Personal Knowledge: Individuals and Societies Part 2


Individuals and Societies: Historical Background: The Arrival of the Modern

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows: each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy; the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right, or rather, right and wrong
(Between whose endless jar, justice resides)
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, an universal wolf,
(So doubly seconded with will and power),
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last, eat up himself. –Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida Act 1 sc. iii

We have been attempting to explore the origins of the “theoretical viewing” that have determined how what we call the Human Sciences or Individuals and Societies in the West have come about and through this viewing how human beings of the West make their judgements of the other human beings that inhabit our planet. In examining the historical background behind the development of the Human Sciences, we must ask the question: What is the uniqueness, the peculiarity of modernity in the West and the human beings who live within it, and how might it be distinguished from the classical Western world-view of Plato and Aristotle? What we call “ethics” as an area of knowledge is inseparable from what we call the study of the Human Sciences but why have they become separate as two distinct Areas of Knowledge in the IB TOK program? What does this significant fact tell us about who we are and who we think we are and how we view things in the world and our actions within the world?

If we wish to look at how and why ethics has become separate from the Human Sciences we have to understand that modernity in the West is “secularized Biblical faith”; the “other worldly” faith has become “this worldly”: not to hope for life in heaven, but to establish heaven on earth by purely human means. Once again it must be reiterated that what is being said here is that there is no distinction between theory and practice. The theory is the practice. “Globalization” and “international mindedness” are but the latest secularized expressions of this original Biblical faith which had “charity” or caritas as its highest end i.e. the recognition of the “otherness” of the world and of the human beings in it. These modern secularized views find their ultimate realization in the universal, homogeneous state of Hegel.

Today’s Human Sciences find their grounding in positivism so it is necessary to keep this in mind when we examine the historical background of the Human Sciences. The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), for example, conceives of human beings as a polarity of “evil pride” and a salutary “fear of death”; this is a secularized version of sinful pride and fear of the Lord. “Secularization” then means that the thoughts, feelings, or habits that were of Biblical origin are retained after the loss or atrophy of Biblical faith. KQs: Could the modern technological project be conceived without the help of these previous ingredients of Biblical faith? Is it possible to speak of the modern technological project as “one” since its chief character is novelty and change?

In the area of knowledge Individuals and Societies, what we mean by modernity is the understanding that a radical modification of pre-modern political philosophy (and, thus, of “the human sciences” of Plato and Aristotle) took place; the modification comes to sight as a rejection of pre-modern political philosophy. In our “shared knowledge” we can see that part of this modification is the very fact that “politics”, the covenants and laws that determine how human beings will live in their communities, is not considered the “queen of the social sciences” in today’s thinking. This rejection of pre-modern political philosophy takes place during that period which we in the West call the Renaissance. We can see how this change occurred by the fixing of the beginning of modernity by means of a non-arbitrary criterion: if modernity begins with a break from the pre-modern view of the world, the great minds who achieved this break must have been aware of what they were doing.

Who is the first philosopher to see pre-modern political philosophy as unsound? Thomas Hobbes. But closer study shows that Hobbes was continuing the thinking of Machiavelli (1459-1527). (Strauss, What is Political Philosophy) We can say that the foundation and genesis of what we know today as the “human sciences” finds it birthing in the thoughts of Machiavelli. Why is this so? Machiavelli claims that true political philosophy (and thus what we call “the social (human) sciences”) begins with him. Machiavelli describes himself as a Christopher Columbus, his contemporary, exploring and discovering new continents and determining new horizons regarding morality and politics. What is Machiavelli’s “new” position?

Machiavelli profoundly disagrees with others regarding how a prince should conduct himself towards his subjects and his friends. The reason for this is that he is concerned with the factual, practical truth and not with fancies. Many (primarily Plato and  Augustine) have imagined commonwealths and principalities which never were, because they looked at how men ought to live (virtue) instead of how human beings, in fact, do live. Machiavelli opposes to the idealism of the traditional political philosophy a realistic approach to political things. This is the first part of his approach, his moral, ethical approach. The second part: “Fortuna (chance, necessity, fortune) is a woman who can be controlled by the use of force.”

Classical political philosophy was a quest for the best political order, or the best regime as a regime most conducive to the practice of virtue or how human beings should live within their communities. It was profoundly ethical. According to classical political philosophy, the establishment of the best regime depends necessarily on uncontrollable, elusive Fortuna or chance. According to Plato’s Republic the coming into being of the best regime depends on coincidence: the unlikely coming together of philosophy and political power. Aristotle agrees with Plato: the best regime is the order most conducive to the practice of virtue, and the actualization of the best regime depends on chance; the best regime cannot be established if the proper matter is not available i.e. if the nature of the available territory and the available people is not fit for the best regime. Whether or not that matter is available in no way depends on the art of the founder, but on chance (Plato and Aristotle called politics the “royal art” or the “royal techne”).

Machiavelli seems to agree with Aristotle: one cannot establish the desirable political order if the matter is corrupt i.e. if the people are corrupt; but what for Aristotle is an impossibility is for Machiavelli only a very great difficulty: the difficulty can be overcome by an outstanding man who uses extraordinary means in order to transform corrupt matter into good matter. The obstacle to the establishment of the best regime which is man as matter, the human material, can be overcome because that matter can be transformed. Human beings are infinitely malleable.

The imagined republic of Plato is based on a specific understanding of nature which Machiavelli rejects. According to Plato, all natural beings, at least all living beings, are directed towards an end, a perfection for which they long (the Good); there is a specific perfection which belongs to each specific nature; there is especially the perfection of human being which is determined by the nature of human being as the rational (logos) social animal. The “essence” precedes the “existence” to put it in other words. Nature supplies the standard (the “degree” in the quote from Shakespeare above), a standard wholly independent of human beings’ will; this implies that nature is good. Human beings have a place–a definite place– within the whole. Human beings are the microcosm, but they occupy that place by nature; human beings have their place in an order that they did not originate or create. “Man is the measure of all things”, the famous saying of the sophist Protagoras, is the very opposite of “Man is the master of all things”. (See other postings on Protagoras’ thinking).

Human beings have a place within the whole: human beings’ power is limited; human beings cannot overcome the limitations of their nature. Our nature is ‘enslaved’ (Aristotle) or we are “the playthings of the gods” (Plato). This limitation shows itself in particular in the power of chance/necessity/fortuna. The good life is the life according to nature which means to stay within certain limits, as is suggested by the Pythagoreans (who discovered “degrees” and “music” and thus provide the background for the metaphor used by Shakespeare in the quote that begins this entry). Virtue is essentially moderation or what the Greeks termed sophrosyne or prudence and its knowledge is based on “experience” or what the Greeks called phronesis. Our happiness depends decisively on the limitations of our desires in our knowledge and understanding of ourselves. (cf. the tragic literature in the study of the Language A texts, particularly Oedipus Rex,  where the tragic heroes are precisely those who do not know who they are; they “miss the mark”, hamartia, in their actions which exceed the limits in some way. Literature, decidedly, has a moral purpose behind its study).

According to the Western Bible, human beings are created things in the image of God. They are given rule over all terrestrial creatures: human beings are not given rule over the whole. Human beings have been put into a garden to work it and to guard it, to nurture and abet its flowering. Human beings have been assigned a place. Righteousness (justice) is obedience to the divinely established order (just as justice in the Greeks is compliance with the natural order); to the recognition of elusive chance corresponds the recognition of inscrutable Providence (God’s will). (See the discussion on William Blake in imagination as a way of knowing).

According to Machiavelli, traditional views either lead to the consequence that political things are not taken seriously (Plato’s Republic is, finally, a comedy…a discussion of the best regime in speech is undertaken by men who will soon experience the worst regime in deed), or else political things are understood in light of an imaginary perfection, of imagined states or principalities, the most famous being the kingdom of heaven. Machiavelli: one must start from how men live; one must lower one’s sights. Immediate corollary: the reinterpretation of virtue or morality (what has now come to be called “ethics”): virtue must not be understood as that for the sake of which the commonwealth (state) exists, but virtue exists exclusively for the sake of the commonwealth (state). Patriotism is the highest virtue.

According to Machiavelli, political life is not subject to morality. Morality is not possible outside of political society; it presupposes political society. Political society cannot be established and preserved by staying within the limits of morality for the simple reason that the effect or the conditioned cannot precede the cause or condition. The establishment of political society and even of the most desirable political society does not depend on chance, for chance can be conquered or corrupt matter can be transformed into incorrupt matter according to the thinking of Machiavelli.

The solution of the political problem for Machiavelli is guaranteed because: 1: the goal is lower i.e. in harmony with what most human beings desire; and 2. chance can be conquered. The political problem becomes a technical problem (a matter for techniques used by the prince). Nations, states, communities desire four things primarily: freedom from foreign domination; stability or the rule of law; prosperity; and glory or empire. The matter is not corrupt or vicious; there is no evil in human beings that cannot be controlled. What is required is not divine grace, morality, nor the formation of character (ethical education), but laws and institutions with “teeth in them”. Lee Kwan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, can be said to be an example of a modern “Machiavellian” and the evidence of his successes (and failures) can be seen by anyone who visits the country.

The first result of Machiavelli’s great change occurs with the revolution in the Natural Sciences: the emergence of modern natural science (first with Galileo and further in Newton (1643-1727) and referred to in Leibniz (1646-1717) and the introduction of infinitesimal and finite calculus through the revolutionary role of algebra). This change may be understood as the rejection of final causes: a new understanding of science with a new understanding of nature: knowledge is no longer understood as “receptive”. The initiative in understanding is with human beings, not within the cosmic order. Human beings, literally, become the center of the universe (the rise of humanism). In seeking knowledge, human beings call nature before the judgment of reason; human beings put “nature to the question” and “torture” nature (Bacon: 1561-1626). Knowing is a kind of making; human understanding through the principle of reason prescribes to nature its laws. Human beings’ power is much greater than before believed. Not only can human beings transform corrupt human matter into incorrupt human matter, or conquer chance–all truth and meaning originate in man–they are not inherent in a cosmic order which exists independently of human beings’ activities. Truth and meaning are the “values” that human beings themselves create through their actions.  Correspondingly, poetry is not understood as inspired imitation or reproduction, but as creativity. It is with Machiavelli that the age of “humanism” arrives: the view of human beings as autonomous freedom, as “resources” and “disposables”, begins or what we call “social engineering” begins.

The second great effect of Machiavelli’s thinking is that the purpose of science is reinterpreted: it is for the relief of the human condition, for the conquest of nature, for maximum control, the systematic control of the natural conditions of human life and of human beings, the making of corrupt matter less corrupt. From this arises the modern view of justice. The conquest of nature implies that nature is the enemy, a chaos that is to be reduced to order. Everything good is due to human labour rather than nature’s gift: nature supplies only the materials which human beings through their techne bring to perfection. Human communities are in no way natural: the state or regime of a human community is simply an artifact due to covenants (laws). Man’s perfection is not the natural end of human beings as Plato and Aristotle believed, but an ideal freely formed by human beings, a “value” (man’s essence is freedom which finds its realization in action or “existence”). “Existence precedes essence” because human being is the as yet “undetermined animal”.

The Fact/Value Distinction

From what has been said regarding the historical background of the development of the human sciences, we can examine how what is called “the fact/value distinction” in the Human Sciences came about. The fact/value distinction in the Human Sciences is part of the core of its metaphysics or its way of viewing the world. It is based on the need for “objectivity” in its methodology as scientific research in order to gain true knowledge of the object under investigation through the use of logic i.e. a rational view of human beings (individuals) and their communities (societies). It decrees that there is a fundamental difference between judgements of fact (scientific judgements) and judgements of value since “values” are inaccessible to human logic and reason and, therefore, are beyond the ability of science to make any statements about them, of what is good or bad. The social scientist must avoid value judgements altogether. Every textbook and methodology of the human sciences begins with this premise and it is part of its “shared knowledge”, what has been passed on to others who wish to pursue knowledge in this area of knowledge.

“Values” are here defined and understood as the things/outcomes preferred and the principles of preference and if we look to the grounds for the principles of these preferences we will see that they are based on the prevailing views of what a society (in this case Western society) upholds as being good. The Human Sciences as presented to us as an Area of Knowledge are supposedly “value free” or “ethically neutral” as they attempt to base their grounding in the principles of the modern natural sciences. But because the Human Sciences deal with human beings and their communities, what we call “social science” is unable to justify the reasons for its existence, for instance, for to do so would be to make a “value judgement” i.e. to deduce what the purposes or the values of the Human Sciences are, or what their use is for.

Now, presumably, human scientists would say that the purpose of their engagement with their objects of study is the pursuit of “truth” regarding the “what”, the “how” and the “why” of those objects i.e. human beings and their actions in their communities. But the difficulty they have with their “viewing” is that it itself is a product of the very society they are attempting to judge and it is one of the “values” that that society has promulgated prior to the inception of the science itself. All other societies which they view will be judged by those “values” that are inherent in the goals and purposes of the social sciences themselves and these “values” are the baggage that the methodologies of these sciences bring with them and which are greater than those sciences themselves. To attempt to overcome this, the human sciences engage in “cross-cultural research”. In our areas of knowledge we have “Indigenous Knowledge Systems” and “Religious Knowledge Systems” as examples of attempts to get beyond the prejudices of our own viewing. But the very use of the word “system” indicates that the viewing is conceived from a modern western society and this viewing fits best only with that particular society. It is here that historical understanding comes into play. Any answers to knowledge questions using the rules of the principles of reason will depend on the “subjective” viewing or “values” of the viewer and these, in turn, will be based on the “interests” of the viewer, not upon logic. The subjective and objective elements of social science cannot be separated from each other. 

From the time of Machiavelli to the present day, the “facts” of “how” human beings actually do live and the “what” and the “why” of those social facts has already been pre-decided. Machiavelli’s assertion states that human beings are completely malleable and as corrupt matter can be made less corrupt through social engineering, the techne of the prince. These are, of course, “value judgements” according to the social scientists. These judgements of value continue to the present day and will continue into the future as the goal of the Human Sciences clarifies itself in cybernetics or the unlimited mastery of an elite of human beings over other human beings. The “good” society or societies will be decided and created by the helmsmen (helmspersons) using human beings as “disposables” and “resources”. What is “good”, the making of “corrupt matter” less “corrupt”, will be determined through the techne of this elite.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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