In a famous footnote to the Preface of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant wrote,
Our age is the genuine age of criticism, to which everything must submit. Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves, and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination.
Kant’s purpose here is to announce the sovereignty of critique, its power as a universal solvent of all claims to legitimacy and truth, and indeed the Western intellectual world for the next two centuries largely endorsed that sovereignty and paid due fealty to it.
What rational critique does above all is the dispelling of myths, and what we are seeing in America right now, as I have suggested in this essay, is a powerful restoration or recrudescence — depending on how you assess it — of mythical thinking. This is occurring chiefly among (a) the white-populist Right and (b) the black-liberationist Left, along with its various encouragers and supporters in the media and the universities.
This “return of the repressed” leads to a question, or set of questions, concerning cause and another concerning consequence:
- Is the return of mythical thinking a result of the failure of critique or rather its success? That is, are those now taking their bearings from coherent and compelling myths about the order of the world people who have never been exposed to, never been initiated into, the power of critique? Or are they people, or the pupils of people, who have followed critique into the moral and emotional deserts it inevitably produces and then turned away, looking for oases? Another way to put the question: Does critique when successful create the conditions for its repudiation?
- Is the current return to myth an evanescent or a lasting phenomenon? Are we looking at a widespread repudiation of the liberal order — of which critique, and socio-political practices related to it, like proceduralism, are essential parts — or is this moment just a temporary flare-up of impatience and frustration sparked by people who spend far too much time online? A moral panic that has come but will soon go? Perhaps the social and political structures built by liberalism are strong enough to resist the current upheavals and, over the long term, retain their power.
UPDATE: A while back I wrote, “If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kołakowski.” So I took my own advice and re-read his great essay “The Idolatry of Politics,” originally delivered as the NEH’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 1986. It was later published in The New Republic, but I think that once-vital journal has deposited its entire history in the Memory Hole; fortunately I was able to find Kołakowski’s original typescript at the NEH website. Who says government is good for nothing?
The whole essay, which if you read actual codex books you can find in Modernity on Endless Trial, is brilliant and full of fascinating thoughts that I may well return to — it was Kołakowski who originally got me thinking about the diverse and subtle powers of myth to shape political life — but for now I want to call attention to one passage near the end of the essay. Again, remember that this was written in 1986:
In political decisions and attitudes people can appeal to the divine law, to the natural law and the theory of social contract, or to the feeling of historical continuity of which they are agents even if they revolt against it. It appears that we are about to lose all those three reference points; thus we either reduce politics to the technical rules of success or try to dissolve our existence in a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another, or else we are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices. I believe that we can be cured but not painlessly.
These sentences have been proven true, in the following ways:
- Our culture has indeed lost the three “reference points” for thinking and acting politically, largely because of the complete abdication of social responsibility by our educational system.
- Some experiencing this loss have indeed taken refuge in finding “technical rules of success,” in flourishing-by-bureaucratic-regulation. The neoliberal core of the Democratic Party, and the elite universities that provide that core its ideas, take this view of the world.
- Others — the populist right and liberationist left I mention above — have found their compensations in “a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another.”
- Still others, and maybe the largest number, “are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices,” the most effective of those devices being social media, television, and video games.
How can politics be done under these circumstances?
UPDATE 2: In response to a friend who asked, “Does the return of mythical thinking signify a natural recognition that something sacred must inform shared life? And can the proceduralism you long to sustain adequately honor a communal recognition of what is truly sacred?” I replied:
My answers are Yes and Definitely Not! But I would add that proceduralism is a means of reckoning with a plurality you can’t erase, not a means of honoring the sacred. Indeed, the idea that the political realm is supposed to be both the school and the panoptic enforcer of absolute values is the belief that binds Sohrab Amari and Ibram X. Kendi. They only differ on the details. 😉
I prefer a political order that is as ignorant of the sacred as it possibly can be. John Adams thought that only a virtuous people could thrive under our Constitution, but he did not think it the job of the government so constituted to make them virtuous.
And I agree 100% that critique is not what it claims to be. As MacIntyre says, it is the tradition that denounces tradition; as Gadamer says, it is constituted by a prejudice against prejudice. Its claims to be above all traditions and all prejudices constitute a self-glamorizing fiction. But my post isn’t about the fundamental character of critique, it only concerns the relationship between the reign of critique and the re-emergence of mythic thought. That said, I could have made it more clear in the post that I do not take critique at its own self-valuation, or even self-description; but many have, and their credulity has been immensely consequential for our social order.