May 10, 2003

Enlightenment and Blackmail

Gary Sauer-Thompson senses "a bit of blackmail" in my refusal of the "refusing the blackmail of Enlightenment" position. Though he has "a lot of sympathy" for my concern over the fact that, as I put in my original post on the so-called Leo-Cons, "liberalism has taken quite a beating of late," he writes that he has done his "bit to give liberalism a bit of a beating for its univeralism, abstraction and individualism."

I've yet to respond to two very interesting and challenging comments from a more conservative perspective (by Robert Schwartz and Eddie Thomas). And now here is a new challenge from the left side of the spectrum. What's a liberal to do!? -- I'm going to try to come up with a reply that addresses the questions and concerns raised by both sides.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 10, 2003 03:34 PM

Hi IA,
Some further thoughts to help open up a dialogue. I picked up the weblog because I think that the liberal interpertation of the humanities (all about the flowering of individuality and the civilising of business etc) needs to be questioned. It not longer convinces as it once did.

As I live in Australia not the US I read (interpret) Americans writing 'liberalism' to refer to American liberalism. And being a philosophically trained menas that I interpret the tradition of American liberalism as a Locken one ie., the contractarian one that was revitalised by Rawls. This is very different from the utilitarian liberal tradition (Bentham and Mill) in Australia; the Hayekian one; or the social liberal one of T.H. Green. So it all depends on which liberalism you are defending from conservatives.

I have sympathy for your position because of our common ground of defending the viability of the humanities in the corporate universities from their displacement and marginalisation; and finding ways to make them speak anew in a postmodern world dominated by a commercialised technoscience.

As for the blackmail? Well, my historical context is one of being educated and teaching in a Marxist philosophy department.That meant that I had science shoved down my throught. It was Science with a S, and it meant a hard-edged natural science (fundamnental physics)with a materialist metaphsyics of nature and people as machines. Reason=science is the Enlightenment blackmail.

My sensing the 'Enlightenment blackmail' in your text refers to your tacit coding the big good words--- 'freedom, equality, practical politics etc'---with liberal content to fend off bad conservatism. Not only do conservatives (including Leo Strauss) have good insights into the flaws of the liberal tradition in modernity; it is the very content of liberalism that is currently being called into question.

Why? Liberalism became hegemonic after the end of the Cold War and so it becomes the focus of critique. My reading of the US is that the highlighting of the flaws of liberalism come from the conservative tradition----which, judging from US comments on conservatism in, are by and large liberal (ie., neocons).The critique comes from conservatism because the socialist tradition has little traction in the US.

I concur with you that Strauss is not a necon by a long short.He is a genuine conservative whose eagle philosophical eye is trained on the discontents of liberal modernity. The substance of his work (like that of other conservatives, such as Nietszche, Heidegger, Schmitt, Gadamer)highlights the poverty and emptiness of the necons.

So the other part of the 'Enlightenment blackmail' I sensed was that you implied that we should not read Strauss nor engage with his ideas---it was all junk, rubbish and nasty. (A bit like the way that US & Australian liberals responded to Derrida). We had to make the stand with the liberal Enlighenment against the cancer within.


Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 11, 2003 12:04 AM

I absolutely do not want to suggest that people shouldn't read Strauss or engage with his ideas.

I am talking about an Anglo-American version of liberalism, yes. And in that post, perhaps thinking more about politics than about academia.

The problem with the liberal critique of liberalism is that it hasn't been accompanied by enough of a liberal endorsement of liberalism: there's been too much by way of critique, not enough by way of a clear statement of commitment to liberalism. In practical terms, I think liberals and progressives have simply ceded too much ground to conservatives. We have allowed them to set the terms of debate and to define the agenda, in part because we have been too concerned to question our own premises, problematize their application, and so on. This does all very well in the seminar, but not on the podium.

Socialism is not an option. What is an option: claiming/reclaiming "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as liberal goals that can be achieved through liberal policies.

I don't subscribe to the "Enlightenment project" view of Enlightenment: the Enlightenment as an Age of Reason dedicated to dehumanization in the name of science and progress and so on. That's one strand, sure. But Enlightenment thinkers were as concerned with the passions and sentiments as they were with reason. And one very important part of Enlightenment had to do with emancipation from all kinds of earlier forms of authority (religious, political, familial and so on). That emancipation was real. There's my son...more later....

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 11, 2003 03:08 PM

I have finally written my account of the Straussians at my site if you are interested. By the way, my conservatism is in part oriented towards conserving the classical liberal tradition of the West, so I am supportive of your desire to come to liberalism's defense.

Posted by: Eddie Thomas at May 13, 2003 02:43 PM

I am definitely interested, and will check this out...Thanks!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 13, 2003 08:07 PM