The nightmare of dead generations

by Carl Dyke

When I was a young intellectual in college I was really excited about the power of ideas to change the world. Just as the ruling class thinks rules are very important and the working class thinks work is very important and mothers think nurturing is very important and warriors think violence is very important and pigs think mud is very important, eggheads think thinking is very important. Sometimes you just have to smile and nod politely when people say their little thing about how the world works. It takes all kinds.

So a popular idea about ideas in coffee shops, brew pubs, and philosophy departments is that ideas make things happen. This idea should die the first time you try to make it come true, but it’s easy enough to avoid this confound if you only ever have ideas and never try to make them come true. You can also play all sorts of association games, where things were happening and meanwhile people were having ideas that sort of resembled the things that were happening, and so there we have it, ideas making things happen. Never mind the same sorts of ideas were around in other times and places without kicking up much dust. This is really easy to see with, say, Nazism. Nazism itself is a portmanteau of all kinds of garbage that was around in European thought and practice for at least hundreds of years. Finding Nazism precursors is like shooting ducks in a bucket. It didn’t just go away when Hitler blew his brains out in the bunker, either. Naziform thinking is as routine as lawns and registered animal breeds and thinking it means something to be from Pittsburgh. Japanese Buddhists of the early 20th century were basically Nazis, as it turns out, because they were zeeeennn with obeying orders and committing genocide. Yes, bonsai is a little creepy. You know what’s completely normal as part of the distribution of human thoughts and feelings? Control freaks and motivated reasoning and being just fine with other people’s suffering.

The historical challenge is to get, say, Christianity, or communism, or free markets to be ideas that map cleanly onto the accomplishment of enumerated goals. If two thousand years later we’re still having trouble with loving thy neighbor, it might be the relationship between the Christian idea complex and the world of living and doing stuff is importantly indirect. If you actually want to change things, it’s incumbent to see what else might have been going on that murderously intercepted living together in freedom in the great 20th century communist experiments. And every time a free market gets ‘captured’ by dynamics other than the free and fair pursuit of individual self interest, shaking a finger and scolding people for doing it wrong are on the silly side of sociopathic wokeness. Don’t get me started on the Constitution.

It is just impossible to find any ideas in, say, 18th century Europe that didn’t have slavery and white supremacy as part of their effective context and content. Sometimes this is explicit, as in the case of pro- and anti-slavery tracts. More often it’s just that nothing about Europeans’ world in the 18th century was possible without slavery and white supremacy, although a lot of it had been true on other grounds some hundreds of years before. So you couldn’t say “I like a good ham sandwich” without saying “I like a good ham sandwich where cuisines and standards of quality in foodstuffs are marked out on a hierarchy with race at the bottom, and in a political economy that conditions their availability to the likes of me,” where that political economy included the labor and status and price and finance and power gradients of slavery and white supremacy. I’ve started to talk about how ideas are emergent in systems. And, you couldn’t say “I want freedom for X,” without saying that at least for the moment you were ok with conditioning that freedom on the continued enslavement and domination of global brown peoples. And you couldn’t say “that’s not what I’m talking about,” the way philosophers do as the special way philosophers get to manage their own ignorance as if it’s deep wisdom, by sealing off their special kind of thinking from their context, without baking the context that allowed you to think like that right into your ideas as their essential contingent precondition.

But, I haven’t said anything unique about Europe or the 18th century or white supremacy, have I. This is just how ideas work. The bits and pieces of them are floating around all the time, everywhere (who doesn’t like a good ham sandwich or rank people or want the world to be just so), but the specific assemblages of them have a time and place. If they make anything happen, it’s because they’re in the flow with lots of other stuff in context. And so it goes.

Not that eggheads ever need any particular context to think like eggheads do! So another dopey thing the people you would expect to think like this think in coffee shops and brew pubs and philosophy departments is that ideas, being powerful, don’t have contexts but are just ‘in play’ all the time. So to pick an example out of a gagillion, we could continue to be interested in Hegel as a live option for how to think about things. And find to our disappointment that he’s not only a racist like everyone else in Europe in the 18th century, but also a little fuzzy and maybe not great on the question of complex systems and emergence. Like, it’s in some sense tautologically true that the world develops according to its logic, which is by definition rational. So there we have it, the progress of reason. But this may not be helpful if we’re interested in how systems shift more comprehensively, which would have to involve contradictions within the logic of history. So we’ve reinvented the Young Hegelians and we’re well into the 19th century now. And then Marx blows it all up with the 11th thesis. You can describe the world any way you like, according to whatever logic suits your fancy, but none of that means anything unless you can get in there and change things. Which, we mostly still don’t know how to do, not least because we keep casting our wistful glances at kludgy old ideas with racism or whatnot baked into them. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Being a practicalish kind of guy with limited time for other people’s descriptions of the world in various ways, I think it’s kind of fun Hegel might have been on the trail of complex systems, but it wouldn’t occur to me to try to get Hegel to be relevant to that discussion now. I’d start with Poincaré, who was just straightforwardly trying to figure out complex systems early in the game called complex systems. But I really wouldn’t start with Poincaré either, first because he’s pretty mathy, and second because there’s an intervening hundred years of smart people working that angle. I don’t look to Darwin for the state of the art on evolution either, although you can find plenty of dingbats on social media doing just that and heroically refuting 19th century science. So I might start with Prigogine, or the early systems theorists like Wiener, as my dear papah Dyke the Elder suggested I do back when I first got sick of chasing the magic of ideas and started poking around at what else was going on. But really I’d try to catch up on what people who study complex systems have been learning about complex systems over the last twenty, ten, five years. Which, is what I do. I don’t expect Hegel to come up anywhere in there, although there’s always some romantic who remembers freshman philosophy and thinks he can get hot dates by connecting the dots.

2 Comments to “The nightmare of dead generations”

  1. Hi, Carl. Could to see you back at the heavy lifting.Reminds me of something Richard Rorty wrote, observing that philosophy does not predict politics. His examples were John Dewey, a social democrat, and Martin Heidegger, a Nazi, whose philosophies of language were similar. Seendipitously, this piece you wrote arrives while my day job involves translating several articles about Japanese Confucianism. In one of my references, Japanese Confucianism: A Cultural History by Kiri Paramore, the author observes that Confucianism has, at various points in Japanese history been a form of cultural capital, an intellectual framework for Shinto, an ideological support for both the Tokugawa and the Meiji Restoration, a democratic ideology in Taisho, a fascist ideology in prewar and wartime Showa, and intellectually speaking taboo in postwar Japan.

  2. Hi, John! I find Rorty perceptive on a lot of things like that, but as a result he’s pretty inconvenient to the kinds of ideas one finds in coffee shops and brew pubs and philosophy departments. So it goes.

    (I recently read a nice discussion of Slaughterhouse-Five that among other things noted how Vonnegut exclusively used the phrase ‘so it goes’ in relation to people dying. And how that can feel like making light but is instead bearing the full weight by absorbing and distributing it. I want to say it was Rushdie, but I’ve turned off my citation function otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to crank out this post.)

    I’ve taught the last few semesters of World History with a China / East Asia focus, and I fully concur about Confucianism. I think part of how the durable idea complexes work is by being resourceful enough to provision any agenda and contingency. With Confucianism, this is often explicit. Any idea that needs things to be and go a particular way is brittle, and will break under very ordinary kinds of pressure. All of the sectarianisms lost to history tell this story, but our students also tell us this story every time they allow themselves to learn something and it rocks their world.

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