An Essay on David Hume, Inspired by Donald Livingston
Deconstructing Common Life
On Epistemological Necessity, Deconstruction, Pluralism, and Neoliberalism
‘The present is not a disposable launching pad for future adventures in technological progress but a place to dwell, to understand, and to enjoy’; likewise, for David Hume, community, tradition, and common life are not “launching pads” for philosophical thought.¹ We are not born to think about life, but to live it, and though everyone knows this when asked directly, there is something amnesic in our natures that makes us forget. For Donald Livingston in his magnificent Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium on David Hume, this failure of memory defines the modern world and ‘is known through the despair of absolute skepticism, which is the fate that always awaits the philosophical act purged of every aspect of common life.’²
For Livingston, Hume was ‘among those rare thinkers for whom philosophy itself [was] the fundamental problem of philosophy.’³ This is not to say Hume was against all philosophical reflection — in fact, philosophy has a necessary role — only that to understand Hume, we must realize ‘Hume’s philosophy is […] a critique of philosophy by itself [and] its central feature is the dialectic of true and false philosophy.’⁴ ‘True philosophy ennobles mankind; false philosophy distorts, corrupts, and dehumanizes.’⁵ ‘[Hume] sought only to reform the traditional understanding of philosophical autonomy by recognizing the autonomy of custom, that is, by demonstrating that custom is an original and authoritative constitute of speculative thought.’⁶
Hume was deeply concerned about common life, about people living situated in local communities, families, and traditions. For Hume “bad philosophy” is ‘purged of the authority of custom,’ while “good philosophy” is critical reasoning ‘in which the necessity of participation in custom is recognized and the authority of the domain of custom as such is affirmed’.⁷ ⁸ Good philosophy accepts a ‘primordial participation in custom’ and accepts that ‘reflection is subordinate to custom’; it understands that ‘philosophical reflection […] is [not] the source of civilization; [rather,] it is civilization that is the source of philosophical reflection.’⁹ ¹⁰ ¹¹ Hume was adamant that ‘knowledge by philosophically unreflective participation [was] prior to knowledge by reflection,’ but it’s clear that ‘[u]nderstanding this is difficult for the false philosopher, who inevitably tends to think that the object of reflection is the original source of belief and conduct.’¹² Considering “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose and the point that rationality is not possible as itself without a truth against which to achieve definition — in other words, what I believe is rational is relative to what I believe is true — it would make sense that common life provides truths more than philosophical reflection, while reflection seems to more so construct rationality. Hume successfully ‘show[ed] that custom, or the order of affection, is prior to the order of reflection,’ yet why this is difficult for the false philosopher to understand might be because of the general conflation of “true” and “rational,” as well as the fact that we experience rationality as true and not just rational: the very phenomenology of rationality contributes to the loss of the distinction between “good philosophy” and “bad philosophy.”¹³ But this is a line of thought we will continue elsewhere.
‘The Humean problem is to distinguish true philosophy from its corrupt forms in a culture all too disposed to philosophical-religious speculation.’¹⁴ Today, as Hume feared, ‘[t]he modern thinker is not born into a heroic world of philosophical thought but into a philosophically decadent world of abstractions and systems.’¹⁵ We live in a world of “bad philosophy” in which ‘thought is resolved to destroy the entire domain of custom and to replace it with the alternative world of its own self-determining reason,’ which seeing as reason cannot be itself without a truth to orient and define it, is ultimately self-effacing.¹⁶ This is not to say reason cannot contribute to determining truth at all, only that reason cannot do so by itself: it is impossible for reasoning to be “self-determining.” For Hume, it is vitally important that ‘the necessity of participation in custom [be] recognized and the authority of the domain of custom as such [be] affirmed,’ but we do not live in a world that has taken this advice to heart.¹⁷ Instead, we have labeled the rational “the true” and alienated ourselves from the common lives that could make our thinking sources of life instead of sources of melancholy.
To briefly lay out the argument found in “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose: if I believe it’s going to rain today, it is rational for me to bring along my umbrella, but if it doesn’t rain, does that mean I acted illogically? No: I was wrong, but I still acted rationally. Similarly, if I believe God exists, it is rational to attend mass; if I don’t believe God exists, attending mass is irrational. What constitutes rational action is relative to what I believe is true, but then what do people use to assent to truth? Yes, once I have a truth, I can use rationality to help me jump from one truth to another, but truth cannot be determined by rationality “all the way down.” Imagination, emotions, experiences, and other methods of ascent must be at play, and following Hume, common life is the main source of truths to which people ascent. To illustrate the point: once I experience in my daily life rain falling from dark clouds, I then know it’s rational to think that when dark clouds are present, there might be rain (even if no rain falls). Thus, the experience had to come before the rationality: I couldn’t conclude it was rational to believe rain fell from dark clouds before I saw it. Considering this, since rationality alone cannot be the means by which a truth is followed, the philosophical ideal of “autonomous rationality” is impossible.
‘[Bad philosophy] appears to give one power over others’ and ‘houses [people] in [a] vacuum [while making them] unrestrained by the moral criteria of an established way of life’ (which perhaps suggests an incentive for people to conflate “rational” and “true” to be free of morality and increase power).¹⁸ ‘Insofar as principles are useful at all in ordering practice, they must themselves be interpreted, not by another abstract rule, but by participants skilled in the practice itself [of a common life],’ but today moderns are often taught to think about life and the rules governing life not from within a particular community, but outside of all communities, from the “vantage point” of a general humanity that does not exist (“a view from nowhere,” to allude to Thomas Nagel).¹⁹ Paradoxically, this is to attempt to judge rationality outside the grounding of any truth that could make possible a rationality, resulting in self-effacement and hinting at why ‘autonomous reasoning inevitably leads’ to ‘absolute skepticism and nihilism.’²⁰
For Hume, to use the language of Giambattista Vico, autonomous reasoning is inexorably a ‘barbarism of reflection,’ a return to the very brutish society which rationality helped humanity escape, for in leaving behind common sense and (particular) truth, autonomous reasoning leaves behind what has enabled humanity to raise its face from out of the mud and stand on its own two feet.²¹ Hume was known to say that ‘in being a philosopher one should still be a man’; likewise, in being reasonable, one should still be true, but where the true and the rational are conflated, it is likely the rational will cease being about particular people and instead (non)manifestations of a general humanity convinced of its own rightness.²² In light of that certainty, what (perceived) injustice and irrationality won’t be stopped? And lacking a truth to ground the rationality, what won’t be (perceived as) an injustice or irrationality? What limits can autonomous reasoning place on itself (and still be autonomous)?
‘Common life is the radiant horizon against which the hubristic absurdities of philosophy reveal their silhouettes,’ yet at the same time, Hume was aware that common life could be a force of oppression when utterly devoid of philosophical reflection.²³ ‘Common life is a dialectical concept in eternal opposition with reflection, and neither can entirely triumph,’ for if one does, deep problems emerge.²⁴ Those who live within a common life but never question it are controlled and alienated like those who abandon all common life and fall into philosophical melancholy. True philosophers critically think about their common lives, ideologically leave them, but then return to common lives like Ulysses, as opposed to deconstruct and/or disregard them as purely harmful and ignorant. At ‘the end of all our exploring’ — to use lines from T.S. Eliot — we ‘will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’²⁵ To allude to “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose and the work of Philip Rieff, if common life entirely prevails, the “givens” of society will become totalitarian and citizens will be suspectable to “the banality of evil” Hannah Arendt warned about; on the other hand, if there are no “givens” or common life in which those “givens” are established — “givens” and “common life” are nearly similes — reasoning is divided from the truth it needs to be itself. Consequently, existential anxiety overwhelms the people, making totalitarianism appealing in order to escape that anxiety.
Although I hesitate to repeat the arguments of “Belonging Again” here, to offer a summary — and to suggest that readers find “The Grossly Misunderstood ‘Banality of Evil’ Theory” by the brilliant Ada Ushpiz— “the banality of evil” is not about evil being boring, powerless, or trite; rather, Arendt’s point was that the more evil is integrated into the everyday life of a given people (and thus becomes “banal”), the more likely that evil grows and spreads unchallenged. Evil that people think of as evil is evil people will likely stop, but evil they at least have space to attempt rationalizing is evil that could worsen. This suggests why Arendt argued that in order for evil to “conceal itself” and thus be truly dangerous, evil must become something that is done “thoughtlessly,” not because those who commit evil are stupid, but because committing the evil becomes part of people’s daily lives and routines, something people do without reflecting on it, like taking out the trash or picking up the kids from school. When people commit evil “thoughtlessly,” they commit evil without realizing they commit evil. “Givens” create an environment — they are not like mechanics tuning a car, to allude to Fredrich Hayek — and rather than forced to be evil by controlling forces, under “the banality of evil,” people organically and emergently change like plants growing in a garden toward evil.
As argued in “Belonging Again,” sociological “givens,” assumptions about the nature of reality, and/or “first principles” are a likely source of “thoughtless” evil that is easily not recognized in its everydayness as evil (“the banality of evil”). Isolated and homogenous communities are also more likely to fall into “the banality of evil” due to a sense of certainty people can feel when isolated from Pluralism, diversity, and difference. When people don’t question “givens,” if those “givens” lead to injustice, they are likely to be part of the problem. But paradoxically, when “givens” are questioned, they cease being “givens” and transform into matters of philosophical debate, robbing them of the capacity to existentially stabilize a people and convincingly address the incompleteness of rationality; hence, Hume’s philosophical melancholy.
If “givens” work, they can lead to “the banality of evil,” but if they don’t work, a people can become existentially anxious, and when suffering this anxiety, totalitarianism can become appealing for re-stabilization. If Hume was right about the likelihood of totalitarianism due to “bad philosophy” resulting from a lack of reverence for common life (which requires and arguably is “givens”), but Arendt was right about “givens” being the source of “the banality of evil,” a sweet spot must be found between common life and philosophy. “Givens” without philosophy are likely problematic, but so is philosophy without “givens.” If philosophy over-questions “givens,” the “givens” will be destabilized, anxiety will spread, and totalitarianism will grow in appeal; if the “givens” are under-questioned, they will cause dangerous “thoughtlessness” in which “the banality of evil” can occur. This hints at why Hume was correct that, to strike the right balance, those who revere common life must go on the philosophical journey and return to common life: people shouldn’t simply stay in common life, as people shouldn’t philosophically leave common life and never return.
(Though the point will not be expanded on here, “Belonging Again” makes the argument that “givens” are necessary both for “the banality of evil” and character (as defined from moral platitudes by James Hunter): the conditions that make Hitler possible are also the conditions that make possible Bonhoeffer, per se. If this is the case, it could be said that the development of character requires common life, but in order for character to not be in service of evil, both the philosophical journey is required and a Humean return.)
Before moving on, please keep in mind that autonomous reasoning must necessarily seem to connect with common life, for if it did not it would be obviously disconnected, totally abstract, and unusable. Autonomous rationality is necessarily about the real world — real people, real communities, real societies — but it isn’t grounded in common life and thus bound to respect and honor it. If it was obvious autonomous rationality discounted and overpowered common life, it would be much easier to stop. Problematically, since rationality is about x, it can be difficult to identify it as being or not being grounded in x (autonomous or bounded), as it’s difficult to tell if Schrödinger’s Cat is alive or dead or if two distinct rivers that merge are still distinct. To hint at future points about Karl Popper and Hume, this suggests why tests are needed like tradition and culture, but more on that to come.
‘Philosophy finds it extremely difficult to grasp a kind of critical thinking that takes the particular seriously both as the object of criticism and as a restriction upon it.’²⁶ For Hume, the right balance is found in the ancient Pyrrhonian tradition in which philosophy itself is viewed as “a necessary evil,” per se. ‘Those who have not reached the level of self-awareness in which philosophical reflection itself is seen as a problem and so have not themselves instantiated the dialectical circle are ‘false philosophers’.’²⁷ Philosophical insight is valued ‘as a welcome relief’ from within common life, ‘but only as an enrichment of the deeper and wider background of the familiar’: the “givens” are questioned for the sake of making them better, not to destroy them.²⁸ ‘True philosophical criticism goes on within the totality of custom. It supposes all custom innocent until proven otherwise’ — it’s default is not to treat common life with suspicion, distrust, contempt, and criticism — but at the same time, philosophy is also ready to judge common life as “guilty” if it is indeed proven such.²⁹ Common life is not given a free pass to do and be whatever it wants by “true philosophy”; rather, it is given the benefit of the doubt and it’s authority respected (even in face of death, as seen in Socrates). Again, this is because ultimately ‘we can think about the real only through the medium of custom and human sentiment’: without common life, there are no “givens” or “truths” to protect rationality from self-effacement, and rationality’s eventual self-destruction is guaranteed.³⁰ ‘The good and the true must first be real,’ but though possibly oppressive, only in common life can philosophical values be actualized instead of remain general abstractions.³¹ To make an actuality like an abstraction — which is what philosophical values tend to do when divided from a common life — is to make it nothing.
It must be stressed again that the answer to the problem of “false philosophy” is not avoiding philosophy all together and secluding one’s self within the walls of a common life. For Hume, if we are not philosophically capable, we will not ‘be able to see through a new philosophical theory immediately and […] preserve, without interruption, the peace that transcends all philosophical understanding.’³² Ideas have consequences, and without philosophical training, we will not be able to stop ourself from absorbing philosophical ideas that will shape our life. To use a metaphor from Ayn Rand, ideas are like secondhand smoke — in the air, hard to detect, practically unavoidable — and it is only with great diligence that we can learn to detect their presence and avoid breathing them in. And if we are in the world, we will encounter ideas and absorb them: it is not an option to find and stay within “no smoking zones” (we are already in philosophy). If we are to avoid being gradually allured into practicing autonomous reasoning (and believing the proper response to the world ‘is to live a life of cynical self-display which expresses contempt for the world of custom and [try to] keep it at bay’), we must learn philosophy, pass through it, and return home.³³
‘The method of Pyrrhonian wisdom is to become proficient at thinking up [philosophical] arguments so that one will be disturbed as little as possible by the intrusion of new philosophical theory.’³⁴ The one mastered in Pyrrhonian-thinking, for example, is aware of Hume’s warning that ‘[w]hen a philosopher has once laid hold of a favorite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and reduces to it every phenomenon, though by the most violent and absurd reasoning.’³⁵ According to Livingston, ‘[t]he fundamental error of false philosophy is what [he has] called the Midas touch: the magical transformation of the whole of experience into one of its parts.’³⁶ For many false philosophers, everything can be explained in terms of freedom, justice, equality, Capitalism, Communism, etc. — mono-values and “isms” — complexity is reduced into singularities. This mistake seems similar to what is discussed in “Monotheorism” by O.G. Rose, which is the human tendency to try to explain everything with a single theory as opposed to a multitude of theories (polytheorism). Generally, the monotheory that false philosophy often falls into is believing that the whole of life can be explained and guided by rationality without reference to any common life — ‘morals are reduced to abstract ‘rapports’ and ‘relations’ known only through abstract reflection,’ for example — which is an ultimately self-effacing rationality.³⁷ Hinting at the disregard moderns feel about necessary common life is ‘[t]he nihilism about physical objects which follows from modern philosophy […] which denies any authority to the sensory imagination.’³⁸ But if sensory objects are to be disregarded by rationality, rationality is ultimately not grounded, which results in it becoming a force that ungrounds everything into being like itself. In the air, everything melts.
A rationality without an actual truth to ground it on is both undefinable and unrestrainable: everyone and everything must be remade in its image. Truth-less rationality is ironic violence. For Hume, separate from common life, values like freedom ironically becomes forces that destroy freedom. ‘For Hume the good is, as it were, present and backward-looking; it is what has been hammered out over time through a largely unreflective process of trial and error, lived through, enjoyed, and upon reflection approved.’³⁹ When goods like freedom are not consciously and reverently “backward-looking,” they become grounded in themselves, utter abstractions, and standards of “the good life” which no actuality can meet. ‘[R]eflection usurps practice, and an ideology of liberty takes on a reality of its own. When this happens, liberty can be suppressed in the name of liberty and the absurdity never recognized.’⁴⁰ Hume in his historic studies observed citizens ‘[c]aught in the grip of corrupt and alienating theories of liberty […] bent on subverting the liberty they actually enjoyed in the name of liberty.’⁴¹ ‘Hume was concerned to stress the historicity of ideal conceptions such as liberty and to show that once the concept of liberty is cut loose from its historical roots in practice and is transformed by speculation into a totalizing ideal, political life becomes absurd.’⁴² He believed humanity had ‘a tendency to totalism that [was] restrained only by the continent circumstance of substantial, inherited moral traditions,’ but once that common life was cast aside, as is necessary in the nature of autonomous rationality, totalism is unstoppable.⁴³
‘[T]hough Hume pointed out the dangers of the philosophically neurotic English self-consciousness about liberty, he cherished the historic practice of liberty as the discovery of new virtues which were immanent in human nature and which required a rethinking of the classical and Christian conceptions of human excellence.’⁴⁴ We cannot make the mistake of thinking that Hume believed new philosophical considerations were necessarily destructive: his concern was with ungrounded philosophy, not necessarily new philosophy (though it would be fair to say his “default” was a skepticism toward “new philosophy”). ‘The barbarism of refinement over liberty [may] destroy the actual practice of liberty’ not because it is novel, but because it is unbound by actuality and only bound by itself (and when a force is its own and only limit, it is omnipotent).⁴⁵ Unrestricted, philosophy could and would totalize, erasing in its path everyone who could be free in the name of their liberation. Rationality that isn’t restricted by common life — especially when combined with an epistemology that few if any can stand up to (perhaps like hard positivism) — is god-like.
Autonomous rationality justifies itself in light of itself (to form an “internally consistent system”), and if it is not simply “known” that rationality requires a grounding truth to keep it from being unstoppable, then it will be as if those who autonomously reason are locked inside Fort Knox or a safe to which only they inside have the key. When a person enters into “philosophical melancholy,” they are locked in: no one can get them out but themselves (for with their thinking unbound, they can always come up with a counterpoint for why they should stay, they can always justify their decision, etc.). But if they entered in the safe, why would they leave after shutting themselves inside? Horrifically, because their reasoning is “internally consistent,” they’ll never see a reason to leave, and if anything, thinking will only (re)confirm that they are right to be locked in the safe (this brings to mind what C.S. Lewis said about hell being “locked from the inside”). The only hope is that the points of Hume and Livingston reach the “philosophically melancholic,” but how could those points reach the people in the safe? Won’t autonomous rationality, precisely in being “internally consistent,” suggest there is no (rational) need for the thought of Hume and Livingston? And the only way to “experience” the rightness or wrongness of Hume’s position would be to leave the safe, which autonomous rationality would necessarily lead a self-prisoner to believe is irrational (perhaps this hints at why often people must suffer consequences, changing mere ideas into experiences, before they themselves change). Ultimately, if one just doesn’t “get” that common life is epistemologically necessary, they will never reason themselves into it. Truth must be lived.
‘Although true philosophy may criticize the world of [common life], the principle of the autonomy of custom demands that [common life] be respected.’⁴⁶ Yet at the same time, it should be stressed again that those who do not question common life at all, who follow the motions robotically, are also alienated and prone to totalitarianism like “bad philosophers.” A society with overly strong “givens” causes existential anxiety like a society without any “givens” at all: as discussed in “Belonging Again,” both are circumstances in which totalitarianism becomes appealing. As people who are only nice when their circumstances are nice are more like mirrors of their conditions than they are “meaningfully” kind, people who only reflect their common lives lack full personhood. Common life must be participated in by conscious choice for the right balance to be struct, and that requires the philosophical journey ‘through the self-mortifying fires of total Pyrrhonian doubt,’ from common life back to common life.⁴⁷ The temptation of the philosopher is to leave common life and remain away, to then look back with ‘contempt and disdain’ on common life (which admittedly can feel justified, considering the oppression “givens” can cause).⁴⁸ This temptation must be resisted, and instead those on the philosophical journey must deny the possibility of autonomous reasoning, and instead cultivate ‘an attitude of piety and affirmation toward the domain of custom taken as a whole.’⁴⁹ ‘Total doubt, then, is presented as a moment in the dialectical drama of philosophical self-knowledge designed to undermine a false view of philosophical autonomy and to restore the thinker to the autonomy of custom.’⁵⁰
But why is this? Why exactly is autonomous reasoning destined for self-effacement? It is claimed that autonomous rationality ‘cannot be infected with the prejudices of custom,’ which seems wonderful, unless that is the claims of autonomous rationality cannot be ‘satisfied anywhere in the world of custom,’ but why must that follow?⁵¹ To start, and to allude again to “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose, rationality is itself thanks to a truth, but since rationality comes after ascension to a truth, rationality cannot be rational “all the way down.” Something else — imagination, emotions, traditions, etc. — must be used for truth selection. If rationality is to be itself, it cannot be “autonomously rational,” and if it thinks it is, rationality is self-deceived. ‘What we may perhaps describe as the chief aim of Hume’s philosophy [was] to prove that belief rest[ed] neither on reason nor on evidence,’ and a reason for this is because even belief grounded on rationality is ultimately grounded on a truth selected by nonrational means.⁵² The same can be said about evidence, because what constitutes evidence is relative to whatever case we are trying to prove, and cases are only matters of rationality after a truth is selected. ‘We cannot by means of reason explain any of the ultimate characteristics of our experience,’ Hume stressed; consequently, an autonomous rationality cannot unveil to us the depths of the world, only motivate us to shape the world into the image of the depths we think should be hidden within.⁵³ To find these depths and a ‘new principle [that] could [hold us] together,’ autonomous and unbound rationality will compel us to turn the world inside out.⁵⁴
Secondly, if rationality paradoxically refuses to accept any influence from anything that isn’t rational, then rationality cannot be based on a truth that would make rationality actually possible, and thus there is nowhere in the world in which it can apply, only over it. If we were to try to spread wealth, for example, based on a rational principle, how would we rationally define the wealthy from the poor? Having $100,000 in Bedford Virginia would make us relatively well-off, but $100,000 in California would be much less significant. It is only in a common life that we can determine the rich and the poor in a given area and also where wealth needs to be sent; if we were instead to set a general rule in the name of justice (such as “everyone who makes $100,000 is rich and should pay 60% taxes to those making $35,000”), then there would be dire and ironically unjust consequences in which the poor in California are taxed for those who, relative to Virginia, are middle class. Hence, divided from common life, a principle which seems to itself a rational method for increasing justice ends up increasing injustice: its goal cannot be realized in the world, only on spreadsheets according to general metrics.
Thirdly, with “The Problem of Internally Consistent Systems” by O.G. Rose in mind, the world and experience often function as “tie-breakers” between internally consistent theories, rationalities, and predictions. According to theory x, belief in God will make us miserable, and the theory entails four pieces of convincing evidence. According to theory y though, belief in God will make us happy, and the theory entails four pieces of convincing evidence. So which theory is right? The only way to find out is to live out each theory and risk being wrong. But even if we did this, the results we found might only apply to us and the extremely particular way we lived out that theory: if our life suggested y was true, the conclusion might only follow that y is true for us. Hence, a situation arises in which experience is needed to break a theoretical tie, but even if the tie is broken, the results might be bound up with us. Thus, x might be true for one common life, and y for another: no “autonomous principle of reason” can be established rationally over all common lives.
If it is true that God is good, it is rational to live as if belief in God will make you happy; if it is true that God is evil, on the other hand, it is irrational to live as if God is good. Yet if we live “as if” God is good, considering the endless psychological tactics the brain uses on itself to confirm itself (rightly or wrongly), we will likely create evidence for ourself that it is indeed true and rational that God is good. Living out a theory to confirm it is not necessarily a reliable way to confirm it, though it might be better than nothing. That said, Karl Popper in mind, if countless people over centuries lived out theory x, there would be stronger reason to believe theory x is “like the truth,” for though one individual can be self-deceived, there’s much better reason to believe millions over various tests, stresses, and challenges life can bring are not self-deceived (even if we’re ultimately wrong). Thus, the importance of common life and tradition: right or wrong, they are extensive processes of falsification through time that ‘can attain some degree of ‘reliability’ or of ‘probability.’ ’⁵⁵ Not certainty, but not even science can obtain that: the best we can hope for are ‘probable inferences,’ and if we follow Hume, of all the ways we could decide to run society, those theories based on common life and tradition are those most likely to be useful.⁵⁶
Fourth and lastly on why rationality cannot be autonomous and useful is the issue of probability. Little overall in life can be reduced to linear models or mathematical laws: if there was an equation for what would make my wife happy, then autonomous rationality would be useful in regard to love, but instead humans don’t always know what they want, and often they want multiple things at the same time that cancel one another out, self-deceive themselves, and hide their preferences. And all this, humans can do without realizing they are even doing it (and that’s not even to touch on the countless cognitive fallacies that further confuse the issue: “confirmation bias,” “backfire effect,” etc.). When dealing with people, we are often guessing at what we should and shouldn’t do, and even when we guess well, we can end up with severe consequences. Also, on the macrolevel, when it comes to say economic policy, we cannot rationally verify that reducing interest rates will stimulate the economy, for example; at best, we might be able to establish “reason to believe” that low interest rates will expand the stock market, but reason alone will not be able to move us beyond probability to certainty. And if we aren’t dealing with certainty, we are dealing with unknowns — say, how one community will respond to easy credit, low mortgage rates, etc. — unknowns of which would be incredibly difficult to guess correctly about if a person didn’t live in the impacted communities (a famous point from Hayek). Yes, rationality can aid us in determining the meaning of what we encounter in a given common life, but rationality cannot “fill in the void” left by a lack of experience in a given common life (though of course, it will try).
For Hume, ‘the alternative [to autonomous rationality] is not skepticism, but reliance on tests which are empirically applicable,’ but unfortunately few overall phenomena in the world can be tested through the scientific method (though the modern world seems to think nearly everything can be).⁵⁷ For social policy, morals, etc., we need a process like the scientific method, and for Hume the closest we can get to that is tradition, “givens” tested through time, and common life. Yes, “givens” can be wrong, illusionary, and forces of oppression, and if convincing arguments would have us reform them. That said, we should be slow before tearing down “Chesterton’s fence,” per se.
Karl Popper offered a beautiful image for how to think about scientific truth that could also describe tradition-based truth:
‘Science does not rest upon a solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.’⁵⁸
So it goes with common life, our worldviews, and our philosophies: we may believe our lifestyles are erected upon the “solid bedrock” of autonomous rationality, and though they (naturally) feel that way, they are not. This hints at why ‘[the] doctrine of natural belief is one of the most essential, and perhaps the most characteristic doctrine in Hume’s philosophy,’ keeping in mind that by “natural belief” Hume meant a belief we have that comes naturally to us from the lives we live, impressions we experience, and so on; ergo, “common life beliefs.”⁵⁹ ⁶⁰ This in mind, we can start to understand what Hume was trying to accomplish through his famous arguments against causality. Similar to how Popper criticized the commonly held notion that science was a process of verification for the sake of strengthening it with an epistemology of falsification, Hume wanted ‘to criticize the [common] view of the function of reason’ for the sake of making rationality truer, because autonomous rationality was a self-canceling falsehood.⁶¹ ‘Belief in casual action is, Hume argue[d], equally natural and indispensable’: he did not think causality was irrational, but that it was not arrived at through induction or rationality (alone).⁶² Rather, causality was arrived at naturally; it was a necessary belief that though unjustifiable in terms of autonomous rationality, did not need rational justification (and if people thought it did, they would lose their minds for no good reason).
Norman Kemp Smith writes:
‘Hume’s maxim that reason [was], and ought to be, ‘the slave’ of the natural beliefs and of the passions, is not, therefore, as he treats it, unethical; in his intention, it is directed against what he conceived to be a mistaken ethics and a false understanding of how man’s life is, and ought to be, lived.’⁶³
‘Moral judgments, in marking out the good and the evil, have their source not in the eternal nature of any independent reality, but solely in the particular fabric and constitution of the human species’ — we know how we should live from how we live.⁶⁴ ⁶⁵ Hume hoped to show that what we thought was rationally justifiable was instead naturally justifiable: reason, requiring truth to be itself, ‘can lay no claim to legislative powers.’⁶⁶ ‘Until experience has spoken no assertion as to the possibilities of causal connection can be made’; likewise, no claim can be made about what phenomena fall under the categories of “good” and “evil,” “identity” and “nonidentity,” and many of the other topics Hume discussed in A Treatise of Human Nature.⁶⁷ Similarly, ‘[t]he belief in the existence of body is […] a ‘natural’ belief due to the ultimate instincts or propensities which constitute our human nature.’⁶⁸ All of these beliefs on morality, identity, reality, etc. are ultimately natural beliefs, not rational beliefs, and though rationality can help purify them for the better (when autonomous rationality is deemed impossible), rationality (alone) cannot ultimately ground them. ‘Belief operates by way of the imagination, not of reason; and since it is the imagination that is appealed to, it is in what is common to the vulgar and to the philosophical systems that the ultimately decisive influence is to be looked for.’⁶⁹ ⁷⁰
In Realism and the Aim of Science, Karl Popper pointed out:
‘Hume’s argument does not establish that we may not draw any inference from observation to theory: it merely establishes that we may not draw verifying inferences from observations to theories, leaving open the possibility that we may draw falsifying inferences […]’⁷¹
Popper was exactly right, which is why Hume warned we must revere common life. As humans, we are going to draw inferences, and if we are not aware that ‘rationally autonomous inferences’ seem possible but are not, we are likely to believe we draw ‘verifying inferences,’ and worse yet, feel certain and verified relative to ‘false inferences’.⁷² We practically induct in a lived space between truth and rationality, but we cannot induct with rationality within rationality, nor can we induct truth within truth. Practically inducting is possible and inevitable, but inducting is impossible and tempting.
As Popper wanted to remove grandeur from science precisely for the sake of saving science, Hume wanted to remove grandeur from rationality before it self-negated itself: Hume criticized rationality to save it. It seems Hume worried rationality would become what humanity assumed was an “objective” force for good and thus an unstoppable force of pseudo-divine destruction, especially considering humanity’s (worrisome) conviction that ‘reason [could] never be in conflict with itself,’ and thus reason was incapable of checking and balancing reason (consider “The Problem of Internally Consistent Systems” and “The Map is Indestructible,” both by O.G. Rose).⁷³ But Hume was misread, and ‘total war [became] the form of war in the twentieth century’; ‘World War I resulted in 8 million dead […] [more dead than] all wars fought in Europe during the two-century period of “civilized” warfare [beforehand].’⁷⁴ Livingston laid out the horror well in his book, as did Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment.
Have we turned out well?
‘Critical reasons do not justify a theory, for the fact that one theory has so far withstood criticism better than another is no reason whatever for supposing that it is actually true,’ Popper warned; hence, autonomous rationality is impossible.⁷⁵ As Hume taught that even after a million observations of a ball falling, we cannot confirm a natural law of gravity, so it is the case that even after a million pieces of evidence, we cannot justify an absolute truth. Rational justification, for partially this reason, is not ‘the great teacher of mankind,’ as Hume thought, but ‘custom and tradition.’⁷⁶ According to Popper, ‘we always discover regularities by the essentially different method of trial and error, of conjecture and refutation, or of learning from our mistakes’ (‘absolute exactness does not exist, not even in logic and mathematics’), and for Hume custom and tradition are processes entailing exactly these practices.⁷⁷ ⁷⁸ ‘[T]he allegation that we do in fact proceed by induction is a sheer myth, and […] the alleged evidence in favor of this alleged fact is partly non-existent, and partly obtained by misinterpreting the facts.’⁷⁹ ⁸⁰
‘[A]ll learning is learning from experience’; ‘man is a believing animal because he is an acting animal.’⁸¹ ⁸² ⁸³ When humans experience x following from y ten times, though a natural law cannot be established (according to autonomous rationality), a natural belief that y causes x can (and even must) be established. No, repetition through experience and action cannot make induction possible or achieve “objective truth,” but they can provide “natural reason” where “autonomous reason” is delusional.⁸⁴ ⁸⁵ Additionally, it is within experience and common life that Hume’s true philosopher can emerge realizing that repetition is a foundation for thought more than autonomous rationality, and thus ‘come to see that the heroic moment of philosophical reflection is a joke at [humanity’s] own expense.’⁸⁶
Hume’s reflections on common life being the main organizing principle of human life could perhaps find support from within the work of Carl Jung. If it is indeed the case that societies before the Enlightenment operated more so by observation and experience, searching for repetitive patterns that were then codified into law — an attempt for justifying them objectively was not thought necessary until the Enlightenment, perhaps due to the assumption of God’s existence — this would indeed suggest that Hume was right. Jung was concerned with finding archetypes in stories and repeating patterns of social organization, and though Jung believed this suggested the existence of what could be called “mental organs,” from a sociological and behavioral standpoint, it would (also) suggest that many societies over long enough periods of time ended up observing the same patterns across similar situations, patterns that societies then tried to preserve in stories. These patterns or archetypes were not so much rational but “natural beliefs,” and the fact that they were observed “working” by countless people over countless decades was thought to be reason enough to assume the patterns “were mostly right,” even if it was impossible to confirm them objectively.
Once the Enlightenment started and God abandoned (and keep in mind that God previously had the function of providing authority to observed patterns in place of rational justification), it was then felt that observing patterns wasn’t enough justification, thus starting the quest for autonomous rationality. Of course, observations don’t seem to be “enough” the moment we think about them, and thus translate them into rational terms they automatically fail to meet (as discussed in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose). Jung, Hume, and evolution in general all seem to suggest that humans operate according to perception more than rationality, that perception/experience is a source of “natural beliefs,” which are much more consequential for humans than “rational beliefs.” Societies are primarily founded on perception, but after the Enlightenment, rightly or wrongly, humanity came to believe society needed a solely rational justification (especially in light of God’s death), but this required an autonomous rationality that Hume saw was impossible. And we’re still attempting the impossible to this day, trying to make ourselves worthy of the murder to which Nietzsche feared we’d never live up.⁸⁷ ⁸⁸
To return to the topic of “good philosophy,” it would be mistaken to assume that Pyrrhonian thinkers believe opposite or opposing premises of “bad philosophers”: instead, we see a denial of the philosophical game and dialectic entirely. In Pyrrhonian thinkers, we can ‘detect an obsession with suspension of judgment as a way of life,’ a suspension that ‘alone succeed[s] in forcing philosophy into a radical examination of itself.’⁸⁹ Livingston wrote:
‘The Pyrrhonian does not claim that reality cannot be known; that would be dogmatism. He leaves the question open and is willing to consider any claim about the real, but experience has taught him that peace of mind does not come from theorizing about the real, and so the point of inquiry is always to bring theorizing to bay by showing that the contrary of whatever theory is seized upon is as well supported as that theory.’⁹⁰
The Pyrrhonian thinker is aware that ‘[s]ince the skeptic can never entirely suppress the desire to philosophize, his happiness is never complete and always exists against a background of philosophical anxiety,’ and thus if a Pyrrhonian thinker becomes a dogmatist about skepticism, the Pyrrhonian reenters the very anxiety he or she was supposed to escape.⁹¹ ‘Skepticism serves as an ally, but in due subordination, not as an equal’ to common life.⁹² At the same time, ‘no one can be a true philosopher unless he [or she] has passed through the moments of vulgar consciousness and false philosophical consciousness’: “good philosophy” is only found on the other side of “bad philosophy”; it must be walked through, it’s temptations suffered.⁹³ ‘The appreciation of the authority of [common] opinion is possible only for true philosophers who have run the circle of the dialectic,’ and this entails very real but necessary risk if the oppressive negatives of common life are to be managed (such as those discussed in “Belonging Again”).⁹⁴ ‘Only true philosophers recognize th[e] authority [of the “un-rational” common life] and so recognize that they are no different from the unreflective [commers] in being participants in custom.’⁹⁵
(As a useful aside and as discussed in “Through (No)thing We Know” by O.G. Rose, it can be useful to draw a distinction between the “irrational” and the “(un)rational,” and do note that the fact we only have the term “irrational” contributes to the fallacy of thinking if x is not a matter of rationality, then it is irrational (foolish); furthermore, thinking this way, we come to believe that all phenomena fall within the dichotomy of “rational vs irrational,” further privileging rationality. Considering the distinction between truth and rationality, truth and common life are ultimately matters of (un)rationality, and the act of trying to replace (un)rationality with rationality is for rationality to negate its own possibility. Unfortunately, in only having at our disposal the dichotomy of “rational and irrational,” when we think about the (un)rational, we necessarily think about it as “irrational,” and thus believe there is a need to “fix it” with and into rationality. Thus, the dichotomy contributes to our attempts to achieve autonomous rationality, a necessarily self-effacing goal.)
Hume hoped to bring embarrassment to ‘self-determining reason purged of custom and the workings of the metaphorical imagination,’ thus his reflections on identity, causality, and so on.⁹⁶ He viewed embarrassment as a corrective for philosophical pride, ‘[a]nd it is the subversion of this pride by the ‘Pyrrhonian doubt’ that enables the philosopher to break free of the grip of a corrupt philosophical consciousness.’⁹⁷ Paradoxically, ‘Pyrrhonism, through a more refined development of the philosophical intellect, is not only disowned by the [bad or] heroic philosopher but is considered its greatest threat,’ and it is not by chance that the unveiling of the paradox of this situation was best carried out through paradoxes, thus the nature of A Treatise of Human Nature by Hume.⁹⁸ ‘The absurdities, self-deceit, and hypocrisy of heroic philosophical consciousness are the result of a radically self-determining reason and so are self-imposed,’ and ‘[t]he grip can be broken only by the force of the Pyrrhonian doubt which shatters the seamless whole of self-determining reason. But for this very reason it is difficult for the heroic philosopher to pass through the Pyrrhonian door of salvation.’⁹⁹
‘Unlike ordinary resentment which, if just, is caused by things within the world of custom, philosophical resentment, being a passion attendant upon self-determining reason is self-imposed.’¹⁰⁰ Nothing in the world can break a person out of it, only the person’s self: ‘[n]o adjustments within the world of custom can extinguish these melancholy passions that naturally attend the heroic moment of philosophical reflection.’¹⁰¹ But once a person has entered into “bad philosophy,” it is only by realizing the impossibility of autonomous reasoning that a person can escape, but it is unlikely a person will realize this, precisely because rationality itself deems it rational to remain in bad philosophy. One must transition out of rationality into “natural belief,” but it is precisely because of rationality the person has journeyed as far as he or she has, so why would the individual change course now (especially considering that without philosophy at all, common life is oppressive, and thus the individual has “just” reason to trust in reason, as the individual has reason to trust it since rationality deems itself rational to ascribe to exclusively)? The hold rationality grips people in is incredibly strong, but if it is not broken, the melancholy and destructive ends of philosophy cannot be avoided: we will end up like characters in the works of Walker Percy (The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, etc.)
As Hume realized, rationality is only one of many methods of apprehension, but accepting that there are more forms of apprehension — emotion, intuition, experience, action, love, imagination, etc. — requires faith, because we cannot render those alternative apprehensions intelligible with rationality (hence, a life without faith is a life attempting autonomous rationality). Consequently, you likely cannot “feel like” accepting alternative apprehensions is the right choice. Perhaps it is impossible to please God without faith, but on the other hand, it seems impossible to please humans with it. However, the very fact that rationality requires truth in order to be itself — a truth which rationality could not apprehend alone — gives us reason to ascent to alternative apprehensions. This can be frightening though, not only existentially in the reality that we cannot fully grasp ourselves intelligibly, but also because it means there are (un)rational ways of knowing that people could use to brainwash and deceive us. Yet it is precisely this possibility that requires us not to abandon rationality all together, despite its incompleteness. Rationality can protect us from being brainwashed, even if “in” rationality is the temptation to view self-effacing autonomous rationality as a possibility.¹⁰² As Hume realized, for us to use rationality with the right balance, it must be subservient to common life.
For Hume, tradition apprehends for its people, and those people will find themselves happiest if they learn to use their philosophical abilities to suspend philosophical judgment and to defend common life from new philosophical systems so that they can participate in common life uninterrupted. This is a paradox, for a point of philosophy is to question common life, and certainly Hume believed there is a role for philosophy in refining and correcting traditions and communities. However, there is a difference between philosophy that seeks to deconstruct community and philosophy that seeks to strengthen it both by correcting it when it is wrong and in defending it against outside forces. Common life without philosophy at all is oppressive, but so is philosophy without common life: the antagonistic brothers must learn to live together.
With “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose in mind, thought is naturally more deconstructive than constructive, precisely because its nature is to define one thing from another, draw out a thing from its context in focus, and to break things down into their parts in order to understand them. Thought likewise seems better at critiquing than creating, at finding problems and imperfections with values, people, and ideas versus seeing in what ways these entities are good. For Hume, to only think deconstructivity is too easy: the true philosophy takes a second step into learning how to preserve and create.
Simplicity that is not earned through thought is fragile, but it’s the nature of thought to complexify simplicity, thus causing existential anxiety, abandonment, and deconstruction. Furthermore, as has already been discussed, placing common life above philosophical judgment feels like making one’s self vulnerable to manipulation. For Hume, though life without rationality invites brainwashing, using rationality to defend and preserve common life is to engage in “brain-cleaning,” per se. Thought divided from everyday life muddies our minds down with “bad philosophy”: philosophical systems, long chains of deductions that cannot be falsified, unnecessary metaphysics, and so on. “Good philosophy” requires philosophical mastery in order to cut through dangerous philosophical ideas, and though skeptic in its nature, the skepticism is more so directed against philosophy itself than against common life. Toward philosophy, Hume tried to deconstruct; toward common life, Hume tried to refine. It is natural for our minds to wander toward “bad philosophy,” and so paradoxically we need philosophy in order to keep that from happening, for rationality can be rationality’s corrective. That said, we must still learn to engage in other forms of life than the philosophical life and not forget to tend our gardens.
The philosophy of Hume according to Livingston explained, it is now time for this essay to address its second main concern: the similarities and differences between Hume, Postmodernism, and Deconstruction. Much of Hume’s thought will resonate with individuals concerned about how the Enlightenment Project has been a force of oppression against minorities — “autonomous rationality” has often been “white rationality” — and furthermore Postmodernists often stress that rationalities are always situated within a certain system of assumptions that reflect a particular culture, race, class, and/or common life. Was Hume the first Postmodernist, or are there differences between him and Derrida that we should address?
Both Hume and Postmodern Deconstruction (a vague blanket category, I understand, which I will signify with PD moving forward) are passionate about making people a little less certain about life. Both view certainty as a major cause of philosophical arrogance and privilege creation. Hume believed that to stop certainty, the individual needs to leave common life and enter the philosophical journey, only for him or her to ultimately return to common life. This way, the individual isn’t overly certain in either common life or philosophical reasoning; in both, at best, the individual achieves confidence (a topic expanded on in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose). Certainty in common life contributes to oppression and Arendt’s “banality of evil,” while certainty in philosophical reasoning leads to the totalitarian dangers and self-effacement of autonomous rationality. It is important that an individual not be overly invested in either.
PD shares Hume’s skepticism of rationality and concern with certainty, and the multicultural dimension of PD also stresses “multiple rationalities” and the idea that there is no such thing as a philosophical system which isn’t situated and defined as itself within a particular people, time, and space. It would be mistaken to say that PD is nihilistic, for though it can be nihilistic in different ways, sophisticated PD argues that uppercase-Truth may exist, but we cannot know for sure even if it does, and regardless we must create for ourselves lowercase-truths that may or may not reflect uppercase-Truth (we cannot know either way). Sophisticated PD, precisely in being more epistemologically nihilistic, cannot be existentially nihilistic, for if we cannot be certain of anything, we cannot be certain that life has no meaning. Most PD thinkers would certainly claim they don’t believe in God, but the wise ones take that position with an open mind. They don’t believe God exists, but they don’t believe God can’t exist either.
PD has gone to great lengths to argue that conclusions we believe are given to us by “objective” rationality and logic are in fact given to us from our “lived experience,” similar to how Hume made arguments about causality, “constant conjunction,” and the like to highlight that rationality cannot be the source of our “natural beliefs” (he made points that people have taken with philosophical seriousness to make points against philosophical seriousness). Like Daniel Dennett, PD argues that much of philosophy is merely privileged “chmess” — a meaningless search for “high order truths” that have no practical significance — and this seems to be exactly the point Hume was trying to make, even though ironically he is often associated with being a father of much “chmess thinking.” Hume argued that we cannot prove the sun will rise tomorrow in order to show the belief is not rational but natural, and thus rationality must make space in itself for “natural beliefs.” Similarly, PD has attacked the history of science, the Enlightenment, and other philosophical projects to show not that “truth doesn’t exist,” but to show that “truth is always situated” (and again, if it is like uppercase-Truth, we cannot be certain). Like Hume, PD has been wrongly accused of nihilistic projects with goals opposite of its actual intentions.
But what are the real differences between Humean skepticism and Postmodern Deconstruction? Both have realized the errors of autonomous rationality and the Enlightenment, but I’m of the opinion that while Hume would not claim it has all thus been a waste of time, PD seems more ready to throw out tradition and philosophy in general. Giles Deleuze doesn’t — he argues the history of philosophy provides us with useful and creative models with which to understand the world, even if we can’t say for sure which models “point us” toward uppercase-Truth — but generally, PD seems to want to start all over or be done with philosophy once and for all; after all, why do we still need it in light of the incredible advances in science and technology? This isn’t to say sophisticated PD is after “a view from nowhere,” to use Thomas Nagel’s term, for PD doesn’t believe objectivity is possible, but rather it is to say that PD seems to believe that Western philosophy is so corrupted by privilege that it needs to be remade if not outright discarded. Again, I generalize, but I do think it’s fair to say that the desire to deconstruct in PD is much stronger than the same desire in Hume.
‘The method of Pyrrhonian wisdom is to become proficient at thinking up such arguments so that one will be disturbed as little as possible by the intrusion of new philosophical theory’ — one can easily imagine a PD thinker arguing something similar, that it is important for people to become proficient at Deconstruction precisely in order to stop arguments that secretly perpetuate white privilege, patriarchy, etc. from intruding progressive society.¹⁰³ There is certainly a distrust of rationality in PD, and again, PD stresses the ultimate incompleteness of rationality, but while Humean skeptics and PD agree on symptoms, there seem to be subtle differences in what they think could be the cure.
Both PD and Humean thought ascribe to a “suspension of judgment,” but while the Humean mostly uses philosophy to deconstruct in order to make space for common life that already exists, PD deconstructs to make space for a common life that must be created. While Hume stressed an eventual return to common life, PD stresses a need for new community, one that is more diverse and freer from the bigoted traditions of the past. In seeking new community, is PD acknowledging ‘the necessity of participation in custom […] and the authority of the domain of custom,’ or is it actually denying the importance of custom in seeking to replace it with new custom?¹⁰⁴ This is a key question, for in one way PD embraces the importance of common life, and yet in another it completely disregards it. It’s almost as if PD believes that due to racism, bigotry, and other forms of oppression, it is not possible to “return” to common life, because there was never any real common life to begin with: all that has ever existed so far has been power structures. Hence, while PD accepts the Humean critique of rationality, PD only at best accepts part of the Humean solution. Perhaps for the PD one day we will be able to acknowledge the superior role of custom and tradition, but not until we create a new custom and tradition free of white privilege, patriarchy, and what have you; for now, while critiquing the incompleteness of rationality outside common life, we must abandon custom and traditions so that they can be replaced with more just sources of social and individual life.
Again, I generalize, and it certainly doesn’t follow that critiquing one common life as privileged and oppressive means that PD critiques every common life, but I do think it’s fair to argue that PD wants to move beyond what the majority of Americans believe is America’s “tradition,” for example. And Hume would not be outright against this: again, “givens” sometimes need to be changed and refined. But are the “givens” ultimately being changed to conform to autonomous rationality, or because the people in a common life themselves have changed? This question might highlight differences between Hume and PD, as does also the point that I think it’s fair to argue that while Hume would first point out the advantages of common life and then the problems, PD would first point out the problems then the advantages. Both have different default modes of thinking, starting concerns, and focuses.
For Hume, people must change first, then common life; for PD, society has too much power over people to expect them to change before society does. PD seems much more skeptical than Hume of people’s capacity to change society as opposed to being changed by society. That said, it’s false to think that Hume didn’t think society was powerful: precisely the opposite is why Hume believed the philosophical journey was necessary. Arguably, Hume understood that common life had to be powerful, for otherwise it couldn’t bring order and direction to people’s lives, and he also understood like PD thinkers that it took a long time for people to change on their own if it wasn’t mandated down to them from political powers. Yet while for Hume this isn’t a problem, but the natural slow evolution of “natural beliefs,” for the PD compelled by justice, slow social evolution preserves and contributes to injustice. Justice compels the PD to tap into political power that Hume was not so compelled to exercise. In fact, he believed it was dangerous, but the PD might reply it’s easy to worry about the dangers of quick social change when you yourself are not suffering oppression.
While Hume believed we must take the entire philosophical journey before we fully grasp the role of common life in philosophy, the PD doesn’t seem to think the philosophical journey is necessary, only accepting the conclusion that philosophy is ultimately incomplete. Generally, it seems Hume did not believe we can move beyond a system before we are philosophically gifted enough to enter the system and see that it is internally consistent like other systems we have entered and inspected, and thus leave the system behind on grounds that it is “equally likely to be true” as other systems (common life must be given the tie-breaking vote). PD, on the other hand, seems to believe the fact a system causes oppression, injustice, and/or restrictions is grounds enough to leave the system behind, and also it doesn’t seem as if philosophical skill is necessary: we know systems are ultimately founded on hidden assumptions and presuppositions that likely privilege certain groups, so what’s the point in studying systems to learn and/or confirm what we already know? In fact, taking the time to confirm such would lengthen the amount of time an injustice could perpetuate: deciding to confirm something (especially what we already know) is in-of-itself a mechanism of empowering privilege. For the PD, going on the philosophical journey (to experience “the problem of internally consistent systems,” for example) is not only unnecessary but unjust.
The Humean critiques systems (in their incompleteness) on grounds that they are all equally true, while the PD emphasizes that they are all equally false. While u HumeHume believed these realizations should inspire us to “return” to common life, the PD generally believes these realizations should inspire us to create new systems, to push for greater political action, and/or to abandon philosophical systems all together in favor of systems grounded on science. Where Hume stressed a return, the PD stresses progress; where Hume stressed appealing to the traditional, the PD stresses cultivation of creativity. Both Hume and PD identify the same problem, but in the Humean mind, the PD proceeds to make the problem worse, while in the PD mind, Hume’s solution is weak in stopping privilege and social oppression. Both believe the other looks a monster in the eyes and waves.
Kempt Smith on Hume claimed that ‘the point of Hume’s apparent skepticism [was] only to show […] that we ought to reject the request for showing that [natural beliefs] are justified.’¹⁰⁵ Regardless, ‘[w]e hold them anyway, and the proper philosophical task is to account for why we do.’¹⁰⁶ The PD would agree that it is meaningless to request justification for natural beliefs and concur that rather there is justification or not, we do indeed hold our beliefs, but it would seem for the PD that generally this means we shouldn’t hold these beliefs, while for Hume the fact we hold beliefs without rational justification was reason for rationality to reverently respect the beliefs (for it is likely that there is a reason why the beliefs are held even if that reason cannot be rendered intelligible). While the philosophical task of Hume was to prove our “natural beliefs” should be respected, the philosophical task of the PD seems to be to show that our “natural beliefs” should be deconstructed and replaced with beliefs that are more diverse, empathetic, and just. Hume might have warned that the dream to increase justice can be the dream that increases injustice, as is especially likely if common life isn’t respected; in response, the PD might argue it’s a risk worth taking to help those disadvantaged (a disagreement that Philip Rieff traced out in his work and that is expanded on in “Belonging Again”).¹⁰⁷
Similar to Kurt Gödel, Hume was ‘a meta-sceptic: in describing the natural operations of the human mind to account for why we make judgments which are unreasonable by the empiricist principle, Hume discovered that the mind’s essential nature is such that we must make such unreasonable judgments.’¹⁰⁸ As Gödel showed mathematics cannot ground itself and yet we must continue to use mathematics, Hume discovered ‘that the human is essentially incoherent, that [humanity] is of such a nature that even after discovering that it has no perception of any connection between a cause and its effect and that there cannot be any such connection, it continues to suppose that there is such a connection.’¹⁰⁹ While Gödel believed his conclusions supported Platonic Mathematics, Hume believed his conclusions necessitated space for “natural beliefs,” for ‘Hume [was] a naturalist.’¹¹⁰
PD thinkers agree that humans are “essentially incoherent” and agree with Hume in the impossibility of autonomous rationality. Both the Humean skeptic and PD understand that there is always space to ask the question “Why?” and that “the why question” always leads from one to another in eternal regression, because rationality cannot be its own grounding, and ultimately an endless chain of “Whys?” can only be broken with experience (arguably small children seem to understand what adults do not grasp). To illustrate the point, if someone from the outside asks an individual why he or she lives the way the individual does, no matter how well the person answers, the outsider can always ask “Why?” The individual can answer every question well, but eventually the individual facing the outsider’s questions will only be able to reply, “come and see.” But if the outsider says that he or she does not yet have reason to “come and see” (for the insider has not answered all the questions yet and thus the insider’s way of life has not been proven fully justified and worth the time to explore), what can the insider say? Nothing: what the outsider feels rationally justified to request is that which cannot be rationally provided. The final justification must be an experience which the outsider will not take the time to have before the final justification is provided — an impossibility. If the outsider does not “just get” that the final justification must be an experience (and perhaps unknowingly ascribes to autonomous rationality), this experience will always fall outside accessibility. Worse yet, as a result, outsiders will believe they are rational and intelligent to cut themselves off from experiencing the life of the insider.
Facing the impossibility of autonomous rationality, PD are more likely than Humean skeptics to use this truth as evidence for a need for political action or social reconfiguration by the collective to correct what has been created by essentially incomplete individuals. Humean skeptics, on the other hand, believe the incompleteness of rationality means we have no choice but to wait for common life to carry out its own slow evolution, which the PD thinker would note leaves those who suffer injustice alone to keep suffering. Generally, PD believes that the fact individuals are “essentially incoherent” means common life will rarely evolve unless an outside collective lends a “directing” hand. This isn’t to say PD supports all collective action, but it is to say that PD thinkers are much more likely to support collective action than a Humean skeptic. When collective action fails, the PD is likely to return to the drawing board to think up a different collective action, while the Humean skeptic would take this failure as evidence that collective action necessarily fails at fixing common life, for only common life can fix itself.
‘Hume’s philosophy is […] meant to be essentially descriptive’: since it is impossible to ultimately justify rationality and “natural beliefs,” at best what can be done is argue why autonomous rationality is incomplete and then show how humans continue to live as if autonomous rationality was possible.¹¹¹ Also, what ultimately grounds a rationality is not something that can be explained, only experienced, and so Hume hoped to describe how systems ultimately fall back on something which cannot be translated into rational terms. PD would agree that ultimately behind a given worldview are certain experiences of the world that cannot be rationalized, and thus PD emphasizes the need for discussing “personal experiences” in politics, philosophy, and the like.
The patron saint of Deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, rightly determined that systems are internally consistent only because of “(un)rational” premises that cannot be justified within the systems, and thus the systems, on grounds of being “autonomously rational,” must deconstruct themselves (even if they are ultimately true). Derrida believed in regard to symbols, words, and the like that ‘the sign’s failure [was] structurally determined,’ and for him, this same logic applied to all philosophical and ideological systems in general.¹¹² There is no “point” within a system that will complete the system: incompleteness is structurally determined. As ‘knowledge is always in a state of being constituted and never arrives at a state of final constitution,’ so systems are always in a state of being constituted, and so are never constituted in of themselves.¹¹³ ‘[T]here will always be […] certain propositions generated within [a system or] discourse which render [them] inconsistent or incomplete, thereby undermining [their] claim to offer a comprehensive and satisfactory account of phenomena.’ Hume and Derrida can be found on the same wavelength.¹¹⁴
Derrida’s thought was very similar to what Hume figured out, but I think with a key difference: Hume would have hesitated to say that a system deconstructs itself because it ultimately isn’t “rational all the way down”; rather, he would have said that all systems, even Deconstruction, rely on (un)rational premises, and so to criticize them on these grounds is simply to criticize systems for being what they are (it would be akin to criticizing a human for being unable to fly). I don’t believe Hume would have liked saying that systems deconstruct because they prove incomplete (meaning they cannot utterly ground themselves rationally), for I think he would fear this suggested the possibility of a system that didn’t “deconstruct” and thus wasn’t incomplete (which would suggest autonomous rationality should be possible). Hume might have feared that the term “Deconstruction” suggested rationality was always a force of oppression, incoherence, and privilege preservation. Hume may have found the language of Deconstruction too suggestive of nihilism and too prone to imply philosophy was useless, and though Deconstruction and Kurt Gödel are often discussed in the same sentence (and certainly there is overlap), I think Gödel and Hume were more similar than Gödel and Derrida. If “Deconstruction” was called “Incompleteness,” Hume might have been more eager to grab a seat.
To suggest rationality should be deconstructed for being incomplete (in other words, for being itself) as opposed to being placed within its proper bounds and respected within those bounds (like Hume did) is to ironically suggest that autonomous rationality should be possible, and thus lurking in the background of Deconstruction can be the same dream for autonomous rationality that inspired the very Enlightenment which Deconstruction constantly critiques. Deconstruction is an enemy of idealism, and yet its criticism of rationality seems justified in its mind by the failure of rationality to live up to an ideal. Perhaps Derrida himself did not make this mistake — I cannot claim to be a world expert on the thinker — but certainly many PD followers have so erred. There is a lack of reverence for rationality in PD, and though PD is justified in its Hume-like criticisms of “bad philosophy,” it (perhaps unintentionally) suggests all philosophy is “bad philosophy,” that there is no possibility of “good philosophy” like there is in Hume.
Perhaps the PD would counter that they don’t think all philosophy is corrupt, just most of it, but it certainly seems to be the case that the PD’s starting assumption is that philosophy is guilty until proven innocent (especially if the philosophy attempts to make positive claims about the world as opposed to critique positive claims about the world). Hume was also skeptical of philosophy, but while PD suggests philosophy should be critiqued because it’s worthy of scorn, Hume seemed to suggest philosophy needs to be critiqued because it’s worth saving. Generally, I would say Hume’s view of philosophy was more positive than PD, and his disposition and rationality against philosophy different. While Hume was dedicated to defining “good philosophy” from “bad philosophy,” PD is dedicated to unveiling that all philosophy hides mechanisms of control and power. Derrida wanted to pull back a curtain, while Hume wanted to weed a garden.¹¹⁵
PD perhaps unintentionally suggests that it is possible to create a system that cannot be deconstructed, that systems shouldn’t have to ultimately be founded on the (un)rational, for if systems are criticized on these grounds, it either suggests its possible for systems to be formed otherwise, or that the practice of philosophy itself is fundamentally broken and should be entirely abandoned. PD seems to lead to either philosophical nihilism or philosophical idealism, both of which leave the world defenseless against “bad philosophy” and the tyranny it brings, because philosophy will always be with us, and if we do not believe philosophical skill is worth investing in, like second-hand smoke, we will still absorb the (good and/or bad) philosophical ideas that come our way.
Following Hume, recognizing the ultimate (un)rationality of systems shouldn’t make us conclude that all systems are useless, but instead lead us to change our views on the possibility of autonomous rationality. To suggest (like Deconstruction arguably does) that all structures of rationality are ultimately useless is to suggest that rationality has no role to play in human life, when Hume suggested “good philosophy” is extremely important. Certainly, Derrida himself may not have believed that rationality is insignificant, and PD thinkers like Deleuze certainly didn’t, but unfortunately it seems to be a line of thought that has emerged out of the PD which Derrida was critical in birthing. Arguably Derrida himself did not believe systems that can be deconstructed are systems that shouldn’t be used at all, but I would venture to say that this is what most PD followers strongly suggest. They have often pushed Deconstruction past the point of useful humility to the point of nihilism, but to be fair, many thinkers have done the same misinterpreting Hume.
Other PD thinkers aside, to give Derrida a charitable reading, let us assume he didn’t believe autonomous rationality was possible and avoided any Enlightenment idealism lurking in the background of his thinking: let us assume Derrida was identical in his views of rationality to Hume. Are there still meaningful differences? Rationality is indeed incomplete and must ultimately defer to “natural beliefs,” but does rationality deconstruct itself? Well, our reasoning in causality certainly can’t be its own groundwork, for ‘a necessary appearance of a firm foundation […] as reason demands’ never appears within rationality itself, and though Hume and Derrida understood this (and that something external to reason must be referenced), Hume and Derrida may have differed on the reliability of those external factors and to the degree the new external factors didn’t fall into the same problems of incompleteness as did rationality.¹¹⁶ If there are real differences left, those differences might involve the degree to which Hume and Derrida believed external factors were useful in helping us render rationality “more complete” and/or “more useful.”
Derrida made it very clear that “final justification is never present,” but while Hume would have said “…within a rational system,” Derrida may have added “ever.” For Hume, rationality must defer to experience, but if rationality does make this deference, our rationality stands upon a truth that there is “reason to believe” is strong. Deconstruction is not so sure, and it doesn’t seem to think that rationality stands strong even if it defers to common life, for according to Derrida, there is “nothing outside the text.” This is probably Derrida’s most famous phrase, and it means that nothing is outside interpretation and/or endless networks of deferring (of a word being defined by words, which are defined by words, which are defined by words…) (différance, as Derrida called it). On books, Derrida believed ‘there is no authorial presence outside the text, signified by an appended proper name, which can absolutely control the text’s meaning,’ and Derrida caried this logic to God and objectivity in general (“God is dead” because ‘there is no unique transcendent point from which one can judge conflicting interpretations’).¹¹⁷ ¹¹⁸ Consequently, Derrida would argue that common life itself must be interpreted and an expression of a (likely privileged) subjectivity, and consequently we cannot ascribe to a myth of “authoritative common life,” in the same way we cannot ascribe to the myth of an authoritative author. Derrida might have claimed that Hume’s solution to the problem of rationality was a fake one, for as there could be no autonomous rationality, there could be no “autonomous common life” (or “truth”). Hume thought common life could fill in the holes of incomplete rationality, but Derrida may have claimed Hume’s solution to the problem was itself a problem.
For Hume, common life has authority, where Derrida may have stressed the impossibility of authority. That said, Derrida viewed his project as hopeful, for to him ‘[t]he death of God [would] ensure our salvation because the death of God alone can reawaken the divine.’¹¹⁹ Derrida viewed authority as an ossifying force, something that brought discussion and creation to a standstill; for him, to say objectivity was impossible was to paradoxically free us to discover more truth. Likewise, Derrida believed “the death of autonomous rationality” would save rationality, as the death of “complete philosophy” would save philosophy. Hume would agree, but only if philosophy ultimately came to revere common life. There’s certainly some truth to Derrida: authority has often throughout history stifled growth, creation, and innovation. At the same time, although we might be more creative today, Hume might have pointed out that what people create is less able to bring stability and order to their lives, for it all feels increasingly arbitrary and non-authoritative, and in that unstable context, totalitarianism becomes appealing (as discussed in “Belonging Again”) and “bad philosophy” more difficult to stop from infiltrating hearts and minds.
I do not believe Hume would be troubled by Derrida’s claim that “nothing is outside the text,” for yes, we are forever stuck in subjectivity, interpretation, and uncertainty, but extensive tests through time embodied in tradition and culture give us “reason to believe” that the “givens” of tradition are “more likely to be like what’s best and true” then all other possible foundations for philosophical systems. Verification is not possible, as we know from Popper, but “givens” are still necessary, which have arisen over decades of tests, so though not verified, we have reason to think they haven’t been falsified. Perhaps the tests were weak and did not try to falsify the “givens” hard enough, but there is no way for us to verify this, and so we are left with the choice of what will be our default orientation and assumption. Will we start our examination assuming common life is bad until it proves itself good, or will we start assuming “common life is good” until it proves itself bad? The PD seems to side with the more negative, believing he or she is justified considering historical examples of oppression, while the Humean would be more positive, believing he or she is justified considering historical examples of order and stability.
Both the Humean skeptic and PD understand that mathematical and empirical proofs are not the only game in town, that proving ideology is often like proving a land title (to use a point from Dr. William Wilson): we walk a field to see that the trees are where they are supposed to be, that the fences indeed border the streams, and so on. There is no guarantee of assent, and the proof is found in the “walking out” of the title (as discussed in “Arguing Hume Through a Wedding Venue” by O.G. Rose): the land title itself cannot provide “the walk around the land”; action and experience are required to verify what the title says, because what the title says cannot verify itself (like a mathematical proof). There is no ideological system that can force assent in of itself, but if people ascribe to an epistemology that assumes the existence of a system that forces assent, they will have reason to deconstruct every (actual) system while feeling no responsibility to build something in its place, believing there is no need, for somewhere there must exist a system that will pass their standard (like a discreet dream of Plato). After all, why would the epistemological standard exist if it only deconstructed everything, and why would the world act and teach as if scientific epistemology is the only epistemology necessary if it wasn’t? It certainly feels like all we need.
Both the Humean skeptic and PD understand that scientific and mathematical epistemologies are not enough, that autonomous rationality is impossible, and that ultimately the justification of a system must come down to experience and common life. Both thus stress the importance of community and identity in the formation of rationality, but for Hume, if we didn’t take the whole, deep, and rigorous philosophical journey, any “Humean Pyrrhonism” we might ascribe to would be fragile: based on ideas and not experiences, “bad philosophy” would likely eventually overcome our “good philosophy.” Perhaps we are not interested in philosophy and would prefer cultivating different skills? Understandable, but sounding like Trotsky, Hume might have warned that even if we are not interested in ideas, ideas are interested in us, that if we choose not to develop the abilities of a “good philosopher,” “bad philosophy” will still creep into our life — we will be fragile. Likewise, community without philosophy is fragile, but paradoxically, philosophy can also be a threat to community. Community without “good philosophy” is defenseless, but where there is “good philosophy,” there is philosophy and so the possibility of “bad philosophy” that could uproot and undermine community. To live is to live with risk.
To draw out another distinction between PD and Hume: what constitutes identity and community between the two seems very different. While PD stresses community based on race, gender, and class (to speak generally), Hume seemed to stress common life based on tradition, geography, and culture. This isn’t to say PD thinkers don’t believe that tradition shapes identity or that Hume didn’t view race as a factor in the formation of common life, but it is to say that the two emphasize different dimensions of social and individual identity. This leads us to an important question: are race, sex, and gender stronger ties and forces of formulation than say occupation, family, geography, and locality? Can what I’ll call PD-identity play the role of Hume’s common life? Do not both form types of community? Are the two equally robust and capable of stopping the advances of “bad philosophy?”
To start, we should ask: why has there been a shift from focus on Hume’s common life to PD-identity? Generally speaking, Capitalism, Globalization, and Neoliberalism have uprooted people, forced them to move more, and ironed out local differences through corporations. The very Neoliberalism that PD often critiques is a reason PD stresses characteristics of individual identity over geography, location, tradition, family, and the like, because race, sex, and gender can move between places, jobs, and families easily, while the characteristics of Hume’s common life are much less mobile, fluid, and malleable. Neoliberalism also praises and emphasizes individuality, and though race, gender, and sex place some restrictions on individuals, they are much more “open” to individual expression than community, tradition, and occupation. Neoliberalism seems to have influenced PD in what PD focused on in hopes of completing rationality, though it wouldn’t follow from this necessarily that PD-identity is less robust than common life. However, not to say that it has, but if Neoliberalism has removed the possibility of Hume’s common life and replaced it with PD-identity, Neoliberalism may have removed the possibility of stopping the “bad philosophy” that PD hopes to stop.
Is it easier to identity the meaning of the phrase “I am a Virginian farmer” or the phrase “I am white” (not to easy either is necessarily easy to address)? A farmer is linked up clearly with certain activities and ways of life, while there doesn’t seem to be a necessary way of life whiteness would lead a person to live. Yes, there are many kinds of farmers — angus, dairy, vegetable, etc. — but “the horizon of possibilities” seems much more limited than for whiteness. Is “being white” just having “white skin color?” What is the meaning of white skin color? Who decides? By what standard? It also seems much easier to say positively what “being a farmer” means versus “being white,” as it would seem easier to describe what it means to be “from Bedford” versus “a heterosexual.” A heterosexual is someone who is sexually attracted to the opposite sex, but what is the meaning of being sexually attracted to the opposite sex? Someone from Bedford is someone who probably knows John Smith, who has visited the fair every spring, and helped Ben with the square bails in the field by the river. People talk based on where they are from, have their weekends shaped by their surroundings, and have their friend circles shaped by people in their areas. When we meet someone, we often ask, “Where are you from?” before we ask, “What does being white mean to you?” We sense that a person’s homeland has a profound influence on who they are: does race, sex, and gender have an equally strong influence? Perhaps so.
The PD may argue that PD thinks a person’s common life is influenced by their homeland, that Hume’s common life is part of PD-identity, and that I have laid out a false contrast. Perhaps I have, and certainly I don’t mean to say Hume and Derrida cannot overlap at all. Also, it should be noted here that this paper is not drawing into question the need for exploring and understanding topics of race, sex, and gender: Blackness Visible by Charles W. Mills, for example, is a book I believe everyone should read. The question here is only if PD-identity is as robust as “Hume’s common life” and vice-versa, and if Neoliberalism has removed the possibility of either being as robust as needed to address the incompleteness of rationality and resist totalitarianism.
Personally, I don’t know if the two are equally strong, but I do think it’s fair to say that it seems easier to say what not “being white,” “being heterosexual,” etc. means versus saying what is “whiteness,” “heterosexuality,” etc. On the other hand, though not necessarily easy, it seems easier to say what it means positively to be “a farmer” or “from Bedford” (without risk of being offensive). If I said, “She’s from Italy, so she probably likes ravioli,” though perhaps somewhat stereotypical, I don’t believe it’s nearly as offensive as saying “She’s black, so she likes fried chicken.” If someone told me she was from New Orleans, it wouldn’t be considered as wrong for me to ask if the person was thus familiar with Café du Monde, but if I met someone who was black and asked if she liked Hip-Hop based simply on her skin-color, I would act assumptive and arguably racist. If I saw someone wearing a shirt for a computer science company and I asked if she used C++, I would just be making conversation; if I saw someone who was black and asked if she thought Obama was a good president, I would possibly cause offense.
Why is it that assuming x or y regarding homeland seems more permissible than assuming w or z regarding race? This seems to be an important question: perhaps it’s because a city like New Orleans necessarily entails a certain landscape and particularity manifest by the geography itself, while blackness does not necessarily entail any certain manifestation of itself at all beyond black skin (relative to what people define as black). Yes, black skin necessarily entails a denial of social privilege, connection with an oppressed history, etc., but these necessities are very general, and it must be determined what they mean for each individual by each individual. How particularly a given black person has been oppressed can vary between individuals: one may have suffered police brutality, another unfair rejection from a job interview, and another both. Oppression manifests in many ways, as does black culture, black interests, etc. but Café du Monde manifests only in one way, and New Orleans culture is much more limited in its manifestations (though that isn’t to say there’s no diversity). Yes, what Café du Monde means to people can vary, as can the culture of New Orleans, but the physical fact of Café du Monde does not vary, as don’t dramatically vary the physical facts of the kinds of food and music found in the area. The variation comes from what the facts of the geography mean, while in blackness the variation comes from both what constitutes “black facts” and from what those “black facts” mean: for geography, there is seemingly one level of abstraction; for race, at least two. The more levels of abstraction there are, the less definite the sources of identity, which though may increase individual freedom and expression, would reduce the possibility of those sources providing robust “grounding” and definition that could combat existential anxiety and uncertainty (increasing the appeal of totalitarianism, assuming “Belonging Again” is correct).
If you live in New Orleans, it is a physical fact, radically particular, that Café du Monde is nearby, that the same violinist plays there every Wednesday afternoon, that two kittens like to sleep against the Café wall facing the Mississippi, etc. There is nothing to be determined or defined: Café du Monde is there. Yes, a person from New Orleans may claim that what it means for her to be from New Orleans has nothing to do with Café du Monde, but the physical fact of the Café would remain (in her world), and for a person to associate New Orleans with the Café would not be unreasonable. On the other hand, to automatically associate a white man with bad dancing would be offensive, because there is no necessary reason why the physical fact of white skin would be linked up with the physical fact of bad dancing: the connection is not “part of the land,” per se. Perhaps it is “predictable” a person would ask someone from New Orleans about Café du Monde, but it’s certainly not unquestionably oppressive, bigoted, or ignorant.
A location like New Orleans entails a radical diversity of facts of which cannot be debated in their facticity, while a race like blackness entails the important fact of black skin color, and though there is a vast diversity of views on what that skin color means, the debate is about the meaning and implications of skin color: the facticity of blackness itself is much more limited. This isn’t to say that the history of oppression isn’t a collection of facts, that racism isn’t a fact, etc., but rather to say that the facticity of blackness itself is mostly limited to black skin, while the facticity of a location is vaster. There are rivers, shops, mountains, farms, etc. all in Bedford Virginia, and so there is space in the facticity of Bedford to “ground” different kinds of people. However, there is practically only skin color in the facticity of biological race (at least as experienced phenomenologically by outsiders), as there is practically only testosterone and/or estrogen in gender, etc. This isn’t to say race, sex, and gender are merely biological facts, nor do I mean to say that black skin doesn’t lead to countless facts in society; rather, I am saying that race in itself entails limited facticity, and the key point is that the more an identity is grounded in facticity, the stronger that identity will be at providing an individual with a firm sense of identity and existential stability, and the better that identity will be at addressing the problem of incomplete rationality (the same logic applies to Hume’s common life). At the same time, the more an identity is grounded in facticity, the more it will be limiting of individuality, a possible source of oppression, and married to the chance of causing “the banality of evil” (as discussed in “Belonging Again”). Thus, if we maintain the division between PD-identity and Hume’s common life, PD-identity might be less able to stop “bad philosophy,” but Hume’s common life might be less capable of stopping Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil.”
The facticity of common life itself is more diverse than PD-identity, while there is more diversity for individual expression in PD-identity. Ironically, diverse facticity gives way to less diverse individual expression, while limited facticity gives way to more diverse individual expression. There are far more facts that compose the geography of a locality, and the variation of those facts give rise to much more diversity in what that geography means for people without the concreteness of that geography being lost. As the meaning of social constructs are debated though, the facticity of those social constructs are increasingly thrown into question, potentially adding layers of abstraction upon layers of abstraction. Also, in discussions on race, black skin is primarily a signifier of a history of oppression, etc., while New Orleans is (more so) Café du Monde, the Mississippi, etc. Yes, it could be argued that New Orleans is technically a signifier (as it could be argued everything is), but at least it should be said that PD-identity and the meaning of “blackness” is more “signifier-based” than New Orleans. This is because blackness is practically a single fact — skin color — and then mostly the (oppressive) social constructs that form around that skin color, while geography is less the social construct formed around that geography (“New Orleans,” a festival spot, etc.) and mostly the multitude of facts that define that geography. In other words, race is more a social construct that individuals must understand for themselves than is a location, and thus the identity formed around race is more so based on a social construct than the communal identity formed around a location (the same logic applies to sex and gender). In being centered on a social construct, a race-based identity is able to make more space for individual expression precisely in recognizing the artificiality of the social construct, while a location-based identity, in being centered on facticity, is less able to make space for individual expression in being unable to recognize its center as constructed. Yes, the individuality a location gives rise to will be more robust in being (mostly) based on facticity, but paradoxically, even if there is more diversity in the facticity of a place, there will be less diverse individuals. The individual race, gender, and sex give rise to will be more fragile in being based (mostly) on social constructs, but paradoxically, in there being less diversity in the facticity of PD-identity, there will be more diverse individuals.
But I might need to be more careful in my language: between common life and PD-identity, how individual formation occurs is different still. A given geography doesn’t actively shape people; rather, people are shaped by “the space between” them and the land. The identity emerges in response to facticity — the need to cut hay, to build houses that can withstand flooding, playing around the Mississippi — the hay itself doesn’t mold people with hands like a potter does clay. The identity forms gradually, through responses to the land and the resulting action: the residents don’t stop what they are doing one day, think about themselves, and decide who they are. The identity is emergent. Is “PD identity” planned and consciously selected? More so, yes: since it is more abstract in being more so a social construct, it entails more abstract reasoning and conscious ownership, especially when trying to decide “what blackness is” versus “what blackness is not.” The black person is forced to respond to racism like the farmer in Bedford is forced to respond to the community he or she is “thrown” into, and so there is certainly an emergent dimension to PD-identity. But the Bedford farmer’s positive identity is naturally emergent, while the PD must consciously and abstractly discern a positive identity, which seems impossible, considering the necessary incompleteness of rationality. That said, if the Bedford farmer engages in no philosophy and doesn’t understand his or her positive identity is emergent and ultimately (un)philosophical in line with the arguments of Hume and this paper, that positive identity will be just as fragile as the PD-identity, and in fact could be weaker than a PD-identity that accepts it’s (un)rational foundation.
There are certainly emergent dimensions of PD-identity, but while the person who is a farmer responds directly to the land that forms the farmer, the minority mostly “responds to responses” to his or her black skin (they must deal with racism, for example). The emergent dimensions of PD-identity are formed by “responses to responses to facts,” while the emergent dimensions of common life are formed by “responses to facts”: there is an extra level of abstraction in PD (and/or “metamentality,” to use a term from O.G. Rose). And because of that additional level, the emergent dimensions of PD-identity feel more forced upon individuals, less selected, and less robust, and in feeling more externally sourced versus internally beget, the dimensions can feel more alienating. Additionally, if racism were to end, for example, there would cease being responses to minority facticity to which minorities would have to respond and emergently formulate themselves: PD-identity can require others like common life requires geography, but much more easily than geography, individuals can change. Lastly, it was unnecessary for white people to oppress black people — they chose to commit that evil — while geography made it necessary for people who lived in New Orleans to adapt to the fact of the Mississippi River. No, the earth didn’t have to form in a manner that forced the river to be there, but once there, it was a physical fact, as it is now a fact that white people oppressed black people. Consequently, PD identities can feel more arbitrary and reactive than substantive and self-directed, and it is precisely the unnecessariness of identities forced into being by oppression that can worsen any torment they may cause.
A chart may prove helpful:
Unphilosophical common life | Second most robust identity. | Most likely to cause “the banality of evil.”
Philosophical common life | Most robust… | Second most likely… “the banality of evil.”
Unphilosophical PD-identity | Least robust… | Third most likely…“the banality of evil.”
Philosophical PD-identity | Third most robust… | Least likely…“the banality of evil.”
Strangely, emergent identity is firm, while consciously and rationally chosen identity is more fragile, and yet firm identity that is not consciously and rationally acknowledged also suffers from fragility. Those whose identity arises from common life but aren’t philosophically trained will have robust identities they will not be able to explain or convincingly defer to an “(un)rational” truth, and thus won’t be as robust as they could be. But on the positive side, they won’t be as susceptible to “the banality of evil” either.
It was discussed earlier that if “givens” work, “the banality of evil” is more likely, but if there are no “givens,” there is existential anxiety in which totalitarianism becomes appealing. The question we must ask is if a philosophical “common lifer” is really less likely to fall into “the banality of evil,” for it’s conceivable that someone philosophically skilled would be more able to rationalize “the banality of evil” from within a given common life. But Hume would argue this person is not actually a “good philosopher,” for though the person looks like he or she defers to common life, the individual only “goes through the motions” of a common life and ultimately uses common life for the ends of “bad philosophy.” Perhaps this is what makes “the banality of evil” so terrible: it looks like “good philosophy” but is ultimately for the ends of “bad philosophy.” It looks like a deferral to common life, but ultimately uses common life as a means to a bad end.
Considering this, “the banality of evil” is a form of “bad philosophy” in which the logic of common life is used to justify activity beyond a common life that resembles that common life. If x is the common life of Bedford, “the banality of evil” can occur both when x isolates itself as an objective good beyond criticism, and/or when the people of Bedford try to expand (and “totalize”) x beyond Bedford into the rest of Virginia (perhaps by force). The people of Bedford in this example are trying to expand their common life to consume and replace all “common lives,” and as this occurs, perhaps the people of Bedford justify this activity on (un)rational grounds, while also wanting everyone in the world to share their (un)rational foundation so that everyone’s incomplete rationality is similarly founded. But why is this an example of “bad philosophy” and not a problematic possibility within “good philosophy?” Hume might say that this is because the individual who forces his or her (un)rationality on others is a person who is necessarily more certain about it than any “good philosopher” could ever be. Force is necessarily an act of certainty which, even if done in the name of the Pyrrhonian tradition, automatically makes the activity fall outside the Pyrrhonian tradition.
Alright, but is the Humean philosopher allowed to try to persuade others that a given common life is better than another common life? If Christians attempt to convert others to Christianity, for example, is this an example of “bad philosophy/theology,” or an expression of a person’s common life, seeing as evangelism is a deep and essential part of Christianity? It depends. In the eyes of the Humean skeptic, the Christian who tries to convert others to Christianity through practicing his or her common life, for example, is not a person who engages in “bad philosophy,” for the person “argues” on grounds of living out natural beliefs for the sake of changing natural beliefs. The persuasion is not philosophical at all but lived. Where Hume would have had issue is when the Christian engages in apologetics, especially if that apologetics is not used to invite a person to witness and participate in a common life (as if apologetics can offer a complete case, which is to suggest that autonomous rationality and/or autonomous theology is possible). Perhaps a distinction needs to be drawn between “good apologetics” and “bad apologetics” like Hume’s “good philosophy” and “bad philosophy” (as I’m increasingly convinced is needed in every field: sociology, economics, etc.)
Similarly, Americans compelled by what they believe is the greatness of their country to spread their sociopolitical beliefs, ideas on human rights, etc. would not fall into “the banality of evil” if the Americans only tried to persuade others to willingly participate in American (un)rationality, for in the act of persuasion there is a necessary level of epistemic humility. If I believe I must persuade you to believe x, then I don’t believe x justifies me to do “anything necessary” to make you believe x, but if I was entirely sure x was true, then that fact alone would justify me acting in extraordinary ways to make others believe. Even if I strongly believe the main idea(s) of x, if I believe I am not justified to force others to believe x, then at the very least, I must practically ascent to uncertainty about the details of x, and that leans me toward “good philosophy.” If Americans used force, even if the people doing the forcing mentally believed they were epistemically humble (and that it was possible that they were wrong), practically they would be engaging in certainty and thus “bad philosophy,” and as we learn from Hume, what a person practically does is ultimately what decides the meaning and type of their philosophy (for the mind is an endless source of self-deception, rationalization, etc.)
Once individuals move from persuasion to force, even if the name of “good philosophy,” they have moved into “bad philosophy,” for to use force necessarily means people are more certain of their system than justifiable. Democracy is supposed to be a “free space” in which citizens can persuade others of their views, but if I force others to be democratic, it’s as if I force everyone to be a Humean skeptic who defers to common life: in the name of “good philosophy,” I act like a “bad philosopher.” If “bad philosophy” is engaged in even for the ends of “good philosophy,” I fail to be a “good philosopher”: the means negate the end.
All this suggests what seems to usually happen with “the banality of evil” and why I think it is fair to argue that the “philosophical common lifer” is less likely to fall into “the banality of evil” than the “unphilosophical common lifer,” especially considering that I mean “good philosophy” in this context. For when “the banality of evil” occurs, the person practically moves outside “good philosophy” even while he or she mentally ascents to “good philosophy,” which if the person was well-versed in Hume’s thought, the person would not allow. “The banality of evil” is an example of when in the name of “good philosophy,” “bad philosophy” is justified, where in hopes of returning to the world of common life, common life is destroyed.
Can there be force within a common life that does not try to force other “common lives” to conform to it? Can a common life that is externally good be internally bad? If members of a common life force locals to live according to the common life, then indeed, “good philosophy” is not practiced, for clearly these internal members of the common life ignored the philosophical journey, for if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be so certain of themselves that they were willing to engage in force. What about the Foucauldian “soft force” that standards of normality can cause, oppressing people? Is there “bad philosophy” wherever there is normality? At this point, we would be arguing that any restriction on the individual was an example of force and thus “bad philosophy,” but if there were no “givens” at all, there would be anarchy and existential chaos. In a sense, “soft force” is a kind of force, but it’s an inevitable dimension of any social structure: the question is if members of a common life are self-righteous, oppressive, and overly-certain about their “givens,” as opposed to being “toward” them with a tragic sense of necessity, epistemic humility, and understanding that the incomplete nature of rationality requires “givens.”
“Soft force” can be weakened, though not entirely eliminated (without causing anarchy), if everyone in a common life is a “good philosopher.” Weaker “soft force” may not be enough in the eyes of minorities, but the only way to eliminate “soft force” entirely is to eradicate “givens” and so make totalitarianism appealing and likely. At the same time though, common life can entail oppression, and the critiques of Postmodern Deconstruction can prove useful for correcting that injustice. American common life has incubated and spread racism, and the work of Derrida can prove useful for stopping that from happening again. But is “PD criticism” as effective as Humean skepticism, and even if it is, is it worth the additional risk of eradicating instead of refining “givens?” Certainly, “PD criticism” is better than nothing, but is it better than Humean skepticism? Do we need both or just the superior one? A mixture?
Which is ultimately better at bringing people together and addressing the incompleteness of rationality: Hume’s common life or PD-identity? In a world shaped by Neoliberalism and Global Capitalism, perhaps neither are as capable as they once were, but a simple question might help us guess: “Is a white man in Bedford more like a black man in Bedford than a white man in Bedford is like a white man in Washington D.C.?” This is a general question, and it doesn’t follow that every black person in Bedford is more like every white person in Bedford than a given black individual in Washington. However, what the question is getting at is if where a person is born and lives has more influence on the formation of the individual than their race, sex, or gender. Are white people in America more like white people in Europe than other black Americans? Certainly, humans are shaped by all the dimensions of identity — location, culture, race, sex, etc. — but what we are asking here is which dimensions are stronger and thus which should be emphasized and focused on for the formation of identity and common life so that “bad philosophy” is avoided and the problem of rationality better addressed. Yes, the answer may shift between individuals, but we might do well to search for patterns.
Another question: are whites and blacks who both work in nuclear engineering more similar than whites in investment banking are with whites in construction? Is the divide between white-collar and blue-collar work greater than the divide between races? Personally, I would venture to say that the white college professor is more different from the white construction worker than the white construction worker is from a black construction worker: occupation radically forms the individual, though this is not to say race isn’t formative or that white supremacy doesn’t exist. And we certainly must be careful to treat “white-collar” and “blue-collar” like monoliths — there is a lot of diversity within “white-collar” and “blue-collar” work — but generally speaking, I would venture to say that the person who works manually is very different from the person who works at a desk, even if they both share the same race, sex, and gender.
One’s job and one’s location are formative dimensions a person “responds to” every day, constantly and concretely, while one’s race is more abstract and usually the minority responds to his or her race in responding to others responding to the minority’s race (thus, the social construct). You feel you are the only black person in the room when you are in a room with other people: you feel your race, existentially, because of others, or because of the society that mistreats you (due to your race). But if no one is around and you must unload a truck, you feel the boxes, the pain in your legs, and the weariness of your bones, regardless of who is there: your job forms you regardless of the presence of others. This isn’t to say that existential feelings based on race don’t ever form people like work (there is arguably a connection between racism and healthcare, which is very concrete), and certainly the existential reflection due to race can be far more difficult than a day at the construction site. Rather, my point is that though people are formed by both, the black construction worker will probably be more like a white construction worker, due to the consistency and concreteness of work (please note that the devilishness of racism can precisely be its lack of a clear and consistent reference point), and because occupation works on everyone more externally and similarly, while race tends to impact people more internally, existentially, and individually (which is arguably more difficult to deal with). I may be wrong about this, and again, it does not follow from my position that a given black construction worker won’t be more like a given black lawyer than the black construction worker is like his or her coworkers — my points are on generalities, not fates — but if I am correct, then Hume’s common life is more robust than PD-identity.
If race, sex, and gender do not define people as strongly as do the dimensions of common life, then to replace Humean skepticism with PD-identity would be to weaken identity and common life. Certainly, it’s better to have PD-identity than nothing, for nothing would leave people defenseless and unable to stop Neoliberalism from shaping them (into a featureless consumer), but what Hume emphasized as more formative of individuals just seems truer to life. The black and white from Bedford do seem more similar than the white from Bedford alongside the white from Washington, though of course both whites benefit from social advantages and assumptions which do not favor minorities. In how people from Bedford live, talk, eat, celebrate, go about their business — they seem much more similar, despite differences of race, sex, and gender, and thus the dimensions of identity which Hume emphasized are worthy of that extra emphasis over the dimensions of PD-identity. This is not to say the topics of PD-identity are not worthy of study, practice, and corrective legislation — again, everyone should read Blackness Visible — but to say that Hume’s common life is a stronger and more robust foundation for practically completing rationality and thus addressing rationality’s incompleteness. That said, if common life doesn’t engage in “good philosophy,” “the banality of evil” becomes likely and perhaps even probable (at least on micro-levels), and arguably the greatest evils in history have resulted from “the banality of evil.” Considering this, if people cannot learn Hume’s “good philosophy,” we might be better off shaped by PD-identity and forgoing common life. “Unphilosophical common life” may be worse than philosophical PD-identity.
A hanging question: when someone attends a black church service, is the person mostly engaging in a dimension of PD-identity or Hume’s common life? Both Hume and Derrida may have claimed the black church service for their project, because it seems to be both: an expression of local and daily life that entails a dimension of race. Again, please note that Hume would not have said that race is irrelevant to identity formation, and certainly the rivers of common life and PD-identity can merge here and divide there, blend for a time and then separate. The problem is believing a person only needs Hume’s common life or PD-identity, when one makes an enemy of the other, and/or when one tries to function as a foundation for rationality without proper understanding and respect for the other. Race does impact common life, and the Humean skeptic that does not appreciate this will not defer to a real common life, but an idea of common life missing the very real element of race (and thus the common life will be incomplete and an abstraction). Used properly, PD-identity could help the Humean fully grasp common life and is arguably necessary for the Humean project. At the same time, PD-identity that has no place for common life and is in fact hostile to it will become a force of “bad philosophy” and fail to adequately address the incompleteness of rationality. The problem today is that it seems PD-identity is being used in place of Hume’s common life as opposed to being integrated into an understanding of common life. Postmodern Deconstruction should become part of Hume’s “good philosophy,” as opposed to try to be all that’s needed for “good philosophy,” for then it becomes “bad philosophy.” Derrida and Hume can be merged, I think, but while Hume may stand alone better without Derrida as a “good philosophy,” Derrida without Hume does not as well avoid becoming a “bad philosophy.” The best “good philosophy” may come from combining Derrida and Hume (or Deleuze and Hume), but what that looks like particularly requires work to determine. And of course, Hegel will need to play a role.
Lastly, on this line of thought, it’s easier to say what a man shouldn’t be, and much harder to say what a man should be: it’s easier to say what white people shouldn’t do, versus say what they should do. It is not easy to determine “what is whiteness,” for any definition that is laid down will necessitate levels of exclusion. If there is no exclusion, the term is meaningless, for a term that means everything means nothing (and a term that means nothing is easily in service of “bad philosophy,” Neoliberalism, or the zeitgeist of the day). But where there is exclusion, there can be oppression and injustice. How is the right balance struck? Not easily, and all exclusivity is hard to live with, but the exclusivity resulting from common life might be easier to accept than exclusivity resulting from PD-identity. This is because Hume’s common life entails exclusivity, but the exclusivity comes from outside forces — history, geography, culture — no one living today sits down and decides the exclusions of a people’s common life. Yes, people can decide the meaning of tradition, geography, and culture, and what dimensions of those should be emphasized, but even these “leaders” can feel like they are responding to something bigger than themselves and not entirely in their control. The exclusivity feels less a result of arbitrary choice and necessary adaptation, and what feels chosen is necessarily what we can feel more existential about, because it can be changed and we are responsible for the resulting exclusivity and possible pain (see The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz).
More existentially difficult, the exclusivity of PD-identity requires people today to set the limits, which means someone must have the final say, and why should that person have the power and not someone else? A host of questions arise, all of which will inhibit the establishment of exclusivities. Exclusivity resulting from common life can feel more like something people need to humble themselves in light of as opposed to choose and form, something requiring adaptation versus designing. Certainly, all “common lives” are formed by human choices and designs in the historic past, but over decades, the “common lives” can rightly or wrongly feel less arbitrary and more “solid” and “part of the land,” making them easier to live with (which can be problematic when used in service of “the banality of evil” — race, gender, and sex precisely in creating “weaker givens” are less likely to give rise to Arendt’s nightmare). Yes, there are times when “common life” and “givens” should be changed instead of adapted to, but this returns us to the question of how we can correct “givens” without destroying them, and if PD-identity or “Humean skepticism” is better at this balance (and if say PD-identity, though not as robust as common life, is still robust enough for humanity to get by, with the additional advantage of being less prone to “the banality of evil”). Again, perhaps the best would be a combination of Hume and Derrida.
Considering the distinctions we have drawn between Hume and PD, Hume might have been disturbed by PD precisely in it being so similar to his own work, and yet in emphasizing PD-identity instead of common life, PD can lead thinkers unintentionally into the very “bad philosophy” PD disowns and critiques. But if Capitalism, Globalization, the Modern State, etc. have destroyed the possibility of common life, then PD may simply be doing the best it can with the tools left at its disposal. If PD-identity is not robust enough to provide what philosophy needs to become “good philosophy” and to fight off “bad philosophy,” then there might be no way that we can avoid the dire costs of “bad philosophy.”
But is Hume’s solution the correct solution to the problem of incomplete rationality? Even if PD-identity is close but not enough of a solution, it wouldn’t follow that Hume’s common life is necessarily the solution. Perhaps the solution in Hume’s day was embedded in common life, but no longer are “the solution” and “common life” merged? It should be kept in mind that virtually all “common lives” up to Hume’s day were indivisibly married to religion, and perhaps it’s not by chance that Hume therefore seemed to defend religion free of philosophical speculation as another “natural belief” (in fact, Hume seemed to suggest that it’s impossible not to believe in God, even though he finds the theological arguments justifying God lacking).¹²⁰
Livingston wrote that ‘the language of common life, informing as it does a community of shared judgments, is a paradigm of non-controversial descriptive meaning whereas philosophical language is not.’¹²¹ As for Hume ‘belief in an external world is an ultimate belief which we all have and for which no evidence can be given since the very idea of evidence presupposes it,’ so the truth which founds our rationality also presupposes the very idea of evidence, as does the experiences and common life which orient and define our worldview.¹²² Hume admonished that ‘the philosophical system attempts totally to replace the popular one, but, ironically, this and any other reflective total critique presupposes the popular system: the philosophical system has the same difficulties as the popular one.’¹²³ Similarly, for a rationality to critique its own truth is for the rationality to work against the groundwork of its own possibility, as is the case when philosophy deconstructs instead of refines the common life in which it is generated. But though necessary, does common life without religion entail enough weight and authority to convincingly and meaningfully address the incompleteness of rationality in practice, or is it the case that secular common life cannot carry out the necessary role determined by Hume at all, let alone partially? Perhaps without religion common life is less capable than PD-identity; perhaps without religion both are weaker.
I bring up the problem of religion because common life until recently in human history was indivisible from religion, but not anymore: when Hume defended “everyday religion,” he simultaneously defended an element of common life; in fact, he couldn’t have one without the other. “Common life” is uniquely ‘story-laden’ as opposed to only ‘theory-laden,’ but what gives those stories a commanding, assuring, and binding power traditionally has been their appeal to a (real or unreal) Divine Order.¹²⁴ ‘Theoretical thinking is non-temporal, refers to universal structures (if it refers at all), and has lawlike form. By contrast, historical thinking is tensed, is about individuals, and has narrative form.’¹²⁵ But people have believed various “narrative forms” mattered because they both described the history of a people and that people’s simultaneous participation in God’s providence, design, or the like: this is what has given “the story of common life” great authority and been an argument for why everyone should conform to it. Not every society has been religious, no, but if religion has been a source of power for common life, the loss of religion today might significantly damage the possibility of common life addressing the incompleteness of rationality well. Perhaps secular common life today is no stronger than PD-identity.
‘Hume holds at the same time that the narrative pattern is a form of understanding,’ and whether religious or not, common life entails a narrative that provides comprehension.¹²⁶ ‘[T]he individuals and institutions of common life which, being past-referring and constituted by the narrative imagination, are usually understood only in the narrative way,’ and it should be noted that ‘[n]arratives reveal the meanings of past events by viewing them in the light of temporally later events.’¹²⁷ ¹²⁸ ‘Thus Lincoln’s birth, which at the time of its occurrence had no special meaning, can be seen to have meaning in the light of later events as in the narrative sentence’ — “and so the father of Emancipation Proclamation was born” — ‘a past impression is viewed in the light of a later event which conveys significance to it and, because of that fact, is called an idea.’¹²⁹ Similarly, a temporal event for the religious is viewed in light of a Transcendent Order “which conveys significance” and is consequently considered meaningful and important. When the Transcendent Order is no longer ascribed to, a source of meaning is lost, and though it is still possible for the present of a common life to provide significance for its past and vice-versa, the weight and power of that significance is reduced in both temporal directions. The past becomes an accidental happenstance, and the present becomes an example of another way of life just as good or bad as any other: everything is rendered arbitrary and accidental. Yes, there is still meaning, but who cares?
I bring up this potential problem of “secular common life” because it might be the strongest argument for why common life no longer works like it once did for Hume, and why PD-identity —which paradoxically tends to be secular — could be our only practical option, even if ideally common life would be better for addressing the problem of incomplete rationality. This line of thought is expanded on in “Belonging Again,” but I believed it needed to be acknowledged here. Personally, I don’t know if common life requires religion to be authoritative enough to ultimately ground worldviews, but it’s possible rationality’s necessary and best foundation no longer works. “Secular common life” could be enough (and be “practically vertical” and/or “practically authoritative,” to use language like that in “The Tragedy of Us” by O.G. Rose), but if only “religious common life” can motivate and “ground” average people in “good philosophy” (as “Belonging Again” suggests there might be good reason to believe), then Hume’s common life today might be no stronger than PD-identity, and if that’s the case, perhaps “bad philosophy” will inevitably prevai.
‘Hume […] was one of the first in modern times to appreciate the fact that the acceptability of a system is independent of the truth or falsity of its axioms. Considerations of the logical strength of the axioms to generate theorems within the system and of the system’s relations, logical and otherwise, to other systems are more important than an isolated concern with the semantic properties of the axioms.’¹³⁰ A system can be internally consistent, never consist of an internal contradiction, and yet still be utterly and ultimately wrong. The consistency of a rationality relative to a truth does not prove the truth, as doesn’t any evidence within a system that verifies the system’s consistency. Similarly, as discussed in “The Problem of Internally Consistent Systems” by O.G. Rose, the non-contradiction of a philosophy does not verify either that a given common life should be replaced by it, that the common life is necessarily an expression of ultimate truth, or that the philosophical system is the best and only philosophical system. Though systems must ultimately defer to a common life, not even the most internally consistent system can prove that a common life expresses absolute truth, and yet assuming the common life (or truth) doesn’t negate itself, it ‘is presupposed by any philosophical system, and is internal to the idea of empirical evidence.’¹³¹ Hence, as described in “Defining Evidence” by O.G. Rose, evidence for or against a common life requires a common life to define a mere phenomenon from “a phenomenon that is evidence for a case,” but that means all evidence is set from the start to either maintain the common life or to deconstruct it, which would be for the evidence to turn itself back into mere phenomena, thus negating its own possibility (‘philosophy is parasitic upon the popular system,’ Livingston wrote).¹³² It’s almost as if truth and rationality are utterly unrelated and yet utterly indivisible, and it seems Hume was one of the first if not the first to identify this paradoxical love/hate relationship between truth and rationality, common life and philosophy.
Failure to recognize Hume’s insights contributes to the slow and gradual domination of “bad philosophy” (autonomous rationality), and as has been discussed, Neoliberalism and Globalization seem to be forces contributing to its mass growth (as embodied in the Modern State). The Modern State did not create “bad philosophy,” but it did contribute to the decline of common life and thus contribute to “bad philosophy.” Perhaps Capitalism and Globalization brought about the Modern State, or perhaps the Modern State brought about Capitalism and Globalization: it’s hard to say. Regardless, the Modern Socioeconomic State has formed the environment in which “bad philosophy” grows, spreads, and thrives without ever fully recognizing the problems of “bad philosophy.” After all, that recognition would require “good philosophy,” and that is precisely what the Modern Socioeconomic State tends to reduce and forget.
Coming Apart by Charles Murry is full of examples of how Global Capitalism is dividing everyday people from their everyday lives, rather it be due to how colleges “brain drain” small towns, modern Capitalism forces people to move every few years for work, and/or so on. Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam explores the collapse of social capital, how people no longer join civic organizations like the Lion’s Club, and how communities are increasingly isolated and replaced with appearances of community like modern suburbia. Global Capitalism tends to replace culture with corporations, to gradually bankrupt the defining features of communities and replace them with similar stores — McDonalds, Walmart, Target, Olive Garden — effacing individuality. Robust community is replaced with general association, and increasingly, as people move between towns and cities, the differences between places shrink. Yes, there are still significant differences between Bedford and New York, but those differences are less robust.
As people are forced to move out of their communities to find jobs, to attend college, and to “make something of themselves” (for status is increasingly centralized in the same large cities), the histories, traditions, and cultures of those communities weaken. With less people staying in the same place and putting down roots, less roots are growing, which results in people suffering more existential anxiety precisely thanks to their efforts to “make something of themselves” and increase opportunity. At the same time, those who stay in the local communities and watch the communities fall apart — those who are aware that society likely thinks of them as “not making something of themselves” — might be increasingly likely to fall into the temptations of “the banality of evil.” As discussed in “Belonging Again,” as “givens” collapse and existential anxiety increases, so too increases the appeal of totalitarianism and the likelihood that the negative dimensions of “givens” manifest and intensify. Similarly, as common life dissolves, so may increase the likelihood that members of a common life turn desperate and participate in “the banality of evil,” ironically providing evidence that it is good and right for common life to dissolve (and be replaced by PD-identity, Global Capitalism, etc.) — that it is moral for Hume’s solution to the problem of rationality to be erased.
Appeals to race, sexuality, and gender are like appeals to common life (perhaps made because people understand that rationality is ultimately incomplete and must appeal to something outside itself), but can PD-identity fight and stop the “bad philosophy” which Neoliberalism incubates and spreads? We’ve already discussed that PD-identity seems to be a paradoxical supporter of the very Neoliberalism it often critiques in that it seems to help deconstruct the common life which stands in Neoliberalism’s way, but we’ve also noted that PD-identity might be all we have left in our Globalized world to address Hume’s concerns. If it is indeed the case that PD-identity is more philosophically negative in that it cannot assert a positive premise as easily as it can deconstruct positive premises, it would seem unlikely that PD-identity will be able to defend people from the growth of the Modern State and its “bad philosophy.” On the other hand, as Hume’s common life dissolves due to the Modern State, so it becomes increasingly likely that common life not only loses the capacity to stop the Modern State, but also perverts into “the banality of evil.” As the collapse occurs, the collapse seems poised to increases momentum.
Globalization seems to efface the possibility of a distinction between common life and PD-identity, between the “skeptic” and the “Deconstructionist.” If it is the case that PD-identity isn’t ultimately strong enough to fill the void left by waning common life, does this mean there’s little hope for us unless we stop Neoliberalism? Perhaps, but at the same time, I find it very difficult to argue with Deirdre McCloskey about the extraordinary prosperity that Capitalism has enabled the everyday person to enjoy. This problem is taken up in “The Tragedy of Us” by O.G. Rose, and perhaps McCloskey herself frowns upon the form of Capitalism we see spreading around the world today. But that will have to be discussed at another time.
‘True philosophy is an achievement of self-inquiry, and so each generation must rediscover the truth of the dialectic for itself.’¹³³ Ideas are not experiences, and thus history, though dressed in different technological clothing, is always likely to repeat, for it is always unlikely that ideas have the same power to motivate action as do experiences. Though a new generation may read Livingston on Hume, and the importance of common life strike that new generation mentally as being important, it will be very difficult for the experiences of that generation — experiences of better technology, larger city states, greater Pluralism — not to win out and convince the new generation that autonomous rationality is actually and finally possible. Every generation, it feels like humanity really is ready to abandon restrictive “givens” and embrace metaphysical assumptions about reality that are far more global and optimistic about what we can socially engineer.
George Steiner once wrote that ‘[i]f the gamble on transcendence no longer seems worth the odds and we are moving into a utopia of the immediate, the value-structure of our civilization will alter, after at least three millennia, in ways almost unforeseeable.’¹³⁴ Just because how the alterations occur are unforeseeable would not make Hume outright against them, but if these alterations were a result of leaving behind culture, tradition, and “natural belief” (instead of dramatic changes in “common” people), Hume would be deeply wary of them. But then again, perhaps Hume was wrong? Perhaps we really do live in a new world capable of grounding the lives of people in Deleuzian creativity never before seen in ages past? Then again, perhaps not: perhaps philosophical hubris tricks us again.
Is it possible for the internet to be a new ground for common life? Radically diverse, dynamic, absorbent, and progressive, if it was possible for the internet to be a source of community, wouldn’t it be a PD ideal? Furthermore, as discussed in Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, could advances in biotechnology provide us with relief from the existential anxieties that “bad philosophy” causes, thus making “bad philosophy” no longer a pressing problem and removing the need for a return to common life?’ It’s hard to say. ‘The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.’¹³⁵ Jonathan Haidt is correct, which leaves us having to decide Hume or Derrida is best for performing the miraculous task, or if our hope lies in stopping Neoliberalism or learning to use the internet or biotech as a new foundation. It’s mysterious how the miracle of social unity happens, ultimately, but it’s not mysterious what fate awaits us if it doesn’t occur: anarchy, social upheaval, and totalitarianism.
It is human nature to be ‘tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,’ to use the words of Herman Melville, to be attracted by “hole hopes” (to use language from O.G. Rose), to resent common life and to long for new places. What we don’t experience is that which we can form idealistic ideas about, and so ideas always have an advantage over experiences. Over experience, “bad philosophy” easily forms, and yet ideas are partly what make humans unique and able to cultivate nature into something civilized. Hume didn’t disagree that ideas mattered, but if ideas are taken too far and become sources of resentment against the actual, we are in grave danger. Rationality without first principles is impossible, but in our resentment against common life, we can come to deceive ourselves into thinking our rationality is “rational all the way down.” This does not mean we should abandon philosophy, for philosophy is necessary, but rather we must learn to exercise philosophy within and respecting tradition. But what does it mean to do this while simultaneously using philosophy to increase justice and prepare for the future? What is the balance between Hume and PD-identity? It would seem to be the PD who reveres and defends common life, so hopefully this is not impossible.
If PD is right, no philosophical system can survive “the fires of Deconstruction,” similar to how all systems, after a Pyrrhonian critique, cannot earn the final judgment that they are “the right system” (even if there does exist a system that is actually more true than all the others), but while Deconstruction suspends assenting to a system by deconstructing the system (on arguably unfair and idealistic grounds), Pyrrhonism suspends judgment to a system by acknowledging all systems are equally likely to be true. Deconstruction tears down systems to be left standing outside all of them, while Pyrrhonism stands outside systems while leaving them standing. However, though not all, the PD is right that perhaps some systems should be deconstructed, because they increase injustice. Perhaps awareness of this possibility, and the willingness to sometimes deconstruct, is the lesson the Humean skeptic could take from the Deconstructionist, while the Deconstructionist needs to learn from the Humean skeptic that the impossibility of autonomous rationality doesn’t invalidate all systems. Perhaps this is the middle ground that everyone should meet on to share a common life.
¹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 6.
²Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 389.
³Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 388.
⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 165.
⁵Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 383.
⁶Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 143.
⁷Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 23.
⁸Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 27.
⁹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 22.
¹⁰Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 191.
¹¹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 196.
¹²Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 122.
¹³Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 156.
¹⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 146.
¹⁵Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 118.
¹⁶Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 26.
¹⁷Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 27.
¹⁸Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 253.
¹⁹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 122.
²⁰Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 397.
²¹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 399.
²²Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 396.
²³Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 405.
²⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 405.
²⁵Allusion to Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot.
²⁶Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 122.
²⁷Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 19.
²⁸Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 6.
²⁹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 41.
³⁰Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 45.
³¹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 29.
³²Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 10.
³³Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 26.
³⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 9.
³⁵Allusion to David Hume, as found in Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium by Donald Livingston. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 28.
³⁶Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 91.
³⁷Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 121.
³⁸Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 121.
³⁹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 191.
⁴⁰Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 265.
⁴¹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 281.
⁴²Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 285.
⁴³Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 286.
⁴⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 306.
⁴⁵Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 306.
⁴⁶Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 150.
⁴⁷Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 403.
⁴⁸Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 26.
⁴⁹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 148.
⁵⁰Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 147.
⁵¹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 29.
⁵²Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 85.
⁵³Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 87.
⁵⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 369.
⁵⁵Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000: 29.
⁵⁶Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000: 29.
⁵⁷Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 87.
⁵⁸Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000: 111.
⁵⁹Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 86.
⁶⁰Are the truths derived from common life falsifiable? Not like scientific truths, no, and perhaps not any given “natural belief,” but some can be falsified to some degree (such as the premise “marriage is good for children”). Yet this is beside the point: what concerns me is not that common life provides us with falsifiable truths, but that the truths of common life are tried and lived out by thousands if not millions over centuries. Each individual life is an individual test, and if x becomes a tradition or tenant of that common life, this alone is reason to believe x might be true. Yes, it is possible these millions of people were oppressed and forced to live certain common lives (for example), but this should not be assumed from the start, especially not by those who do not affirm ‘the domain of custom.’A Likewise, we may be completely wrong about gravity, but after all the tests we’ve put gravity through, we have reason to assume at the start that gravity is like what we think gravity is like.
A.Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 27.
⁶¹Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 87.
⁶²Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 88.
⁶³Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 131.
⁶⁴Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 199.
⁶⁵Giles Deleuze might have a lot to say on this thought.
⁶⁶Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 100.
⁶⁷Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 91.
⁶⁸Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 85–86.
⁶⁹Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 456.
⁷⁰An ethic that is particularly interesting to me when it comes to the problem of autonomous rationality is the ethic of forgiveness and mercy, a supposed virtue that I think uniquely highlights the problem of ethics divided from common life. Relative to pure logic, forgiveness is illogical, for if a person punches us in the face, it is now a matter of justice that the person be punished. If the person is not punished, then injustice has grown in the world. Following autonomous rationality, where there is forgiveness, there is passivity and immorality grows. Yet in a Christian community, it is considered ethical to “turn the other cheek”: in this common life, to not punish someone who hurts us would be considered moral, an example of justice growing in the world, not injustice.
Is it possible for autonomous rationality to establish a just and rational principle of forgiveness? Without reference to a transcendent God, it doesn’t seem possible to me, but if God doesn’t exist, then Christian community engages in expanding injustice in the name of expanding mercy; in the name of Christ, Christians increase suffering. However, since we cannot “know for sure” which world is absolutely the case, both the Nonbeliever and Theist must ascribe to different “first principles” and live “common lives” accordingly.
It is only possible within a common life to assent logically to what would otherwise be irrational according to autonomous reason, and if Kierkegaard is correct and there are certain irrationalities that humans need to be fully human, then it is only possible for humans to be fully human within common lives. In the name of justice and goodness, autonomous rationality would have us live as less than human.
⁷¹Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 54.
⁷²What is it about the experience of rationality that makes it so easy to think that autonomous rationality is not only possible, but the right thing to seek in the world? What is it about the experience of philosophy that makes it so hard to walk through its fires to the other side and arrive at Pyrrhonian wisdom? First, it is counterintuitive to conclude from philosophy that philosophy itself is a problem: the very paradox of this notion might suggest why it is a hard conclusion to reach. Second, hints at the answer might be found in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, which draws a distinction between “looking at a cup” and “thinking about a cup.” The moment I look at a cup, it is natural for me to think about the cup as if I was always thinking about the cup. If I don’t think about the cup, I hardly notice I carried out any mental function “toward” the cup at all (nothing “vivid” stands out). When I notice the cup, I simultaneously notice that I think about the cup, and so I can gradually train myself to think that all cognitive functions are thinking functions, that everything the brain does is an expression of thinking. From here, it is only a small step to wrongly conclude that all mental activities are either thoughtful or thoughtless; ergo, rational or irrational.
Once I decide that everything my mind does is an act of thought, it is nearly inevitable that I eventually think of imagination, emotions, impressions, perceptions — everything within me — according to categories of rational or irrational, for it is natural (especially in Western society) to conflate “thinking” with “reasoning.” Thus, rationality comes to hold a privileged place in my mind, and once it sits on this throne, it just seems fitting to then ascribe to autonomous rationality as the ideal all of life should strive for (especially if “enlightened” society teaches and confirms such). Hence, failure to realize that not everything the brain does is an act of thought, a conclusion that’s easy to mistakenly draw by how humans experience the world, can greatly contribute to the reign of autonomous rationality (though by no means do I mean to suggest that this the sole and only reason).
⁷³Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 285.
⁷⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 300.
⁷⁵Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 20.
⁷⁶Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 313.
⁷⁷Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 35.
⁷⁸Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 277.
⁷⁹Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 35–36.
⁸⁰Popper criticized Hume for suggesting that civilization ‘proceed[s] by induction,’ for believing that autonomous rationality is the principle according to which people live (and then deconstructing that principle like a troublemaker). Ironically, if Kemp and Livingston were right about Hume (suggesting that Harold Bloom was correct that great minds are often great mis-readers), Popper criticized Hume for not making the very case Hume made. No, Hume didn’t use the language of falsification or focus on the philosophy of science, but Hume’s work on custom, tradition, and trial and error suggest a mind that foresaw Popper’s conclusions centuries in advance. If Hume spoke to Popper, he very well might thank Popper for reading his book so closely.
⁸¹Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 39.
⁸²Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 62.
⁸³This might hint at why Thomas Kuhn is correct about “scientific paradigms” being matters more of sociology than evolving scientific process. If science is like all thought and only ultimately justifiable within a common life, as opposed to “within” a(n) (self-effacing) autonomous rationality, then what constitutes “normal science” is always according to a common life and/or “paradigm” that doesn’t shatter until a certain level of individual and revolutionary sentiment reaches a boiling point.
It should be noted that Kuhn’s thinking about science may just as easily apply to “social progress,” and as science evolves according to paradigms, so too society may evolve (slower) according to social paradigms. ‘[A]s we have learnt from Kuhn, paradigms are not given up so easily;’ in other words, “givens” are not relinquished without a fight, precisely because they protect us from chaos and the void, but unfortunately those very guards can be sources of oppression and discrimination.A
A.Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: xxxiv.
⁸⁴On the topic of “objective truth,” Karl Popper wrote:
‘Thus although I hold that more often than not we fail to find the truth, and do not know even when we have found it, I retain the classical idea of absolute or objective truth as a regulative idea; that is to say, as a standard of which we may fall short.’A
A.Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 26.
⁸⁵Though seemingly opposed, repetition is only meaningful in and through diversity: if experience x and y are exactly the same, the repetition of z would be insignificant. It’s precisely because z appears in x, y, a, b, c…repetitively that there is “natural reason to believe” that z entails meaning and significance. ‘Diversity makes critical argument fruitful,’ Popper wrote, and so it goes with repetition.A
(On a side note, considering Popper’s appeal to diversity, it would make sense why he would ‘disbeli[eve] in specialization and in experts,’ and view them as threats to ‘the commonwealth of learning, the rationalist tradition[,] and science itself’.)B
A.Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 7.
B.Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999: 8.
⁸⁶Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 40.
⁸⁷The fact that societies are based on perception more than thinking is why most societies are founded on stories instead of premises. Also, the fact our perception is “right in front of us” constantly being hidden and translated into intelligibility by our thinking (such as right now) is why all this — Jung, “natural beliefs,” the role of common life — is so hard to “get.”
⁸⁸On Hume, Livingston wrote that ‘the task of the modern is to shift through the clutter of abstractions that is his mind in order to recover the truth of nature and custom,’ which brings to mind Jung ‘shifting through the clutter of [images]’ to find archetypes and patterns.A
A.Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 118.
⁸⁹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 166.
⁹⁰Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 167.
⁹¹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 9.
⁹²Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 132.
⁹³Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 47.
⁹⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 41.
⁹⁵Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 41.
⁹⁶Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 39.
⁹⁷Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 35.
⁹⁸Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 34.
⁹⁹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 34.
¹⁰⁰Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 30.
¹⁰¹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 30.
¹⁰²Philosophy is engaged in to avoid brainwashing, but in the end for Hume, philosophy must lead us into accepting brain-cleaning at the hands of common life (see “On Brainwashing” by O.G. Rose for more). Brainwashing and brain-cleaning are very similar, but while the person brainwashed doesn’t realize it’s happening, the person brain-cleaned consciously chooses it, rationally and humbly concluding it’s best, aware that ultimately truths cannot be rationalized into intelligible forms. By accepting the role of common life, we let ourselves be cleaned, but in not accepting common life before the philosophical journey, we keep common life from brainwashing us. We all must have our brains submerged in something: the question is if our minds will be cleaned our washed away.
¹⁰³Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 9.
¹⁰⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 27.
¹⁰⁵Robinson, Wade L. “Naturalist and Meta-sceptic.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 25.
¹⁰⁶Robinson, Wade L. “Naturalist and Meta-sceptic.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 25.
¹⁰⁷How does PD conclude certain “natural beliefs” lack diversity, empathy, and justice without using the very rationality it critiques? By extracting the principles from other ‘common lives’? Possibly, but how does it decide which common life to use as a model for all “common lives?” How does it decide what it looks for in other “common lives” as what needs to match the model? It seems difficult for PD to not use the very rationality it finds incomplete when that rationality doesn’t match PD ideals.
¹⁰⁸Robinson, Wade L. “Naturalist and Meta-sceptic.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 26.
¹⁰⁹Robinson, Wade L. “Naturalist and Meta-sceptic.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 45.
¹¹⁰Robinson, Wade L. “Naturalist and Meta-sceptic.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 26.
¹¹¹Robinson, Wade L. “Naturalist and Meta-sceptic.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 26.
¹¹²Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 12.
¹¹³Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 26.
¹¹⁴Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 75.
¹¹⁵How do we know Hume and Derrida were right about the incompleteness of rationality and impossibility of autonomous rationality? Well, justifying that claim exceeds the scope of this paper, but in addition to the arguments laid out by O.G. Rose (say in “The True Isn’t the Rational”), there is the entire cannon of Postmodern and Deconstructive thought. The arguments of Derrida, Deleuze, Jameson, Foucault, Rorty — and even anti-verificationists like Popper and Kuhn — the work of these thinkers support Hume’s project. They may not support Hume’s conclusion that thus common life should be revered and given the last vote, but these thinkers would support Hume’s diagnosis of the problem. Hume was far ahead of his time.
¹¹⁶Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 68.
¹¹⁷Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 20.
¹¹⁸Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 22.
¹¹⁹Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 47.
¹²⁰‘Just as our beliefs in causation and in external objects are not demolished by a recognition that these beliefs are utterly unfounded, so belief in minimal theism remains unscathed after a similar recognition.’A
A.Yandell, Keith E. “Hume on Religious Belief.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 118.
¹²¹Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 215.
¹²²Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 215.
¹²³Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 217.
¹²⁴Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 221.
¹²⁵Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 221.
¹²⁶Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 236.
¹²⁷Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 236.
¹²⁸Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 234.
¹²⁹Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 234.
¹³⁰Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 217.
¹³¹Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 217.
¹³²Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 217.
¹³³Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 47.
¹³⁴Allusion to George Steiner, as found in The Fabric of Faithfulness by Steven Garber. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2007: 69.
¹³⁵Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. New York, NY: First Vintage Books Edition, 2013: 193.
1. Livingston argued that despite popular perception, it was not religion in general that Hume disapproved of; rather, his work was ‘primarily an attack on the ‘religious philosophers’ and not against religion as sacred story and tradition.’A It was “bad religion,” per se, that Hume fought, and yet “good religion” Hume saw as uniquely poised to defend common life.
A.Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 115.
2. Considering the distinction between “good philosophy” and “bad philosophy,” could similar distinctions be made between good and bad economics, sociology, literature, theology, and the like? Perhaps a Humean critique is needed for every field of knowledge, tearing down all idols of “autonomous economics,” “autonomous sociology,” etc.
3. Doesn’t rationality translate natural beliefs into political and social principles? Isn’t rationality valuable as a force of translation? Furthermore, doesn’t rationality make unification across common lives possible, say as discussed by Habermas? We must not mistake Hume as arguing that rationality is always bad or has no role to play; after all, it’s clear that he believes “bad philosophy” can only be avoided with “good philosophy,” which requires rationality. The problem again is autonomous rationality, reasoning that believes it is its own grounding and doesn’t need anything outside itself to determine what is best. “Cooperative rationality,” per se — rationality that understands itself to work in concert with common life — is very valuable for functioning global society and leaves plenty of room for the Habermasian project.
What Hume wanted to stress was that the “translation” of natural beliefs by rationality (into rational terms) would always be incomplete. Rationality can never capture the whole (experience) of common life (only premises about it), and if rationality fails to realize this, there could be dire consequences. Rationality must always accept that it is ultimately situated within a community; otherwise, it will become an arrogant force of destruction.
4. As Jordan Peterson discussed, social order is a gift passed down to the present generation through centuries of cultural evolution, and yet it is also oppressive. All societies are games, and games need rules or “givens” to even be games. Problematically, social rules necessarily become outdated through time; hence, the rules of the game must be changed without stopping the game. If the game is stopped, the flood waters of chaos will pour in, and in that chaos, both totalitarianism and violence can grow in appeal and rationality.
Merging Jerusalem and Athens took centuries: changing the rules of a game without stopping the game is incredible difficult to do at all, let alone quickly. Yet as discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose, justice necessarily compels us to change “givens” now and immediately. Hence, “for good reason,” it is the nature of justice to break games and tear down the line between “winners” and “losers.” If everyone ends up a winner, this is a wonderful thing; if not, this is terrible.
5. For Hume, we are happier suspending philosophical judgment; he is a philosopher concerned with joy.
6. Karl Popper asked ‘how important it is to get a precise knowledge of the meaning of our terms?’A By this, Popper suggested it’s a meaningless and unnecessary project, and that the quest for precise definitions is secretly a quest for problematic certainty. Is a Humean critique in order? As we should “suspend judgment” on which philosophy is “the right” philosophy (yet use philosophy to defend common life), should we suspend judgment on which definition of a word is “the right” definition while at the same time deconstructing new definitions to defend the definition handed down to us by tradition?
Popper criticized ‘the prejudice that language can be made more precise by the use of definitions,’ similar to a criticism that society can be made “more rational” with the use of the right philosophy.B Derrida was famous for criticizing attempts for precise language (similar to Hume’s criticisms of causation), but while Derrida might have argued no definition should be settled on, Hume might instead have said that because “the right” definition of a word cannot be determined by reason, we should settle on the definition established by “natural belief,” custom, and common life.
Without philosophy, we would be swept up into accepting words as meaning whatever people presented them as meaning, but if we use “bad philosophy” on words, we are left in a chaotic mess. The definitions of words can change through time, certainly, as can “givens,” but changing them is a serious and risky matter indeed.
A.Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971: 18.
B.Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971: 17.
7. Some argue that philosophy ‘is the happiest and noblest and the most refined method of whiling away one’s time’: is that a reason why it’s so hard to stop?A Is that a reason why we are so prone to fall into the “bad philosophy” which causes us deep anxiety and melancholy? Because of the short-term fun?
A.Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971: 4.
8. Perhaps Hume only argued that people must go on the philosophical journey and return to common life because he himself did that: why was he so sure that those who simply remained in common life without philosophy wouldn’t thrive? In addition to the fact that without philosophy people of a common life cannot defend it from being invaded by outside ideas (nor can they keep their common life from becoming oppressive), without the full philosophical journey, the idea that “most systems are internally consistent, and thus just as likely to be true as any other” will be just an idea, not an experience, and so weak to compel action and beliefs.
Furthermore, “the problem of internally consistent systems” is just “another idea,” another possibility, as likely to be true as any other, and thus lacking authority and/or weight. But by going on the philosophical journey, “the problem of internally consistent systems” becomes an experience, something that is tangible, robust, and real. We are forced to realize we must reply to it, and in this condition, appealing to common life and experience becomes rational based on the experience of the problem.
Although the idea of Humean skepticism could be true, without experience, it lacks a foundation to provide a truth on which the rationality that ascribes to Humean skepticism could be based and orientated. Since Humean skepticism ultimately appeals to experience based on common life, the fact it needs experience to be justified and motivational is only fitting. Also, without experience, the philosophy of Hume cannot be robust, and fragile, it is unlikely it will be able to hold its ground when “bad philosophy” moves in.
9. In saying that rationality is fundamentally incomplete, this does not mean that nothing is rational, only that nothing is only rational.
10. As Tim Enloe reflects on, today’s generation is thought to be the first which must be convinced that they need to be educated. Economic reality is the only reality that they are trained to care about, so beyond helping them get good grades that help them get into good universities for better employment prospects, what value is there in writing essays about Beowulf? The teacher must make students believe that their very lives hang on the questions that great literature, philosophy, and tradition tackle — that the humanities are a serious undertaking — but why should students believe that this is the case? They seem well-off enough.
It might be impossible to prove the importance of philosophy, literature, and the like outside of common life: where there is belief in autonomous rationality, there may be no place for them. “Good philosophy” may have space for great literature, but not “bad philosophy,” as Hume seemed to have known. This is because rationality that believes itself to be self-sufficient does not need the myths, wisdom, and ideas of the past, for it necessarily thinks of itself as not only capable of arriving at these conclusions on its own (in abstract reasoning), but bettered equipped to do so, for it perceives itself as “objective” and uninfluenced by subjectivities. Autonomous rationality, precisely because it is not situated firmly in a common life or tradition, believes itself more likely to be true: not only does it not need the great works of the past, but rationality intentionally avoids them to maintain its illusionary sense of objectivity. But of course, as Hume warned, autonomous rationality is ultimately self-effacing.
Once autonomous rationality decides it is “more objective” free of great traditions, it is not a big step to believe it is better off without education in general. If even scientists operate within a cultural moment relative to a limited perspective, why should they be trusted? The same can be asked about teachers, Nobel Prize physicists — everyone — and under the judgment of autonomous rationality, since everyone threatens its autonomy, rationality will find good reason to disregard everyone and think alone on its own. Following autonomous rationality to the logical end of its own terms, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for children to be educated, only for children to educate themselves. Whatever radical individualism and atomism that results from this shouldn’t surprise us: it’s rational.
11. Carl Schmitt, though a problematic thinker, provided thoughts at the start of The Nomos of the Earth that suggest Hume was correct that “natural belief” is the source of civilization long before autonomous rationality appears on the scene. Schmitt wrote that ‘the earth [is] the mother of law,’ that ‘soil that is cleared and worked by human hands manifests firm lines, whereby definite divisions become apparent,’ and ‘[i]n these lines, the standard and rules of human cultivation of the earth became discernible.’A
Humans do not go into nature with ideas of how the world is supposed to work and then force the world to conform into those mental images; rather, humans work nature in order to survive, and as they work, out of the structure of the land itself, civilization takes form. The earth ‘manifests law upon herself, as fixed boundaries; and she sustains law above herself, as a public sign of order.’B Work comes first, and in the space between work and nature, “natural beliefs” form that only afterwards are rationalized intellectually. Yet problematically, it is the nature of reason to forget that it comes second, and then after it appears, to believe it is all that is needed, that all other methods of apprehension should be effaced.
A.Schmitt, Carl. The Nomos of the Earth. New York, NY: Telos Press Publishing, 2003: 42.
B.Schmitt, Carl. The Nomos of the Earth. New York, NY: Telos Press Publishing, 2003: 42.
12. The orientation of society “toward” college may contribute to the myth of autonomous rationality, for it suggests that as everyone grows up and succeeds, they should move away from their common lives to an “objective ivory tower” where they can contemplate life outside the influences of home, family, and subjectivity. The very path to college implies that common life is problematic, that a successful person leaves common life behind and ventures off into places where he or she isn’t held down by “roots,” and furthermore suggests that “roots” infringe upon a person’s capacity to think clearly. Marshal McLuhan taught that “the medium is the message,” and considering this, it should be noted that the very structure of college in of itself says both that autonomous rationality is possible and that common life is its greatest threat. Yes, college could suggest a “philosophical journey” is needed, but Neoliberalism has taught that the philosophical journey shouldn’t lead people back home unless they fail to realize the fullness of their potential.
13. Robert McKee writes on story something that might help us grasp Hume’s thinking:
‘Make no mistake, no one can achieve excellence as a writer without being something of a philosopher and holding strong convictions. The trick is not to be a slave to your ideas, but to immerse yourself in life. For the proof of your vision is not how well you can assert your Controlling Idea, but its victory over the enormously powerful forces that you array against it.’
Likewise, for Hume, the proof of a philosophy is not found in its capacity to be translated into terms of autonomous rationality, for such an effort turns thinkers into “slaves of their ideas.” Rather, the goodness of a philosophy is determined by its overcoming of “bad philosophies” that challenge it while a philosopher lives a grounded life.
14. Worldview, identity, religion — all of these for Hume are ultimately shaped and formed by “natural beliefs,” and if we try to translate them into rational terms, we will leave behind the essential elements that complete these belief, elements which ultimately can only be described, not explained.
15. Pyrrhonism is like Deconstruction but views Deconstruction as being unfair in its quest to increase justice, for Deconstruction holds systems to a standard no system can meet (“being rational all the way down”) while suggesting (perhaps unintentionally) the possibility of a system that isn’t “(un)rationally founded” or, if not that, Deconstruction necessitates philosophical nihilism. Yes, in favor of community, but can philosophical nihilism stop the intrusions of “bad philosophies?” Certainly, Deconstruction is better than previous philosophical schools that believed in autonomous rationality, but is it equivalent in effectiveness to Pyrrhonism? Is Deconstruction or Pyrrhonism more effective at stopping “bad philosophy?”
16. Perhaps PD-identity is better than Hume’s common life for individuals precisely because it entails less facticity, but at the same time, it might be worse for existential stability, less capable of fighting off “bad philosophy,” and also less likely of ironically becoming a “bad philosophy” itself.
17. David Foster Wallace, in his criticisms of irony having run its course and gone too far, may have sensed the problems with autonomous rationality that concerned Hume. There seems to be in Wallace a growing reverence for common life, an understanding that it is necessary for fulfillment.
18. As the philosophical life must entail a journey, so also must irony and grace as to avoid “cheap irony” and “cheap grace.”
19. ‘The role of the true genius in the first philosophic age would be to frame speech that can penetrate the cocoon of free-floating, reflective artifacts in which the philosophical character has enclosed itself so that the man within can hear’ — to borrow the words of Kennan Grant.
20. Explanations are always ultimately justified by descriptions. Life is experience; art, descriptions of life. Art completes philosophy, but without philosophy, art is meaningless (though that doesn’t mean art is necessarily bad). Philosophy without art is a presentation of ideas without experiences as if ideas are experiences versus only experienced. Art without philosophy is a presentation of experiences without ideas as if experiences are intrinsically meaningful in themselves. Art and philosophy require and naturally dislike one another.
21. There have been many thinkers who sensed problems with rationality and the importance of common life: it is as if there has been a hedgehog wearing hundreds of different fox masks.
22. You cannot speak out of the Pyrrhonian fire if you skipped it entirely: it cannot be a lived experience, only an idea, and compared to experiences, ideas are weak.
23. Considering René Girard, could it be argued that philosophy and/or rationality in general is treated by Deconstruction as a scapegoat around which to unify people? Does Deconstruction entail “sacred violence” against rationality to ground a new society? There is certainly a train of thought today that suggests that rationality, and Western society in general, are so mixed with oppressive forces that they must be rebuilt if not outright replaced. There’s even a sense in which Western tradition and culture are “scapegoats” and sources of unification against them.
Like Christ in the work of Girard, Hume seemed to refuse using philosophy as a scapegoat to blame the world’s problems on. Certainly, he believed philosophy needed fixing, as Christ believed the world needed to be saved, but Girard refused to sacrifice philosophy entirely. Similarly, though Christ refused violence, he accepted the violence put on him in the name of ending it. Likewise, Hume turned philosophy on itself to end “bad philosophy,” but from this self-imposed attack, philosophy survives and is reborn as “good philosophy.” In the same way, Christ survived the “sacred violence” of the world being turned on him: like philosophy through the death of Pyrrhonism, Christ was resurrected.
24. To consider other Girardian possibilities: has local and common life become “scapegoats” of the Modern State? Or are supposed global problems and threats? Are global problems trying to fill in the holes of rationality which for Hume only common life could fill? Perhaps a function of “scapegoats” is to hide the holes of rationality, which is all well and good until the day when the scapegoat is slayed and we realize the holes were never actually filled (but now there is no common life to which we could return). Perhaps we can deem the threats “gods” and live on regardless? Please note that Covid19 may have unveiled that people today are so divided that not even “scapegoats” can still unify us.
25. Art that describes experience can complete worldviews that cannot be “rational all the way down,” but precisely because rationality must necessarily be incomplete, we can never intellectually know that our worldviews are rightly complete. Additionally, our worldviews can never “meaningfully” be complete: even if our art/experience does complete them, we cannot (intellectually) “know” they are complete. Life is struggle.
We must show and tell because telling can never tell everything, as showing can never give itself meaning and escape seemingly like a random collection of impressions.
26. It might be the case that growing acceptance of ad hominem arguments might be at least partially due to a growing sense that rationality must ultimately fall back on something personal.
27. To rationally accept Pyrrhonism and the incompleteness of rationality, there must be arguments, which is why Hume is important. To simply claim that rationality is incomplete without a reason to think such might be right but won’t be right “meaningfully.” Hume attempted to establish reasonably why rationality is not enough, without which it would be much more difficult to keep the mind from wandering back into attempts for autonomous rationality. As Heidegger entered into metaphysics to escape it, and as Kant bound theology to save religion, Hume philosophized to subdue and save philosophy.
28. As Hume realized the fundamental incompleteness of philosophy and thus need to anchor in something outside philosophy, Hans Urs Von Balthasar may have recognized the fundamental incompleteness of theology and thus need to anchor it in something outside theology, mainly art and beauty. As philosophy must revere common life according to Hume, theology must revere “beauty” and/or “worship” according to Balthasar.
29. The irony of the philosophical life is that it leads us out of common life to avoid brainwashing, only to ultimately return us to common life for brain-cleaning. And yet the very fact that common life was a potential source of brainwashing means there is reason to avoid common life for good.
30. The pastor who rightly preaches to a congregations that the philosophies of the world are ultimately all incomplete will teach his or her congregation a truth that will not be an experience to the congregation, so the likelihood the congregation is practically changed by this truth (as opposed to simply absorbing it into ideology preservation, for example) is low, as it is unlikely the congregation will be able to stop “bad philosophy” from slowly and subtly creeping into their lives. Knowing a dagger can kill us does not mean we will have the skill to fight it off.
31. We cannot be an anti-intellectual without being an intellectual; we must be a deep thinker to deeply critique thinking.
32. It is possible that the (Sartrean) discomfort a Christian feels before the transsexual, for example, is more from the difficultly of “fitting” the transsexual into a Christian framework than from the transsexual directly, per se (though for Liberals and those suffering this distinction may seem meaningless). Following Rieff, while feeling this discomfort, people can see advantages in totalitarianism to correct the discomfort, and the more intense the discomfort becomes, the more likely it is they will find totalitarianism appealing. For Hume, this suggests why changes in common life must come from the people themselves within that common life first — from “the bottom up” rather than be “pressed down” upon the people by an outside force. But what if people don’t change and perpetuate a true injustice in their midst? Is it possible to find a balance between Hume and Derrida, a point of compromise between two camps that think so similarly? Or can there only be tension and guessing?
33. If Hume’s work is correct, whenever Christianity grows philosophy for the sake of becoming more palatable and so that more people may know Jesus, the more divided Christianity may become from the common life that makes it possible. As the Gospel spreads thanks to theology, it is less attached to the ground. And yet Christianity without any philosophical theology would be defenseless before “bad Christianity.”
34. The necessary role of common life in philosophy may also suggest why the best writers and teachers are those who don’t just sit at their desks all day (which no writer or teacher thinks they do).
35. Great art often highlights the impossibility of autonomous reason, autonomous ethics, autonomous individuals, etc.
36. Though I might be generalizing, there seems to be a train of thought in Deconstruction that all hierarchy is innately bad, that if hierarchy is present, so is injustice. Certainly, hierarchy should be met with skepticism, but assuming all hierarchy should be deconstructed is as problematic as assuming all philosophy is “bad philosophy.” Opposing it should be the default but not assumed.
If Louis Dumont is correct in his Homo Hierarchicus and hierarchy creation is human nature (a topic worthy of an entire paper in of itself), then hierarchy will always be with us (as will philosophy if we are necessarily abstract beings). The name of the game is not to attempt (ignorantly idealistic) Deconstruction, but Humean skepticism to draw a line between “bad hierarchy” and “good hierarchy.” Perhaps a distinction can be draw between “hierarchy” and “order,” with the latter being good and the former bad?
Also, I doubt we want to live in a world that doesn’t draw any distinctions at all between “good music” and “bad music,” though admittedly perhaps we would be better off if there were no social hierarchies in the arts like the Western Canon. At the same time, people can’t read everything and need guides for knowing what they should and shouldn’t read. Will guides always necessarily reflect privilege? Perhaps, but if guides, canons, or what have you are aware of this potential problem, they will be better at being open to change and diversity (similar to how those aware of “bad philosophy” will be better at separating it from “good philosophy.” Canons are like common life: oppressive if unchangeable, but without them, there is chaos. Hierarchies reflect the problem of “givens.”
37. Though ultimately thinking must appeal to experience and common life, we must be careful to claim “x cannot be intellectualized” and to use that argument to move ahead with doing x when there lacks reason for doing x or when there’s reason against doing x. Though it is the case that ultimately there are (un)rational phenomena, if we think about and decide “x is one of those phenomena,” we might be using the lessons of “good philosophy” for ideology preservation, getting ourselves what we want, and worse yet, to perpetuate “bad philosophy.” Deciding (when under pressure, losing a debate, etc.) that a given thing cannot be understood rationally can be very different from humbly deferring to the judgment of something outside of ourselves, and we should especially be critical of ourselves if we want x to be (un)rational. In this circumstance, we might just be using (un)rationality as a self-benefiting tool.
38. Like Hume, Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man” seems bent on showing that he can follow rationality into creating countless systems of thought but never be forced by rationality to ascribe to any one of them. As did Hume in his Treatise, the Underground Man erects conceptual models that suggest rationality is incomplete. In the end, the Underground Man regrets using his rationality to push away a possible human connection (which could perhaps complete the Underground Man’s rationality), an outcome to which Hume warned “bad philosophy” inevitably lead.
39. Even if Conservatism is more likely to ascent to values like Hume’s common life, Conservatism seems more likely than Liberals to be enticed into Nationalist thinking through patriotism. Patriotism that is not grounded in common life becomes a force of “bad philosophy,” as does (PD) identity.
40. “Givens” should be deconstructed and/or restructured when they outlive their usefulness, but who gets to decide when this has occurred? Keep in mind that “givens” can still be useful to one person while not to another. For thinkers like David Hume, it would seem “givens” should be deconstructed naturally and gradually through common life and tradition: they should change as the collective changes and is convinced of better ways to live. But someone has to pay the price for slow change, mainly those oppressed by the “givens.” Hume might have said this cannot be helped, for the alternative is to risk tyranny. Derrida might have claimed that for minorities already suffering tyranny, to risk further tyranny with hope of change would be a positive change.
41. “Strains in Hume and Wittgenstein” by Peter Jones is a wonderful read that brings together the Wittgenstein of On Certainty with the great philosophy of common life on the point that both emphasize ‘man as a social animal,’ and that the philosophy of humanity cannot be fully grounded or understood outside a society.A
A. Jones, Peter. “Strains in Hume and Wittgenstein.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 208.
42. Is Hume’s common life or PD-identity more likely to be tricked into the service of “bad philosophy?” I think the fact that race, sex, and gender are necessarily more abstract and narrower in their facticity makes them more likely to be used for “bad philosophy,” but again, common life is easily consumed by “the banality of evil.”
43. When we’re from a robust common life, there’s the blessing and problem of the environment “doing our community for us.” We don’t have to do anything: it’s just there. Unfortunately, this can result in us taking community for granted, when suddenly one day as an adult we find out community doesn’t necessarily have to be present: people may have to make it for themselves, which requires planning and sacrifice. This gets into topics discussed in “Art Centering” by Bernard Hankins and O.G. Rose, topics that Neoliberalism may increasingly make necessary for people to understand.
44. The wise know they know nothing, so they watch.
45. “Common life”-based identity forms gradually and emergently through responses to the land, culture, residents, and the like: it is not a result of sitting down in isolation and speculating philosophically. “Common life”-identity is more like a habit than an idea. This perhaps hints at why the British people during Brexit are struggling to define “what being British means” now that they’ve been thrown into a situation in which they have to provide a rational and intelligible answer: the answer is something only people can “come and see,” but until an answer is given (which cannot be given), people won’t “come and see.” And so problems worsen.
46. Modern media tends to direct the focus of average people onto events happening on a national and federal level, diverting their attention from common life. As a result, common life suffers, which if the media then covers common life, it tends to cover stories about the short-comings and imperfections of common life. This gives people reason to be skeptical and critical of common life, increasing the likelihood that they will focus their attention away from it on national and global affairs. Thus, common life will further suffer, and a vicious cycle will intensify.
47. What constitutes “being authentic” is another line on which PD-identity and Hume’s common life possibly divides: today, a person is only authentic if the person does what the person wants to do, while classically, a person was authentic only to the degree he or she aligned with “the good.” Something similar can be said about authority: today, authority comes from holding a position of influence, while classically authority came from aligning with “the good” (which granted, positions of influence were often assumed to align with). Also, a person doesn’t have authority over his or her own life unless the person is able to express and enact his or her will, while classically expressions of the will were looked upon with skepticism, for “the good” was more often than not something people had to humble themselves before and not “naturally” something that people willed.
Is the classical or modern view better? Both come with their pros and cons: one liberates the individuals but increases existential destabilization, while the other limits the individual but makes life feel more “objectively grounded” and “solid.”
48. Is common life incomplete like rationality? If so, Hume’s solution to the problem might itself present a problem. In a way, “unphilosophical common life” is incomplete, for though there is present a proper foundation for rational life, there is a lack of rationality. Thus, for Hume’s solution to work, those in a common life must take the philosophical journey.
49. Just because a person is appealing to “common life,” “common sense,” or a first principle that can only be grasped through experience, it does not mean that the person is necessarily a Humean skeptic. Horrifically, the thought of Hume could be used to preserve ideology and in service of autonomous reasoning if it is not actually grounded in a “common life,” only claims to be so grounded (which I believe “the banality of evil” often does). But how can we tell? How could we identify an authentic Humean skeptic from someone using Humean skepticism in service of autonomous reasoning? For one, we would have to experience ourself the common life the person references to see if the person’s thinking is actually grounded in it, but this suggests that only people part of a common life know what thinking is in service of it and which thinking isn’t. Those outside a common life will be unequipped to identify authentic Humean skepticism from only “apparent” Humean skepticism, but that means larger systems, States, and outside forces will rarely if ever be suited for such a judgment. This means that common life is in a position to be self-justifying, which if it falls into “the banality of evil,” is extremely problematic.
However, if people leave a common life, go on the philosophical journey, and return, these individuals will be both equipped to identify actual Humean skepticism from only apparent Humean skepticism, as they’ll also be equipped to check and balance the self-justification of the common life so that it does not fall into error or injustice. Only a given common life is in a position to identify fake Humean skepticism from false Humean skepticism, but the common life will not be equipped for this function without the philosophical journey. The journey is hard but necessary.
50. ‘[I]t is because the properties of being a priest are unobservable that vestments and clerical collars were devised: they are symbols of the past which structures the entity before us.’A Common life that is purely metaphysical, that lacks any reference points, is common life that lacks any power to stabilize existential tension. Increasingly, under secularism, there is a line of thought that common life should move aside into private lives so as not to oppress and restrict the individual, but the more invisible the references points and symbols of common life become, the less common life will exist at all. People must “see” participation in it influencing and structuring life: a private and invisible common life is no common life at all.
A. Livingston, Donald W. “Hume’s Historical Theory of Meaning.” Hume: A Re-Evaluation. Ed. Donald W. Livingston and James T. Kin. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1976: 226.
51. For Hume, the person who has never tasted a pineapple can never fully grasp the idea of a pineapple, only at best an impression. Likewise, the person who has never lived a common life can never “get” the philosophical system which presupposes that common life and/or that requires the common life to address the incompleteness of its rationality. Without experience, ideas can only be impressions; without common life, philosophy can only be a topic for essays.
52. Perhaps the silence of Jesus before Pilate suggests that Jesus understood the impossibility of autonomous rationality and that justification can only be found in common life; outside that practice and experience, what can be said?
53. To use evidence against the existence of the world, the world must exist; to use evidence against common life, we must come from common life.
54. Everything is imperfect: there is always reason to erase everything.
55. Adorno and Horkheimer describe a world of “autonomous rationality,” and quickly recognize that without a grounding truth, who can even say what constitutes being “reasonable?” Were not the farmers who believed Zeus was angry during a storm using reason when they decided they needed to take shelter? Were not the barbarians being reasonable when they saw the world was dry and in need of rain, and thus a child needed to be sacrificed to convince the gods to bring rain? Adorno and Horkheimer recognized that there are many rationalities, and thus the dream of the Enlightenment, to establish a single rationality, would have to be totalitarian. Adorno and Horkheimer wrote on the fulfillment of Hume’s prophecies.
56. Though Aristotle’s principle “A is A” as a foundational principle for identity often proves incomplete (as argued by thinkers such as the great Alfred Korzybski), like common life, “A is A” is a principle that rationality should ultimately defer to and revere. As common life can become oppressive and require refinement, so the same can be said about “A is A,” but disregarding “A is A” totally would be disastrous.
57. As it is easy to critique the Church but hard to build one, so it is easy to critique common life and “positive values,” but very hard to outperform them (mostly because it isn’t just “the best” of our society we must convince, but everyone’s).
58. The Enlightenment had an important role in history to train civilization to stop indulging in nonrational ways of thought without any rational balance, but now we need to be trained to stop indulging exclusively in rationality. The “frenemy” brain seems to gravitate either toward an utter absence of rationality or autonomous rationality: mixture and “return to beginnings” (versus “endless traveling to elsewhere”) are not it’s natural strengths.
59. For those invested in a common life, leaving home is like having a ligament cut off; for those who favor PD, it is exciting.
60. The very idea that we must attend college “to make something of ourselves” indirectly teaches us that our temples honoring gods of autonomous rationality are temples worshiping the right god. Since people receive status and good jobs for ascribing to this religion, it is easy for people to sacrifice a good life grounded in common life for an unbound life grounded only in cultural scripts (keep in mind that the only thing which is ultimately unbound is nothingness).
61. Autonomous rationality cannot help but ultimately be unclear and ambiguous, because ultimately it cannot present something it is actually grounded in (only something it is about). To overcome this problem, a society based on autonomous rationality will likely be a society that also rewards and praises ambiguity: it will claim ambiguity is evidence of depth and intelligence. Observers who can’t find substance in ambiguity will be labeled unintelligent instead of the ambiguity being labeled empty.
62. What “common life” develops in people is more like an instinct or disposition than a philosophy, though the instinct entails abstract ideas.
63. Perhaps it could be said that community is “negative” like atheism, while common life is “positive” like theism. Both theism and atheism have caused trouble.
64. Do people think or experience their way into theism? For Hume, theism was a “natural belief” resulting from custom and common life, but today, where secularism is prevalent, isn’t it more so atheism that results from common life? Can what was once a premise based on common life gradually become a premise that can only be arrived at by reasoning? If so, couldn’t what constitute defenses of theism today becomes defenses of atheism tomorrow?
65. Ultimately, as Kennan Grant puts it, the educated person is not controlled by ideology, monotheories, or compelling stories, and is able to fight against lawyer-like rhetorical and storytelling power to be persuaded in the direction of goals and values, irrespective of what is actually known. Problematically, this means the educated person may fight with existential despair, precisely in being aware of what Hume taught, or give into the temptation to use powers of persuasion for self-interest. Being grounded in a common life can fight this, as can religion (consider “On Kafka, Character, and Law by O.G. Rose).
66. Considering that autonomous reasoning is unstoppable (being its own limit), it is the case that when someone is making a point, the person is perhaps obligated to make examples that express their rationality in the world, for otherwise (assuming its internal consistency), their rationality wins by default, which makes its usefulness questionable (as the legitimacy of an athlete who wins every competition is therefore drawn into question, not because the athlete is necessarily cheating, but because there is reason to think something is off). If we cannot reference an example of our rationality being “lived out,” if we cannot answer the question “Compared to what?” regarding our critiques of the world, if we cannot posit positive values in place of those we are deconstructing, and so on, then there will be reason to believe that our arguments are on “steroids” and should be penalized if not disqualified.
67. As Hume argued “the problem of internally consistent systems” means we must ultimately appeal to “common life” for a tiebreaker and to determine which system warrants ascent, perhaps ethics can share a similar function? This seems to be a direction Liberals take, constantly reminding us that when dealing with abstractions, we shouldn’t forget the flesh and blood people these abstractions will impact. Can ethics ground us as well as can “common life?” Perhaps, assuming the ethics themselves are not an abstract system (which can be problematic, as argued in “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose). As theology for Hume needed to be grounded in tradition and daily practice to maintain legitimacy, so too does ethics.
68. Rationality and thinking make meaning, civilization, and order possible, but they operate by reducing elaborate multiplicities into singularities. For example, when I think about a house, I don’t think about every room, piece of feature, electric wire, etc. — that would be impossible to consider — instead I think about “my home”: I take something incredibly complex and reduce it into something comprehendible, for otherwise I couldn’t function. One of the great advantages of thinking is precisely that it reduces via focus vast complexities into simpler units, making it possible for humans to address those units (the typical association of “thinking” with “complexity” is paradoxically mistaken). Without this capacity, humanity would be greatly disadvantaged.
That said, since it is impossible for thinking to not reduce in its mechanism, thinking is always incomplete, and that means there is always grounds for negatively critiquing what is thought about (unless we accept the limits of rationality as part of “being rational,” but rationality itself will not force anyone to do this). This is what Hume foresaw and why Enlightenment thinking can be so dangerous: once rationality is “unchained” from a common life, God, Ultimate Truth, or so on (that it must revere), rationality can be a force of critique that never has “necessary” reason to stop critiquing. This isn’t to say all critique is bad, but it is to say that an “unchained” rationality will eventually, over enough time, consider any and all critiques that are possible (due to the nature of reality itself). Seeing as nothing is perfect, anything can be critiqued, and so there will eventually be reason to deconstruct everything, even that which we would be better off to leave alone. And ultimately, our rationality will come back to deconstruct us as well.
69. What David Hume meant by “natural beliefs” seems deeply influenced by the “common sense” of Francis Hutcheson.
70. The way Joseph Campbell describes “the hero’s journey” is similar to “the philosopher’s journey” described by Hume. There is a lack we feel at home that calls us to something more, a stepping into a world of ideas that are foreign to us (beginning transformation), a series of challenges that tempt us to disown our past and view ourselves as superior to others, a death and/or revelation which leads to an atonement for pride, etc., and a return home, changed. The “bad philosopher” is a failed hero who stops the journey at some point midway.
71. Self-doubt matters — it increases humility, helps people avoid being ideologically brainwashed, increases resilience to external pressures, and so on — but it’s also important to know when to doubt doubts. “Good philosophy” is necessary, but if we cannot stop “good philosophy” from going bad, the consequences will be dire. Seeing as certainty is ultimately impossible (though confidence is not) doubt is unstoppable, and “unbound doubters” will eventually consume themselves. Everything will be a potential conspiracy. Every premise will have to be questioned. Nothing will be assumable. And in this state of affairs, either madness is unavoidable, or the person will deconstruct the world — all the good, bad, and ugly — until nothing is left
David Hume understood that skepticism without something to ultimately bind it would be dangerous if not apocalyptic. Given enough time, unbound skepticism will undermine everything, and ultimately even eat itself (which suggests why so few revolutions succeed even when justified). Rationality and doubt are always bound by their goals, and if they lack positive ends, they are unbound. If rationality is purely critique and feels no responsibility to put forth a positive premise or revere “common life,” then no “common life” will be left. There must be a limit to rationality and critical thinking, a truth and grounding to which they appeal (and that paradoxically even makes rationality and critical thinking possible in the first place), and not just a justification that only a select group of special people can grasp, for that invites totalitarianism. And yet rationality and critical thinking cannot be avoided entirely: we must play with fire, but we must know when to put it out.
72. Gender differences, as discussed by Scott Barry Kaufman in “Taking Sex Differences in Personality Seriously,” might be an area in which Hume’s appeal to “common life” could be particularly useful.
73. As the loss of community is the loss of a grounding for philosophy, so it may also be for meaning in general, which suggests a general devolution for literature, art, and the humanities. This suggests why Hume was concerned about literature, for he believed a decline in literature suggested a descent into “bad philosophy” (in his time, often at the hands of politicians). Propaganda was not simply bad to Hume because propaganda was bad art, but rather because the prevalence of propaganda suggested a growing domination of “bad philosophy” (of which nearly always meant violence). When political aims subverted artistic aims, ‘[l]iterature would no longer have the task of making sentiment intelligible but would be at the service of false philosophical reflection and, hence, of barbarism.’A For Hume, when art died, so also died the canary in the mineshaft.
As Kennan Grant argues (and to use his own words), the less embedded in a common life a given individual, the more difficult it might be for meaning to be clearly and directly telegraphed to that individual when he or she encounters a social situation, a conversation, a facial expression, or a text. However imperfect and ambiguous communication is, the indeterminacy accelerates when a person is outside a foundation for helping indeterminacy be overcome with common life. Considering this, as Grant points out and Hume may have agreed, perhaps literature and poetry are most meaningful in highly integrated community with extreme commonality of shared linguistic context, because the ambiguity can be comparatively constrained and therefore made more meaningful. If this is the case, then in societies where common life dies, so also dies art, because the shared context that helps meaning overcome indeterminacy is so minimal. Meaning undergoes an entropic heat death.
If Grant is correct, even if God wasn’t dead, per se, pluralistic community would suffer an increasing dilution of meaning because the pluralistic context of art intensifies ambiguity to the point that meaning cannot shine through. Ambiguity can only be understood as empty. If this is the case, then Pluralism necessarily makes way for “bad philosophy,” and if that is the case, then we may be better off to reverse Pluralism and Globalism. Of course, this is likely impossible.
A. Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 266.
74. As autonomous rationality is thinking not bound by a clear and present truth, and it manifests in numerous fields, like literary criticism and academics in general. Literary criticism today often seems to be about a certain story like The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner, but it’s rarely grounded in the novel (and in fact seems that being so grounded would make the criticism a force contributing to white privilege or old ways of thinking). The same can be said about academic work in general: the economics paper is about the market, so seems grounded in the market, as the same can be said about a given sociology paper, history paper, and so on. And maybe a given work is both about and grounded in x, but how do we tell? How do we tell if we are dealing with a reasoning that is grounded in a truth or that attempts to be its own grounding?
This suggests why various tests are needed like peer review, but what if peer review comes to judge pieces based on if the rationality is new and autonomous as opposed to grounded? Then peer review will contribute to the problem, but how can we tell if peer review begins to fail in this way? There’s no easy answer, but what I will say here at least is that if writing and language are clear, we will be far better at judging which works are grounded in x and not merely about x. Good and strong communication are not simply niceties of the intellectual journey, but necessitates so that we can better identity and test if ideas are grounded in their subject or only about it. This doesn’t mean all academics need to become elegant writers, but it does mean the more academics take the time to write clearly, the easier it will be for us to identity grounded academic work from academic work that attempts autonomous rationality — a useless impossibility.
(Please note though that a reason people gravitate toward works about x versus works grounded in x is that unbound works are far easier to write, prone to receive awards for innovation, and, in a society that ascribes and praises the myth of autonomous rationality, are likely to be published.)
75. Without normality, there is little possibility of creativity, both because there is no standard against which creativity can define itself, and because there isn’t enough stability for creativity to have a chance to develop. Where there is more creativity than normality, there is more individual freedom, but there is also more existential anxiety, and eventually what was once “original” slowly codifies into a new “normal.” Of course, if there is no individual freedom, there is also misery: totalitarianism is appealing both in conditions of absolute normalcy and absolute originality.
The creative eventually becomes a new normal, which is when what was once normal becomes creative. What was once an environment of individual liberty eventually turns into an environment of individual conformity, a paradox which haunted Foucault and that Deleuze wanted to overcome through individuals developing the capacity to be in a perpetual state of creation (or fluidity), for otherwise oppressive forces would inevitably manifest. Perhaps the Flynn Effect suggests Deleuze should have hope, that general IQ rises with time, and as IQ rises, so perhaps the average person will be more able to handle less “normality” and more “fluidity.”
As rationality is impossible without a truth, so creativity is impossible without normality, and as rationality cannot remove the truth under itself without destroying its own foundation, so creativity struggles to remove its founding normality without effacing its own possibility. But if creativity doesn’t deconstruct normality, there will be oppression and restrictions on individual freedom, and so the virtue of justice (according to some) will compel creativity to efface its own possibility in hopes of a brighter tomorrow. This very “noble undertaking” might be what assures tomorrow never comes.
76. Does the growth of the Modern State force us to accept logical fallacies as an inescapable dimension of modern debate? PD-identity is often criticized by Conservatives of constantly committing ad hominem fallacies, of suggesting things like “that argument is false because you are x race or y gender,” and though Conservatives have a point, there is something to be said about the correctness of PD in appealing to something outside of rationality to “complete” an argument. Does the incompleteness of rationality require logical fallacies to overcome? In one way, it would make sense that what is a fallacy relative to logic is needed to make up logic’s shortcomings, but in another way, this suggestion is problematic.
If debates are not bound by logic, there are no clear rules for debate, and as its impossible to play a board game like Monopoly if the rules aren’t solid, so discussion also becomes impossible. Also, if people in a debate can appeal to something outside what people in the debate can confirm and know, then it becomes impossible for the debate to progress. But mustn’t everyone ultimately appeal to something outside rational debate, even those who ascribe to common life? Ultimately, yes, but there is a significant difference discrediting someone because of the incompleteness of rationality and falling silent as others try to discredit you. Offense and defense are different, as are using the incompleteness of rationality to preserve and defend our ideology and using the incompleteness of rationality to accept epistemic humility and silence.
It is not ad hominem to ultimately appeal to first principles, for all systems ultimately require axioms and “truths,” but it is a fallacy to claim that someone’s rationality cannot be logical because it is based on assumptions about what constitutes the truth. It is perhaps the case that the Modern State increasingly forces us to acknowledge that we all ultimately fall back on “first principles,” but this must be a reality we only use to defend ourselves, not to tear others down. If this reality is used for an offensive, there will be no end to the war, for autonomous rationality is an impossible idea.
77. We must live through the Enlightenment to be better off because of it.
78. If one day the world decides to make a computer a Philosopher King, will that computer know that an unbound rationality will destroy the world? What will be the “common life” to which that technological Philosopher King will defer? Will accepting the limits of rationality be part of the computer’s rationality, or will the computer be invented precisely in order to overcome those limits? Will the “common life” of the computer be some purely mathematical sense of the universe? Who can say, but if a computer is made Philosopher King and it’s rationality is unbound (by deferrals to subjectivity, to everyday life, etc.), for all the right reasons, it might be the greatest destroyer of all.
79. The intentional or unintentional goal of Globalization seems to be the creation of a “global common life” (which also seems to be a “PD ideal”), but is a “global common life” possible without it ultimately being a disguised “bad philosophy?” To allude to “Belonging Again,” is it possible to have “givens” that make everyone in the world feel like they “belong” (and thus possess existential stability)? This doesn’t seem possible, but perhaps everyone could develop themselves to be more creative inwardly, and thus handle the uncertainty, which seems to be a dream of Deleuze? Perhaps, but it always seems to me to be a minority that can live up to Deleuze’s ideal, and if this is the case, under Deleuze’s socioeconomic conditions, the majority will likely be attracted to totalitarianism.
80. Today it seems moral to leave home, go to college, and not return, which means there seems to be an ethic around only going “halfway” on Hume’s “philosophical journey.” If we return home, we are viewed as wasting our potential, missing out on jobs in big cities, and so on. This is a problematic sentiment, for it can seem better not to go on the “philosophical journey” at all than to only go on it halfway; it can seem better to never leave a community than to leave one and not return.
81. It is incredibly difficult to be philosophically positive, to assert positive premises versus simply criticize premises that exist, and that might be because it is impossible to be philosophically positive “all the way down” (to axioms and beyond). Hume seems to have thought this, and thus if instead of deferring to “common life’ we turn to philosophy waiting for positive premises, as the world is torn down by “unbounded rationality” all around us, we’ll just keep waiting for Godot.
82. We can’t stop what we can’t critique, but we can’t build with critiques either.
83. Confession may help create a sense of a “common life” and fight “autonomous rationality.” When someone confesses in specific detail versus generally, it can help us feel like we aren’t alone, for it turns out others are going through what we are suffering (in the same way we tend to like characters in art who articulate something we have experienced and/or are someone with whom we can relate). Additionally, confession may help us overcome self-deception and to realize “that our best thinking is what got us here” (to allude to David Foster Wallace on Alcohol Anonymous meetings), which hints at the problems of “autonomous reasoning.”
Christians generally believe that it is hard to have spiritual growth where there isn’t a sense of reality, and confession helps reality feel present. Existentialism suggests authenticity is paramount for the human experience, but if existentialism removes the imperative to believe in God, existentialism may remove the imperative to engage in confession — to others and to one’s self — that aid in the quest for authenticity.
If confession indeed increases authenticity and fights self-deception, it might be a useful weapon to fight “autonomous rationality.” In fact, it might be irreplaceable.
84. Please note that “the philosophical journey” is likely not something a person does once in their life but continually, so as not to fall into complacency.
85. With reference to “On Kafka, Character, and Law” by O.G. Rose, and the main idea that freedom will only last when it is appealing and rational, following Hume, we must go on “the hero’s journey” (philosophically) if freedom is to be maintained and civilization not fall into either totalitarianism on its Left or Right. Arguably, the default for human civilization is totalitarianism for all the right reasons. We tend to forget, especially if we are Americans in a relatively free society, but if we assume human civilization started with writing around 3000 BC, and if we accept that modern societies started around 1620 (I am no historian), then (relatively) free societies make up around 8.6% of history (400 divided by 4620 as of the year 2020). Perhaps we could convince ourselves that civilization necessarily progresses and now that we have discovered freedom, we will not devolve, but I am not convinced that societies and government must necessarily progress with time. Yes, technology so advances via trial and error, but society is not merely its technology.
A way to stop totalitarianism from growing in appeal is for each individual in their own individual life to do things that keep freedom appealing, and I am of the opinion that such requires for each individual to venture out on “the philosophical journey” which Hume described. If it is improbable that most people will go on this journey, then it is improbable that freedom will last. But what’s the loss? Freedom hardly defines 10% of human civilization.
86. We should take a moment to state back to ourself our principles: we’ll find out quickly if our rationality has a “truth” or “common life” back to which it can refer and be bound.
87. Science is good, but the threat of scientism is the belief that a worldview can be rational “all the way down,” which generates “bad worldviews.” As there can be a Humean distinction between good and bad philosophy, so a distinction between good and bad science also seems necessary (and do note that “bad philosophy” and “bad science” may tend to accompany one another).
88. For those interested in ethics, please see my paper “(Im)morality,” where — to use Hume’s language — I try to avoid “bad ethics” (universal and general) in favor of “good ethics” (specific and embedded in a common life).
89. To allude to the thought expounded on in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose, if there is something about a soul that is inseparable from a “common life,” then the loss of a “common life” is the loss of a soul.
90. If rationality is incomplete, rationality will prove incapable of succeeding at some tasks we put it up to, and when this happens, we will be tempted to turn to some form of a Nietzschean “will to power” — unless that is our rationality is bound by tradition or “common life.” The expression of will that Nietzsche praised seems little different in practice from “the barbarism of reflection” that horrified Giambattista Vico.
91. If the myth of “the noble savage” is true, why worry about the admonishments of Burke or a repeat of the French Revolution? Justified or not, any revolution that tears down institutions, corrupt or sacred, will free us. If the noble savage is true, the French Revolution cannot be a mistake. Similarly, there is no need to worry about “the barbarism of reason”: it cannot deconstruct too much.
92. If rationality can ultimately deconstruct whatever it reaches, to hold society together, what is needed is a rationality that recognizes it’s own nature and limits in line with Hume, or a truth so deep that rationality cannot reach it. If today no such “deep truth” is possible, even if “deep truths” are what held most societies together for most of history, today Hume’s solution is the only possible one. It is a solution created hundreds of years ago that perhaps we’ve been able to generally get by without, but only until now.
93. The thinkers of the Counter Enlightenment rolled rationality up into a ball, and as they showed us how small it was, they asked if this was really how we wanted to make the world?
94. Thought thinks to rest on a truth, which is when it becomes dangerously “thoughtless,” but a mind which doesn’t think is “thoughtless” too. It seems that we need to learn to keep thought perpetually restless and active, which is existentially taxing. Perhaps the unexamined life isn’t worth living, but the examined life loses its luster too if it ever stops examining. The life worth living is hard.
95. Based on electoral maps, we have reason to think that geography and occupation shape people radically: just knowing a vote is from a city skyrockets the probability that it is a vote for the Democrats versus the Republicans. Similar conclusions can be drawn based on a person’s job and occupation, whether they’re a blue- or white-collar worker. This isn’t to say race and the like play no role at all, but rather to point out that perhaps elections can help us gain a fuller sense of all the dimensions that shape and form people. Lastly, it seems to me that “swing states” like Michigan and Pennsylvania are often where multiple identities overlap most pertinently, hinting at the need to think of identity more diversely.
96. To keep a worldview a “view of the world,” it must reside in the heart, mind, and body, and all worldviews become ideologies when they reside exclusively in the mind (though that’s not to say there might not be some worldviews that are uniquely able to resist become ideologies). Similarly, when a worldview is “lived out” exclusively through the body, it is fragile and thoughtless; if it is exclusively a resident of the heart, it becomes overly-emotional, difficult to check and balance, and also susceptible to “the banality of evil.”
We are not “heads on sticks,” and we do not know the world exclusively through our minds: we are “full bodies.” Furthermore, we are not limited to a single method of apprehending the world, whether that be emotionally, mentally, kinetically, etc., and each method of apprehension can “check and balance” the others so that we maintain control over all our methods of apprehension versus one or a few of the methods maintaining control over us.
In Hume stressing the need for a full “philosophical journey” — from home to philosophical training and back to a common life — Hume suggests a need to apprehend the world through multiple ways. We need to study from books but also work on the farm, per se. In doing this, we resist the temptation of our minds to gravitate toward a single method of apprehension (which will then overly dominate us). All worldviews become ideologies once they reside exclusively in our minds: to resist becoming an ideological, we must “live out” our beliefs. We can’t live without beliefs, but we also must work diligently to keep our beliefs from living through us more than with us. We must avoid being captured by ourselves.
(Please note this distinction between “ideology” and “worldview” is not maintained throughout all my works.)
97. There is a stress today on the need for Americans to “come together,” but at the same time, grounds for identity and unity are emphasized that I believe are difficult to move between: they are more ontological than chosen. So on what grounds of identity is it more likely for people to unite? Sex, gender, and race, or on terms of geography, occupation, and religion (to offer examples)? Arguably, sex, gender, and race can be fluid, but I think it would be hard to argue that they are as easy to change and shift between as are jobs and places to live. Additionally, it would probably be considered problematic for a white male to choose to be a black male (though perhaps not as difficult for a heterosexual to choose to be a homosexual), but not as problematic for a white male to shift jobs from investment banking to manufacturing (though that’s not to say it would be easy). Also, if I am correct that we are more shaped by our occupation, geography, and the like, perhaps this is because these dimensions, though not entirely chosen, are “more chosen” then say race, gender, and sexuality, and thus more likely to reflect “who I am” (to myself). No, I don’t choose to be born in a Christian household, but I can choose to leave Christianity later in life (though it might not be easy) and receive social support from somewhere. However, if I am born white, I cannot readily choose to be black later on, and if I did, it would be doubtful I found social support. Perhaps I can change my gender through a surgery, but this will prove hard, expensive, and so on.
All of these dimensions of identity belong on a continuum, but the more difficult the identity is to choose or change, the more ineffective it may prove as a grounds for people to “overcome their differences” and “come together.” This isn’t to say it cannot be done, but it is to say that if identity is rigid and tied up with beliefs, especially deeply personal believes, then it will prove hard. The more chosen an identity, the more it can unify us, but then again, the less “given” it might feel, risking a sense of arbitrariness.
98. Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind, on the life of John Nash, also hints at why “autonomous rationality” is problematic. On schizophrenia, which Nash suffered, Louis A. Sass claimed — seemingly alluding to “The Underground Man” by Dostoevsky — that the mental illness was ‘not an escape from reason but an exacerbation of [it]…at least in some of its forms…a heightening rather than a dimming of conscious awareness, and an alienation not from reason but from emotion, instincts and the will.’A Often, we tend to think of mental illness as resulting from a lack of rationality, when Sass suggests it can be just the opposite. This isn’t to say rationality can’t help mental troubles at all — in fact, I think more analytical thinking could be helpful in counseling — but it is to say that rationality isn’t ultimately enough by itself. David Foster Wallace, reflecting on his time in AA meetings, seemed to share this line of thought. (“My best thinking got me here,” he lamented.)
A. Nasar, Sylvia. A Beautiful Mind. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998: 18.
99. As “common life” grounds philosophy and keeps it from the dangers of “autonomous rationality,” so perhaps story grounds literature and keeps it from the dangerous of “autonomous writing” (writing that tries to be its own justification on terms of writing, say a novel that invents a new literary technique that justifies itself because of that technique, even though the technique is not in service of plot or character development). Today, to speak generally, there seems to be a resentment toward story in some literary circles, as if story is beneath the higher aspirations of the novel. This reminds me all too well of the philosophers that disregard “common life,” and since I agree with Hume that a collapse of literature causes large systemic problems, this devolution concerns me.
If it is true that “common life” grounds philosophy and keeps it from being its own worst enemy, then seeing as great literature and fiction “show” a great deal of “common life” in their narratives, then perhaps we should expect the best and most interesting philosophy to come from those philosophers who respect and even write fiction. Additionally, even if religions are all false, the fact they are often grounded on “holy books” that themselves are literature might suggest that religions are equipped to avoid “autonomous theology” — that is, if they don’t forgo their texts in favor of theological systems.
100. If ideas are not experiences, then a way ideas can have strength is to appeal to experience, hence the role of Hume’s “common life.”
101. If people can’t be compelled, “common life” is critical.
102. Perhaps the best “good philosopher” is one who combines Derrida and Hume, and perhaps this is an individual with aesthetic sensibilities, a Deleuzian individual. But this will have to be explored at another time.
103. To use the language of Cadell Last on Hegel, perhaps we could say that thought is essential for Hume, but action primary.
104. A desire for rationality “all the way day” may coincide with a demand for “ideological purity,” and if we judge someone as failing to be “pure,” we treat them like they’re dirty, an outsider. Perhaps today we have morally evolved to not discriminate on grounds of sexual purity, but humanity may have just traded one discrimination for another.
105. “Good philosophy” burns off everything that cannot be reborn, to use the words of Kennan Grant.