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Can the Praxiology of Mises be considered a special case of Max Scheler’s value objectivism?

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 25, 2020

The thin ethics of libertarianism: In search of a solution

Daniel Ajamian has recently restated Murray Rothbard’s philosophical foundation for libertarian ethics.  As all who are familiar with the philosophy of “paleo-” (or somewhat misleadingly “conservative” ) libertarianism will be aware, Rothbard rejected the utilitarian framework of Ludwig von Mises in favor of an absolutist theory based on natural law.  By the stadards of today’s market of ideas this is a superb world-view, and one which I would be very happy to endorse.  None the less, I am not convinced that Rothbardian natural law theory, based ultimately on Aristotle and Aquinas, is the best that we can do.  Thus in the interests of that “competition” beloved of free-market theorists, I would like to propose an alternative.

Specifically, I would like to consider Max Scheler’s value-objectivism as a meta-ethical framework, within which Misesian praxiology can be comfortably placed as a specific science with its own principles and parameters.  Not only would this be far superior to the vulgar libertarian elevation of Praxiology into a “theory of everything” or TOE, but it would provide an equally ethical, and more integral, meta-ethics compared to that offered by the natural law/virtue theory approach.

Libertarian promise and poverty

Among the deepest objections raised against libertarian ethics are those concerned over the primacy of negative formulations.  Such objections bear a family resemblance to anti-legalistic arguments.  Hence libertarian ethics is seen as a “thou shall not” philosophy.  Of course libertarian legal theorists rightly endorse the primacy of negative rights over the modern obsession with entitlements.  However this is a principle proper to the science of law, a particular department of life and one which falls short of a philosophical anthropology.  Defining human beings as “the animals who can and ought to obey the non-aggression principle” is not an adequate statement of human essence, even if certain libertarians might find it sufficient for their immediate purposes.

One can imagine a world in which all human beings have vanished from the Earth.  In such a world written formulations of the non-aggression axiom would still survive, in libraries, on computer hard-drives and elsewhere.  Even in this scenario, such statements of the non-aggression axiom would remain formally true.  However they would lose all their application, together with most of their meaning.  Such meaning as was retained in a depopulated world would pertain only to a kind of potential being which was no longer actual.  Any non-human intelligences as might decipher these formulae (angels, AI, aliens or whatever) would understand that they referred to some species no longer found on Earth.  If, for example, tigers still remained on the planet, it would be manifest that the non-agression principal had no application to tigers, and was certainly not an artifact of tiger thought or communication.

Perhaps one can think of other, and better, illustrations.  However the inescapable truth is that ethics, not just the non-aggression principle (NAP) but any possible ethics, is a branch of philosophical anthropology, and not the other way around.  To clarify, I use the adjective “philosophical” to distinguish the science of human nature from that interesting and occasionally useful discipline (also called anthropology) which studies bones, tools, genes and words in minute detail.  It is a science which can provide many facts about human beings, but which has become too focused and materialistic to pose philosophical questions about the human essence.

Not that there have been any lack of philosophical anthropologies in the strict sense.  A particular variation of philosophical anthropology is one of the twin pillars on which the whole of Judeo-Christian thought rests, the other being theology.  As for Greek humanism, we tacitly invoke its anthropology whenever we employ the post-Linnean term “homo sapiens.”  Even non-Western thought could not escape the problem of anthropology.  For example Buddhism, though talking grandly of “sentient beings” when called upon to get down to details, expounds on the unique promise and responsibilities of a human incarnation.

On all the above, there is little argument between myself and Mr. Ajamian, or for that matter Rothbard himself.  Unlike the vulgar libertarian for whom a particular (albeit correct) version of ethics has become a religion, the natural law libertarian understands that the non-aggression axiom is meaningless unless it is embedded within a larger theory of nature, and specifically human nature.

Virtue ethics vs. an objective ethics of values

In short, I agree with Mr. Ajamian, Murray Rothbard, C.S. Lewis and all the other good guys that “the abolition of Man” is something we don’t want to do.  Not only do we want human beings as such to thrive and survive, but we want to preserve the unique place in our sciences for “the human” as a category within the cosmos.   However, and this is where I begin to part company with Rothbard and Ajamian, there are several ways in which this might be done.  One is broad path laid out by Aristotle, Aquinas, and the late Scholasitics, starting out with the Catholics, branching out to Protestant Scholasticism, and on down to our day, possibly including such offshoots as the Straussians.  This is the natural law tradition, in all its venerable, rational, and well-demonstated glory.  However I think there is at least one other way to embed libertarian principles within a larger human and natural context.  This other way is less familiar and somewhat more difficult to understand than the natural law tradition.  However I think it holds the promise of a closer connection between ontology and ethics than is possible in the hybrid natural-law-plus-libertarianism approach of Rothbard and his close adherents.  Without depreciating the genius of Rothbard, for me it is enough to be a loose adherent.

This path less chosen is the non-formal ethics of values discovered by Max Scheler.  The key concepts in Scheler’s ethics are value and person.  In contrast to the economic concept of value (found in its pure form only in the Austrian school) Scheler’s ethics are objective, not subjective.  This sounds, at first blush, like a basic incompatibility.  However Scheler’s system of ethics is notable for its hierarchical arrangement of values.  This calls to mind the way in which Austrian graphs demonstrate valuation in ordinal units.  However Scheler’s hierarchy is much broader in scope, dealing with the basic structure of human needs rather than individual acts of choice.  In general, Scheler’s hierarchy ranges from material values at or near the bottom, up to spiritual values at the top.  Hence it is not a value-free method, of the sort endorsed by Ludwig von Mises, but later criticized by Rothbard as an inadequate basis for ethics.  Of course Rothbard endorsed both subjectivism and value freedom within the parameters of the theory of exchange.  Like Scheler, Rothbard did not feel that economic subjectivism could be expanded into a “theory of everything” and to head off any such vulgar assumption he had recourse to the bedrock notions of natural law theory.

Rothbard’s natural-law objectivism provides a workable philosophy for libertarians who sense they need to base their opinions on something more substantial than utilitarianism, even the judicious meta-utilitarianism of Ludwig von Mises.  However, as Mr. Ajamian is candid enough to admit, there is something adventitious about Rothbard’s synthesis of modern libertarian theory and the natural law tradition.  Anyone with a historical appreciation of that tradition will realize that, from Aristotle onward, that it contains the concept of the “political animal” as an integral component.  Born out of the pagan polis, albeit Christianized over the centuries, the bedrock layer of natural law theory is collectivist, albeit a collectivism which has been increasingly modified in the direction of individualism with the passing of the ages.

Up until Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard (the former presenting any historian of thought with peculiar problems) the modern libertarian movement bore much greater resemblance to Kantianism than the natural law tradition.  The representative American libertarian of the 20th century was, like Kant, an advocate of the supremacy of ethics over life.  This may be considered a gross overstatement, and unfair both to the subtlety of Immanuel Kant and the benevolence of libertarians, but I am trying to paint the spirit of a movement in the boldest possible colors.  Yet at a more cognitive level, it should be obvious to any philosophically informed reader of Ludwig von Mises that he was a very original, but also very orthodox neo-Kantian.

Mises vs. Scheler, the men vs. their methods

Unfortunately it appears that Mises and Scheler, though contemporaries, never met.  Worse, what they knew of one another, either through publication or third parties, was mutually misunderstood.  What Scheler thought of economics is probably irrelevant.  What is more relevant is his historical relationship to Immanuel Kant.  Up until Scheler all philosophy was either non-Kantian (Thomism, Scottish Realism etc.) or neo-Kantianism.   Scheler, at least according to his own claims, was the first genuinely post-Kantian thinker.  In other words, he was the first philosopher to critically examine Kant, extract what was true in his thinking, and then set out in a completely different direction.  One might think this was of relevance in light of what I mentioned concerning the affinity between American-style libertarianism and Kantian thought.

At a more substantial level, Scheler’s thought was tightly wrapped around the primacy of persons.  He made a sharp distinction between the person, which he considered a real entity, and the individual which he deemed little more than an abstraction.  Given this, and that he had no great regard for either Manchester Liberalism or Herbert Spencer, it is no wonder that the insights of Scheler’s thought have remained largely invisible to libertarians.  None the less, a strong family resemblance remains between personalists and individualists.  In the case of Scheler, the theory of personalism is developed to such depths that it can incorporate both individualist and collectivist approaches to the person.

Finally, and most critically, we arrive at the objectivity and hierarchical nature of values.  This, it seems to me, is the most promising alternative to natural law theory as a foundation for libertarian thought and practice.  The question of the compatibility of Austrian value-subjectivism and Schelerian value-objectivism is easily answered by noting that first, that “values” referred to are different concepts , and second, that one is a special case of the other.  Scheler actually hints that the subjective nature of economic calculation is intrinsic to its (rather low) position on his hierarchy of values.  This might be a blow to the ego of economists, but should bear no reflection on the worth of their science.

Both Schelerian value-ethics and the virtue ethics of natural law theory are adequate to circumscribe and support libertarian thought.  This is because both assert the value and dignity of the human person.  My preference for Scheler is based on a hunch that value-ethics will tend to be more flexible and less collectivist in the long run, while remaining just as objective as the natural law tradition.  A correlative hunch is that virtue ethics bears considerable affinity with statism (remember Robespierre’s “cult of virtue”).

Whether I am right about this or not, it is better not to approach Scheler’s philosophy with excessive veneration for Scheler’s opinions, political or otherwise.  He was a man of constant changes, embracing a wide variety of causes, and equally willing to repent of his past mistakes.  Libertarians should view his sneers at Manchester liberalism and Herbert Spencer as typical of a man of insatiable curiosity who frequently jumped to conclusions before jumping off to other matters.  However this was only at the edges, at his core Scheler professed a deep and consistent theory of ethics, one which in its objectivity and compatibility with human dignity rivals the natural law tradition.  One should not expect to agree with the man entirely, any more than Murray Rothbard would have agreed with Thomas Aquinas entirely.

Posted in Anthropology, Ayn Rand, Christianity, culture, Economics, History, Judaism, Law, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 3) Saturdays with Scheler

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 13, 2019

Values or forms?

If my hunches are correct, then we will have to understand what Max Scheler meant by the difference between formal and value ethics if we are to have any hope of grounding conservative/libertarian thought on something deeper than its present eclectic ideology.  I hope to examine that ideology in a future post, but for now simply allow the compound “conservative/libertarian” vouch for its eclectic nature.  Now, in order to get a precise understanding of the difference between value ethics and formal ethics, we would have to delve into the dense jungle of philosophical and phenomenological investigation, the very prospect of which would cause any sane person to cry out for Divine deliverance!

Fortunately, Godly help has long since arrived, in the form of a Jewish teacher who walked our planet some two millennia ago, one Yeshua ben Yosef, better known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Fortunately (from the perspective of our own autonomy as persons) He was not a systematic philosopher or theologian, but a wonderful poet and parable maker, a man stamped with the legacy of David, His ancestor, both king and composer.  The sayings of Yeshua are frequently enigmatic nuggets, intended for careful unpacking over time.   There is always considerable danger when we try to interpret such dense teachings, especially what Peter Leithardt has called the danger of “eisegesis” i.e., imputing our own ideas to a text, rather than the “exegesis” of carefully unpacking the text to find its true meaning.  I happen to think that the royal road into value ethics runs though the teachings of Yeshua, but you would be justifiably suspicious that I am engaging in eisegesis unless we can locate an issue where His sayings are pointing us directly towards the contrast between value and form.

In fact, it is the teachings of the Messiah on the Sabbath which provide (for non-philosophers at least) the most accessible portal into the form/value distinction.  The church has tended to treat this issue as either secondary (in the sense that ethics is secondary to the doctrine of salvation) or to use the sayings of Yeshua as proof-texts licensing either a change in, or abolition of, the Sabbath.   I must make clear that my purpose in this essay is neither to advocate for or against Sabbath observance.  However it is in the context of this seemingly arcane and irrelevant issue that we can both elucidate the way the Messiah would have us think of forms and values, and apply them to contemporary social and political conditions.

The Test Case

In Matthew chapter 12 vv. 1-14 a sequence of events occur involving questions by 1st century (i.e.,Tannaic age) Jewish teachers and responses by Yeshua.  These responses highlight the circumstances under which the Messiah feels that it is permissible to perform actions which would normally be prohibited between sundown of Friday night and sundown of Saturday night.  It is doubtful that his auditors were open minded enough to profit from his teaching.  However we in the 21st century may profit in an unexpected way if these teachings point us towards the distinction between formal ethics and value ethics.  It is almost as if the Fourth Word (i.e., fourth commandment) together with the Messiah’s response, were inserted into scripture by the Almighty to start us thinking in new ways about the foundations of ethics.

Indeed, the fourth of the Ten Words (i.e., Decalogue), which mentions the Sabbath, is uniquely suited as a test case for critiquing the concept of a formal ethics.  The fifth through tenth words comport only too well with our common understanding of morality, to such an extent that Divine authorship seems almost superfluous.  Conversely, the first through third flatter us during our pious moods, and fill us with numinous terror at other times.   All of the Words, including the fourth, are conveyed as imperatives.  However only the Forth Word arouses our suspicion that it is an arbitrary and extra-moral formalism.  Readers of Matthew 12:1-14, unless they happen to be Talmudists, will instinctively side with the response of the Messiah as a mere reiteration of common sense.  However this facile assent preempts a deeper appreciation of both the Fourth Word and the Messiah’s emendations.

The thinking behind this near-automatic assent goes as follows.  Sabbath keeping is framed in the imperative, and to the extent that it applies (of course, this is a matter of dispute) must be complied with.   However, this rule of the Sabbath is subordinate to a higher rule, that which mandates the preservation of human life.  This subordination of the Sabbath is illustrated by the actions and sayings of the Messiah in two or three categories, 1) staving off hunger by gleaning from fields, 2) healing the sick, and possibly 3) animal rescue (actually a limiting case dealing with property).

We are now liable to jump to the conclusion that we have adequately understood the difference between formal and value ethics.   It is all too easy to make the Fourth Word a stereotype of any possible formal ethics.  After all, it is an imperative and sharply delimits the kind of behavior ( or absence of behavior) permissible within certain boundaries of time and space.   Superficially, the Fourth Word is not about a good, or any kind of pleasure, but about a duty to be performed.  It would  seem to follow that whatever is antithetical to the Fourth Word automatically counts as a value ethics.  Hence, violations of the Sabbath in the cause of preserving life clearly promote a good, arguably the highest good of all, the ultimate value of human life.  Thus we might see in the tension between the Fourth Word and the attitude of the Messiah, a contrast between formal ethics and value ethics.

However this understanding is premature.  If we sifted them through the sieve of Scheler’s analysis, we would find both alternatives fall entirely within the world of formal ethics.  First we are presented with the formal ethics of Divine imperatives, which we feel authorized to forsake in favor of an alternative formal ethics which invokes the sanctity of life.  In effect, we have replaced the God of the Bible with another god, “Life” on the basis of which we can construct an allegedly superior system of formal ethics.  This way of thinking (life-ethics) has considerable appeal (and in the political context, both among liberals and conservatives) because it seems to rest on a solid axiom out of which moral imperatives can be generated.   However there is a difficulty here for anyone who wishes to invoke the sayings of Yeshua ben Yosef in support of this second system of formal ethics, a system which rests on the imperatives of life.  As it happens, this is not what the Master is really teaching in Matthew 12.

How would Jesus think?

Yeshua ha Moshiach (a.k.a. Jesus) actually gives two complementary justifications for “working” on the Sabbath, justifications which seem, according to the modern mind, congenial to life-ethics, but which in fact are based on radically different premises.  The first justification returns us to the original theme of these essays, the primacy of the person, and in this case the primacy of a Person.  If we resort to the insights of Scheler and certain other philosophers, we will note that they draw an important distinction between the concept of an “individual” and a “person.”  Granted in American usage we tend to talk about individuals in a robust way that conflates this analysis, as in “she is a colorful individual.”  However Scheler restricts the meaning of individual to the legal individual who stands as one unit within a democratic society.  In contrast to individuals, persons are not only unique, but morally asymmetrical in their relations among themselves.  Drawing on the test-case of the Sabbath for his illustrations. Yeshua, who as Messiah is authorized to speak on his own behalf, becomes the expositor of the Biblical system of ethics where a supreme Person is sovereign over all formal ethics.  From this initial, and supremely asymmetrical relation, we are ushered into a world where persons at large possess sovereignty over forms.  This because, while qua God, Yeshua is unique, qua human, he is the first born among the benei Elohim (sons of God).  It is this sovereignty over forms which was subsequently epitomized (by Paul and countless others) in the slogan “Christian freedom” a notion which should never be confused with the supposed abrogation of the Torah, which is at most an illustration or a test-case of a much broader issue.

The above, personalist, justification of Sabbath “work” can (in my opinion) be unpacked from verse 8, “The Son of Man is Lord of Shabbat.”  However Matthew 12 contains an important, correlative justification of Sabbath “work.”  This correlative justification is actually more interesting and foundational, even though it dwells on a level further down on the hierarchy of persons.  The Messiah gives the illustrative case in vv. 11-12.

He said to them, “What man among you will not grab his sheep and lift it out, if it falls into a pit on Shabbat?  How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!  Therefore it is permitted to do good on Shabbat.”

Again, the modern temptation is to assimilate this illustration to an ethics of life.  Parenthetically, it is not entirely clear (as per modern animal advocates) if the merely organic life of an individual sheep is of any less worth than that of individual of the homo sapiens species.  Never the less, I feel it best to depart from this line of thought in order to concentrate on the way the passage as a whole discloses the foundations of value-ethics, and in particular the way in which an objective value-ethics can be distinguished from the subjective valuation of objects.  I am grateful that the TLV passage actually uses “valuable” for the word which is translated “worth” in the Authorized version (KJV).

Now it should be obvious that “value” here does not refer to the subjective exchange cost of the man and the sheep.  Not that one couldn’t find some scholars who might be willing to follow that particular rabbit hole to its logical, and dreary, conclusion.  Thus, supposing we could find out what the average rent value of a laborer’s time or the purchase value of a slave was in the Levant during the 1st century of the Common Era, and then express such values as ratios against the price of a single head of sheep during the same period, we could no doubt test whether the assertion “the man was more valuable than the sheep” was true historically.  We could attempt such a historical investigation because “the man was more valuable than the sheep” is a meaningful assertion which is susceptible to testing.

However this is not the meaning which the Messiah gives the the assertion about “value.”  The word here is a conjugation of diapheroo which can mean any number of things, including “value” or “worth.”   However from the context alone it is clear that Yeshua is not speaking of subjective exchange value, but of what might be called an ordo amoris (i.e., an “order of the heart”) a phrase coined by Blaise Pascal but given closer treatment by Scheler.  The man is loved and the sheep is loved, but the loves are not equal in value.  If there is an underlying ordo amoris then the human being would stand higher in valuation even if the market price for a slave were lower than that of a sheep.  This is because, according to the kind of personalism which Pascal and Scheler advocate, there is an objective order of values which is independent of era, place, or economic calculation.  In the illustration provided by the Messiah, it is implied that there are sacred and intellectual values which bode forth through the thoughts and actions of the human being which are inaccessible to the sheep.  It is urgent to save the sheep, but it is even more urgent to save the man.  Both the necessity of saving the sheep and the man supersede compliance with formal ethics, as here represented by observance of (rabbinical) Sabbath regulations.

No right thinking person (even among the Talmudists!) actually disputes the response given by Yeshua to the Sabbath dilemma.  None the less, sloppy and casual treatment of the case has often led to either generalized and trivial conclusions or hair-splitting and divisive historicism.  For example, one might say, religious customs should not stand in the way of protecting life.  That is certainly true, but if we condemn formal ethics in the name of an ad hoc and indiscriminate category called “life” we are taking the first step towards materialism and utilitarianism.  Eventually we will have to sacrifice not only formal ethics but mind and the spirit as well.  Embracing value ethics saves both life and the Sabbath, in so far as it gives consideration both to the creatures and the ultimate Person, God Himself. It is the universal asymmetry of objective values which give them substance, in comparison with which both rules regulating time and protecting life stand as abstract generalizations.

It is only to be expected that historicists, relativists, materialists, positivists, modernists and post-modernists would all reject the idea of an objective order of values.  It is more tragic that those who oppose these main stream schools, i.e., paleoconservatives, paleolibertarians, traditionalists et al, are not in one accord with regard to the trans-historical objectivity of values.   This is a matter for further discussion, but hopefully Matthew 12 has epitomized the issues in question .  My contention has been that viewing the Sabbath controversy within the framework of formal vs. value ethics, brings out a broader meaning than that of either life-ethics or the Torah/anti-Torah diatribes, and (hopefully and prayerfully) is closer to the meaning intended by the Messiah Himself.  If that is so, then the dilemma of the Sabbath can be transformed into a two way street, with ethics illuminating religious practice and Scripture illuminating what we mean by value ethics.

 

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Hermenutics, History, Law, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Theology, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Problematic Primacy of the Person: (Part 2) What’s love got to do with it?

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 5, 2019

Knowledge and Emotions

Behind the bravado, it is tacitly understood by most conservatives that civilization is going down the tubes at an accelerating rate.  The sundry ideologists (libertarians, traditionalists, natural rights theorists) charged with guarding the city of morals and manners are scrambling for exits and excuses.  The most popular line goes somewhat as follows:  Ideas, contrary to what we had been taught, really don’t count for much at all.  Why not?  Because we live in a world dominated by increasingly sophisticated conspiracies, technologies and propaganda.  That is a bleak outlook, but it is more popular, and less embarrassing, than the alternative explanation.

The alternative explanation would be that our (conservative/libertarian) ideas are no match for left wing ideology.  Please note that this is not the same as saying that right ideas are wrong and the left ideas are right.  No, it is rather that the persuasive power of left wing ideology and rhetoric (even if false) is apt to overwhelm its right-thinking but fragile opposition.  Increasingly we hear that the left bases its claims on emotions, that they are nothing more than a besotted band of snowflakes, unicorns, and cry-babies.   Conversely, the right bases its case on reason, dispassionate claims, and principle.  So what sways the court of public opinion, principle or pathos?  With disturbing regularity, the left emerges triumphant.

For many, the notion that conservative/libertarian thought isn’t up to the challenge is too disconcerting to take seriously, and those who do take it seriously are liable to react in a counterproductive manner.   Among these “reactionaries” the more emotional and irrational the left becomes, the more desirable it seems to appear cool and logical.  This reflects the perennial urge to counter adversity by doing more and more of what you had tried even though it hadn’t worked before.  If Ayn Rand were alive today, she would be egging us on towards more logical thinking and less emotion.  Reason for Rand was an unlimited good, like wine for Polythemis.  More!

Contrary to the claims of her followers, I doubt that Ayn Rand was the greatest philosopher of 20th century.  In my present state of knowledge I would be inclined to give that palm to Max Scheler.  Of course  I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a little dose of Schelerian phenomenology, like chicken soup, can’t do any harm, and might even be salutary in a seemingly hopeless historical situation.   Yet in significant ways Scheler was far less orthodox in relation to the Western tradition than Rand.  Indeed, for all her hatred of Immanuel Kant, Rand was able to offer little more than a simplified Kantian ethics.  As such she stood in the center of the tradition, albeit as a handmaiden, not the prodigy that her followers claim.

Conversely, Scheler was a heretic in almost every sense of the word, both philosophical and religious.  On the overt level, his wayward thoughts and actions cost him both academic tenure and church membership.   Yet his deepest heresy was a total reversal of Western thought, in which the emotions were made foundational and knowledge secondary.  To rationalists, and many who just profess to be rational, this reversal will sound wrongheaded, if not toxic.  To others, especially psychologists, it will seem to belabor the obvious.  The rationalists are more accurate in their (ab-) reaction, in so far as Scheler was not trying to be a psychologist, in which case his insights about the mind and its emotions would have been trivial.  Rather, as a phenomenologist, Scheler was relating the action of the mind to the objective structure of the world.  He wasn’t just saying that individual people’s minds are emotional (trivial), he meant that in some sense the world itself, as we understand it, is based on emotions (heresy).

To any sensible and conservative thinker this reversal of knowledge and the emotions will sound suspiciously like “bad news for modern man” and without a doubt the initial impact and misappropriation of Scheler’s thought was pernicious.  From the 1930s onward in Europe, Scheler, if remembered at all, was considered to be little more than the precursor of succeeding, irrationalist, philosophies of existence.  These succeeding varieties of  existence-philosophy, manifesting in the popularity of Heidegger (fascism) and Sartre (communism) might be seen as either co-opting Scheler into the lineage of nihilism or making him a byword for intellectual and moral default.     My own view of Scheler is predicated on the conviction that European thought as a whole reached its peak prior to the First World War, and in the shattering aftermath of that conflict entered a period of steep decline.  Unfortunately this “peak Europe” was also “peak Scheler” as well, as characterized by his later (1920s) attempt to disengage his ethics from his (new) metaphysics.  This move is a source of continued controversy, and one way or the other makes Scheler look like a transitional figure.  However, I prefer to see his value theory as the culmination of previous thinking, from Augustine to Eucken, rather than as a prophetic interlude prior to a titanic onslaught on civilization which he would have deplored.  This framing of Scheler as a conservative, someone who encapsulated previous ethics prior to his attempts to improve on them, should give contemporary defenders of morality and freedom access to a method of thought which they might otherwise neglect.

Even if conservatives and libertarians manage not to be put off by a line of thought which attained its terminal expression in Weimar Germany, they may understandably balk at regrounding their political theory in a phenomenology of the emotions.  On the face of it, taking the emotions as primary not only smacks of the left’s methods, it just sounds plain wrong.  Hence, to make the most plausible case, before venturing into a contrast of formal vs. value ethics, I’ll take up the case of the emotion par excellance: Love.

Gnostic Love vs. Christian Love

We will have to make a wide arc from religion to politics and back to religion.  By insinuating that conservatives don’t have their ducks lined up correctly, I don’t mean that we need a new idea.  Perhaps we need to return to an old idea, which will turn out to be nothing but Christianity expressed in thought.  Not that the experience of Christianity has ever been lost, but the conceptual articulation of that experience is fraught with extraordinary difficulties.   As Paul said, we must work it out “in fear and trembling.” So much is this so, that the history of the West might be summed up as a succession of varied misinterpretations of Christianity.  Erick Voeglin has chronicled the stumbling misapplication of the Gospel from the time of the ancient gnostics to the rise of modern politics and the (pseudo-) messianic totalitarian state.  While there may not be a direct teaching lineage stretching from the ancient to the modern gnostics, they are both typified by the notion of salvation by self-effort, either collective or individual.  The great irony of this movement can be seen from the contrast between its origin and its final outcome.  Gnosticism began as an attempt to ground Christian doctrine in Greek philosophy, while today, in its final stages, it is manifesting as an effort by the left to shut down “the conversation of the West” and replace it with something that looks frighteningly like a hive-mind.

Escaping from this ironic history requires getting beyond the simple equation Left=emotions, Right=reason.  Rather, it requires a reexamination of the metaphysical filters by which we decide what we mean alternatively by reason or emotion, and within emotion, the valuations we assign to various states of mind, for better or for worse.  As the lyrics of a popular song went, “Love is a battleground”…and there is no more important battleground in either politics or the war of ideas than the definition and understanding of what we mean by love.  Contemporary political rhetoric is dominated by the struggle over who is compassionate and who is insensitive.  Surely, only an all knowing God could objectively determine the extent to which one particular individual really cared about other individuals, short of such omniscience even depth psychology or a phenomenology of the emotions would be helpless.  Yet as historians we can critically examine the doctrines which have been offered up to epitomize love, doctrines which have shaped the convictions and behavior of humanity.  Strange as it may seem, our capacity to love is affected by our metaphysics, our view of the world.  Notoriously, someone who believes human beings to be mere lumps of flesh will have a different attitude towards others than another person who believes all humans have a soul.  Yet not everyone who shouts “Lord! Lord!” or even “soul, soul” is speaking the same language.  If, as per Eric Voeglin, the history of the West is a history of heresy, we can expect that both life and love have been variously defined according to sundry ideologies, all of which have at one time or another sought to portray themselves as the true “Christianity.”

Following Voeglin, if we understand the modern movement in politics, with all its chaotic tendencies, as the extension of an ancient spiritual impulse, it becomes clear the West has long carried the seed of its own destruction deep within.    This insight is gladly embraced by those who follow Nietzsche in identifying the destructive agent as Christianity itself.  However Voeglin makes a distinction between genuine Christianity and the power-drive of its heretical imitators.  Indeed, we could construct a jerrybuilt argument against modern politics by simply by identifying Christianity with love and calling out modernity as  an extension of ancient preoccupations with power and knowledge.  However this is not satisfactory for a number of reasons, among them, that it hands both knowledge and power over to the enemy.  Even more importantly, an exclusively anti-gnostic argument abandons the battleground of love, a commanding height which the enemy believes he has already captured.

It is the singular quality of modern tyranny, that it finds its ultimate justification in neither law nor reason, but a peculiar doctrine of love.  Behind the cruel edicts of Robespierre were the musings of J. J. Rousseau, a “man of feeling” and philosopher of love.  In more recent times, who was Che Guevara except a romeo of revolution?  Whatever revisions critical scholarship might make to his biography, which might show his character to be quite different from that supposed by his idolators, it is unlikely to tarnish the archetype.  Examples of the type could be multiplied without limit.  This is not, of course, “romantic love” in the vulgar sense of the word.  Nobody cares that Leon Trotsky was the lover of Frieda Kahlo, only that he was the lover of humanity as a whole.  Indeed, he loved humanity so much that he could wish it nothing better than perpetual war in pursuit of a perfection doomed to recede into an infinite future.  Where does this peculiar love come from, this love which is spiritual while professing doctrinaire materialism?  Indeed, how do we explain a form of love which is at once universal, and in its concrete manifestation indistinguishable from hate?

In his essay on “Love and Knowledge” Scheler delves somewhat deeper into this enigma than Voeglin was able to do even in his very detailed and historically subsequent work.  Granted, Scheler’s Greek-Indian type is a bit broader than what Voeglin identifies as gnosticism.  If modern political movements had only a doctrine of hate, and were explicit in their call for class war, then we could be satisfied with labeling them gnostic, with the dualism that implies.  However, (and here I think it is Scheler who is to be commended for perspicuity even though he doesn’t draw the modern political implications as clearly as I am doing), the dualism is actually driven by a deeper monism.  It is not that the incendiary movements are simply appealing to “love” as a deceitful propaganda ploy, but rather that they are sincere in both their emotions and metaphysics.  Scheler notes that the predominant characteristic of Greek-Indian (a.k.a., gnostic) thought is monism.  From this he points out that we can expect a pantheistic doctrine of love to be grounded on the attraction of similarity.  The movement of love will be in the direction of grounding solidarity in sameness, and its end result will be the homogenization of the lover and the loved.  Hence this kind of love is both the expression and actualization of pantheism.

If we are willing to entertain the idea that love is connected to metaphysics, then it should be apparent that the Greek-Indian, or gnostic, love contrasts broadly with Christian, or Judeo-Christian love.  The Judeo-Christian God is not a god like that of Aristotle, who can only recognize universal ideas.  Rather, He is the God of particulars, not just the God of the universe, but the God of Abraham, of Issac, and of Jacob.   This God (of Abraham etc.) is even further from pantheism than He is from being the god of Aristotle.  The salient point here is that love in such a God’s creation will not negate particularity as it would do in a pantheistic universe.  Indeed the whole point of love in such a creation will not be the overcoming but the cherishing of difference.

Returning to the doctrines of the modern political left, we see with increasing clarity a growing intolerance for any distinctions of either heredity or merit within the human species.  In spite of lip service paid to “multiculturalism” in the interests of equalizing the fortunes of sundry demographics, it is clear that any substantive differences in life practices are scheduled for progressive elimination.  The overall thrust of modern politics in a managerial state is towards the leveling and homogenization of society.  This is promoted under the oxymoron term “democratization” but an enthusiasm for democracy is unaccountable if we stop to consider that it is no more than a method of political administration.  Behind the bloodless terminology of politics lurk the emotions love and hate, and since the latter is only the shadow side of the former we have been concentrating here on love.  Yet even behind love lurks religion.  Which religion determines which love.  Choose wisely.

 

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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 1) Do we need to go back to school with Max Scheler?

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 26, 2019

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

A man who could not decide whether he wanted to be a playboy or a philosopher is probably not the best advertisement for a new ethics of love.   Yet out of charity it should at least be noted that Max Scheler was considered by his contemporaries (and I concur) the most brilliant thinker of his country and generation.  This was no mean accomplishment since the “time and place” was a still vibrant and relatively free Germany at the outset of the twentieth century.  Even if you havn’t heard of Scheler, and there are many reasons why you probably havn’t, none the less there are serious grounds for reexamining the kind of problems Scheler grappled with.    Notably this included the question: “What do we mean by ‘a person’?”  Furthermore, according to our understanding of “what a person is” what impact does that have on the relationship between rights and obligations, between law and love?

I’m not saying that Scheler resolved these problems in a completely satisfactory way.  Indeed, his philosophy resembles a ruined cathedral, at one time complete from foundation to tower, where the builder suddenly changed his mind and tore everything down to the second story.  That foundation, which Scheler insisted was serviceable no matter what religion (or none) one professed, was what he called a “non-formal ethics of values. ” Admittedly, this “non-formal ethics of values”, is just the sort of jawbreaker that you might expect to emerge from the cerebral jungles of German scholarship.  Yet, rightly understood a non-formal ethics of values gives us a key to deal with many thorny problems where the post-modern world has come up against a conceptual dead end.

For example, whom should we consider the rightful inheritor of Christ’s spiritual mantle, the modern political left or the modern political right?  Weighty and irreconcilable claims to a moral, if not apostolic, succession are made on both sides of the aisle.   To oversimplify, which should we acknowledge as the true gospel of political ethics: the left’s advocacy of indiscriminate and unconditional love or the right’s advocacy of absolute rights and righteousness?  The catch phrase here is “to oversimplify” since without further analysis of these bald claims, they both seem to rest on valid premises.   Agreed, we need to be both righteous and loving, and until we come up against a crisis where decisive action is required one way or the other, it would seem that we can eat our cake and have it too.  But then what?  In order to resolve this issue, and many like it, we need greater sensitivity.  Not greater emotional sensitivity (although that might be a desirable consequence) but a greater intellectual sensitivity.  Through phenomenological investigation Max Scheler developed his understanding of the difference between formal ethics and a non-formal ethics of values.  We need not endorse his conclusions, but we can utilize some of his discoveries as tools for resolving the dilemmas of modernity post-modernity.  It all starts by reexamining what we mean by “the person” and “persons.”  Indeed, are persons important at all, or just illusory sparkles on the surface of a vast ocean of existence?

Donald Trump vs. Existentialism

Let’s begin with the person of the hour.  Love him or hate him, everyone agrees that Mr. Trump has shaken things up on a grand scale.  Even his supporters are divided over the extent to which he has succeeded in fulfilling his promises.  But nobody doubts that his presidency has been educational.  For good or for ill, many things have been brought to light which were hidden prior to the last few years.  Most of these revelations have been social and political, and concern the influence of elites and/or the frustration of the popular will.  Yet hiding in plain sight is possibly the most important revelation of all, a metaphysical revelation in the truest sense.  Trump, of all people, has reminded everyone on the planet about the primacy of personal.

Central to the modernist movement has been an insinuation that all history, human as well as cosmic, reflects the movement of vast impersonal forces, within which individuals have little significance except to appear on the stage of life as pathetic victims.  Negatively, this expresses itself through seemingly self-evident critiques of “great man” theories, to which the adjective “discredited” is always applied.  Positively, it manifested through much of the 20th century as existentialism, the idea that the most heroic thing a human being could do was to accept the futility of life and derive meaning through suffering.  Both these moments in the self-depreciation of human life have a certain plausibility.  After all, heaven forbid that we return to the kind of hero-worship depicted by Thomas Carlyle, which reflected the Victorian world’s trauma in the aftermath of the Napoleonic episode.  Likewise, the ubiquity of human suffering certainly justifies highlighting the limitations and frustrations of existence.

Yet, viewing the 20th century in hindsight, it appears that the devaluation of the person was as much a product of propaganda as intrinsic plausibility.  Indeed, it was the high-tide of that movement against theism and personalism which was birthed in the so-called Enlightenment and then picked up momentum among the ideologues of the 19th century.  Through it all, personalist world-views never lacked exponents, of whom Max Scheler was but one voice, yet the general atmosphere of thought weighed heavily in favor of the subordination spiritual life to inexorable forces: mechanical, biological, social and (here is where it gets dicey) psychological.  If we drift spiritually, we are apt to forget that we, both self and others, are persons.  That is precisely what “they” i.e. the adversaries of personalism, who are arguably not forces but persons-in-hiding themselves, want us to forget.

In that context, consider how an individual like Donald Trump might be threatening to adherents of the impersonalist world-view.  After all, he seems to be an atavism, a sport of nature, an exception to the uniformity of history.  Naturally he is hated by those who detest his policies, but he is even disparaged by those who would normally be considered fellow travelers.  The common line is that policies are supposed to be planned and enacted by teamwork, not by rogue agents.  Yet there he is, right or wrong, reminding us that an individual can divert the course of history, if not to order, at least to some extent.  This might be the furthest thing in the world from ethical individualism, yet it demonstrates, as nothing else could, the plausibility of a personalist world-view.

Apart from being playboys, Scheler and Trump would seem worlds apart.  The reflective thinker on the one hand, the impulsive actor on the other.  Yet the present moment in history is one of flux, one which gives lie to the myth of material forces proceeding on to a determined end.  The individual has returned with a vengeance, and this should lead us to renewed reflection on personalism in both ethics and metaphysics.

 

 

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Christian Anthropology Pt. 2: The Temptation to Compromise

Posted by nouspraktikon on July 13, 2016

Must there be a specifically “Christian” Anthropology?

In the first installment of this series, the sense in which a Christian Anthropology is, or is not, human-centered was discussed.  In the most fundamental sense, Christianity is human-centered since its great theme is the alienation, and subsequent reconciliation, of God with Man.  It is not a philosophy of the totality of Being, or of how this universal Being has become tired or painful or frustrating.  Buddhism or existentialism might commerce in such profundities, but Christianity from its outset is anthropological.  The Creation, the Fall, and the Redemption are all dramas in which the lead characters are persons, and these persons are authentic persons with mind, will, feelings, memory, responsibility, and fidelity.  These qualities, plenary in the case of God, make Christianity anthropological, while their human impediment puts Christian doctrine at odds with any secular philosophy which elevates humanity as its own standard.

Now we must consider whether Christianity, as the anthropological religion par excellance, has inherited a particular doctrine of the human species as part of its doctrine of faith?  Conversely, may we not freely inquire into what it might be that constitutes human nature, and publish our conclusions as a new scientific understanding?  This latter is the procedure of philosophical anthropology.

The Eternal In Man

Max Scheler is a good example of someone who started off on the right foot and then stumbled into into a anthropology which, if not nihilistic, was at least vulnerable to nihilist attack.  The title of an early collection of works, “The Eternal in Man” is suggestive of where Scheler got seriously off the track.  It is not that there is something eternal “in man” so much as that Man (NB representing both males and females) is an eternal type, indeed the image of God.  It is not that there is a “soul” which represents eternity in the human body, but rather that the human archetype, like God himself, is outside of time and space, at least if one goes by Christian doctrine.  A God who is not only a Creator but a Redeemer must transcend both the categories of universal and concrete, in effect being a “concrete universal.”  Both Adam and Christ share the same archetype, but they manifested this archetype in diametrically different expressions.  Even Jung, for all his gnostic weirdness seems to have had a better grasp on this than Scheler.

Scheler felt, justifiably, that Immanuel Kant was the founder of modern philosophical anthropology, but that Kant’s ethics were too formal.  In response, Scheler tried to develop a substantive doctrine of Man, where ethics were based on “heart” and virtue.  He tried to free anthropology from “the law” but he did not deliver it “into grace” because humanity for Scheler was a special nature with its own virtues and defects independent of its relationship to God.  God appears on the scene as a kind of repair man, but neither the origin nor the fall nor the redemption are linked to any essential definition of humanity.  Scheler is a Christian Humanist in the sense that he sees personality as the highest expression of Being.  Of course this is a much more attractive philosophy than that of the Inhumanists.   For Scheler there are grades of perfection among personalities.  A courageous and strong leader such as Napoleon is morally satisfying on the level of bare heroism, but Scheler assures that there are even higher levels of personality such as sainthood, culminating in the perfect sainthood of Jesus.  The small goods of little personalities are ultimately eclipsed by the summa bonnim of perfect personality.  This is an attractive Humanism since it provides us with a god, with an alternative to nihilism, and it comforts us with an optimistic world-view.  But will it hold water?

Scheler himself was forced to abandon his initial philosophy for a greatly revised version.  Part of the revision involved eliminating God, at least the Christian God.  If we are kind enough to abstract Scheler’s thought from personal problems in his life and with his church, we are still left with some salient reasons why Scheler’s first system turned out the be an unworkable hybrid between Humanism and Christianity.  The continuum nature of the first system, with its small and weak personalities seamlessly grading into the great souls and exemplars of humanity did scant justice to the problem of radical evil running amok on planet Earth, and the misfortune that had Scheler publishing around the time of the First World War made this a difficult issue to ignore.  The well-meaning Scheler had to sacrifice his initial theistic inclinations to an ontological dualism of Mind and Urge.  Significantly this was not an ethical dualism, such as those found in ancient Iranian religion or Gnosticism.  Scheler didn’t want a conflict between good and evil, but an evolutionary collaboration among morally neutral forces.  In this respect he resembles the moral consensus of our contemporary New Age thinkers, except that he was much more clear and analytical than your typical New Ager.

Few people have found Scheler’s second system very satisfying.  The hard-core nihilists were weaned away from his influence through the philosophical ascendancy of Martin Heidegger, which occurred roughly around the time of Scheler’s death (1928).  The crucial deficiency in both of Scheler’s systems was his unwillingness to see how personality could be combined with evil.  If personality is the sum of all goods, then there shouldn’t be such things as intentional malice or intelligent deception.  However the Christian doctrine of sin does a very good job of accounting for such phenomena.  None the less, many balk at giving assent to this doctrine, which is not only an offense to human pride but also necessitates a sober world-view where both evil and the diabolical play a part.  Of course the Christian doctrine is supremely optimistic…but only in the “last act.”

The notion that an anthropology can be formulated by excluding (as per Kant), or (as in Scheler’s case) holding Christian doctrine at arm’s length, is an understandable temptation.  Ultimately anthropology must be worked exclusively out of Christian doctrine, not a through combination of Christian doctrine and some exogenous, autonomous, principle, even a principle as benevolent as Scheler’s “non-formal ethics of personality.”  Inevitably  future “geniuses” will continue to try to square this particular circle.  They will have their work cut out for them if they try to outdo Scheler’s elaborate but tragic attempt at combining Christianity and Humanism.

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