorance.

Conclusion

Politics is a science of compromise. It deals with human psychology which often defy logic and reason. Theories may be used to guide our ways, but should never be used as the end to which we conform. That is, the point of theories should not be to align reality to theories, but theories to reality. Stock market, for instance, has always defied any attempt to formulate a sure-fire theory of prediction. This does not mean that theories are useless. They can be in certain contexts, but this should not lead to the conclusion that to know the truth is to understand the theory behind it. This naiveté is what drives someone to apply theories to reality authoritatively. Such intellectual arrogance has often resulted in disasters, like Nazism with its authoritative adaptation of social Darwinism, and recovered-memory therapy used in child sex abuse cases.

Philosophers should not play the role of politicians, no more than they should play the role of doctors. Their logical capacities have made them so arrogant that they felt they knew something about organizing a society. They thought they knew how to swim without ever getting into the water. The Leftist politicians and political theorists should leave philosophers and their philosophies alone too. The problem is not the postmodern philosophies themselves, but the naive applications of them to politics. The relationship between philosophical theories and politics is not at all like that of theoretical physics and applied physics. It is rather closer to that of art and science.