OT 3: Knowledge and Politics Part II

All politics aims at preservation or change. When desiring to preserve or conserve, we wish to prevent a political change for the worse; when desiring to change, we wish to bring about something better. All political action is concerned with the ethical: it is guided by some thought of better or worse and, therefore, implies some thought of the Good. In politics, our desire is to establish “the best regime” and, thus, the best society. Our awareness of “this best regime” coincides with our awareness of the Good and our desire for it. 

Our awareness of the Good which guides all our actions is “opinion”: it is no longer questioned as to its existence, but its essence is, indeed, very questionable. The fact that we can question it directs us to the thought of the Good that is no longer questionable, that Good which is permanent in all times and places. It is a directive towards a thinking and reflection that is no longer opinion but knowledge, knowledge of the good life, of the good society. The “good society” and its form in the “best regime” would be the complete political good, something which would raise us beyond ourselves; it would make us “virtuous”. However, our modern social sciences say that the good life and the good society are things that it cannot say anything about because it can have no knowledge of what these things are because they are things that they see as changeable and in motion, as are all human things which continue to evolve. The human sciences are dominated by historicism, and this historicism permeates the sub-species of the human sciences in its understanding of what knowledge is in the areas of political science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.

In Part I we claimed that we live in an age of sophism, that our opinions of what the whole are and what the best society is are formed by a language given to us in sophism and by sophists who have received them from the projection of the technological world-view in which the nature of human being is defined as historical. Philosophy, in contrast with sophism, is the quest for wisdom and truth, for knowledge of the whole. It is not the possession of such knowledge. If such knowledge were immediately available, the quest would not be necessary as we have seen in the philosophies of Hegel and Marx; but as Plato indicates, this knowledge must be “wrested from” hiddenness or “oblivion” and such wresting is both difficult and painful.

Philosophy is preceded by opinions about the whole. The quest for knowledge is to discover the “natures”, the “essences” of all things. The sophist claims to have such knowledge of the whole and that he is able to teach such knowledge, even if the things which he teaches are “unknowable” because they are inaccessible to reason and are, therefore, “subjective'”. The sophist’s claims regarding knowledge indicate that philosophy is not necessary; philosophy is used by many today to demonstrate that philosophy is not necessary, Russell and the English analytic philosophers being a primary example. We could claim that such a belief that philosophy is not necessary is prevalent today, for the state of the study of philosophy is in bad shape, and from this lack of thinking (or the lack of teaching of how to think, or the lack of ability to reflect on what the wisest of the past have handed over to us) arrives the confusion that is so prevalent in the language of politics today and in The Human Sciences overall. Such confusion is prevalent in our inability to distinguish between “morals” and “values”.

The clear grasp of a fundamental question requires an understanding of the nature of the subject matter with which the question is concerned, and TOK attempts to concern itself with “fundamental questions”. Political philosophy attempts to replace opinion about political things with knowledge of the nature of political things; it looks for that which is permanent in the nature of political things and is but one branch of philosophy. Today, it has been replaced by “political science”. Political things are ethical in nature and raise claims for our allegiances, decisions and judgements i.e. they are serious questions of goodness and badness, justice and injustice. But political thought today is not political philosophy; it is what is called “political science”.

angela merkelAs we stated in Part I, the sophist is not serious and does not take matters seriously because he knows his statements lack substance, particularly his political and ethical statements; or as the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said in a general statement about politicians around the world, they “lack gravity, and therefore depth”. Today’s sophist’s statements may be said to be “political thoughts”. Political philosophy, on the other hand, attempts to answer the permanent questions regarding the nature of political things i.e. what is the best regime? what is the good life and how does one lead it in that society or regime? what is the goal of  the regime’s or the society’s striving? what is the nature of the human beings who live within various societies/regimes? and what is the nature of human being itself?

“Political science”, which is what is studied today, conceives of itself as the way towards knowledge of political things. Just as the natural sciences claimed to have genuine knowledge through empirical and experimental studies, so too will political science provide such knowledge through the scientific study of political things. By means of observation and the gathering of data, and the transformation of that data into a statistical form, followed by an analysis and critique of the data as statistics, political scientists hope to make conclusions which in turn may be hoped for in their arriving at statements about the nature of political things. The “permanent” is what is searched for, and this desire for the “permanent” is derived from the permanence of mathematics as statistics. The sciences, both Human and Natural, are non-philosophic. They need both the logic of their mathematics (understood as the principle of reason) and a methodology or the “design” or “plan”, metaphysics if you like, to carry out their practices, for metaphysics is the presuppositions and suppositions of such sciences. Such things are the way toward philosophy but are not philosophy itself. The failure of political science may be said to be found in its analyses and statements regarding the outcomes of the USA Presidential election in 2016.

We all have some political knowledge to some extent: we know that casting a vote is different from a trip to the shopping mall to buy a shirt. We know about laws, wars, taxes, police: we know that in war bravery deserves praise and cowardice blame. But we are not political scientists who collect and analyze politically relevant data and provide sometimes relevant statistical conclusions usually in the form of polls. But the political scientist is not the Statesman of Plato who possesses political knowledge, political understanding, political wisdom and political skill in the highest degree i.e. the techne of politics, the “royal art”, as Plato called it. With regard to the political things, the Statesman is as far from the political scientist as the sophist is from the philosopher.

The desire for knowledge of the political things is moved by an ethical impulse: a love of truth. Knowledge of political things implies assumptions not only about a given political situation but about political life or human life. Making correct political choices implies “self-knowledge” in the individual, and through this self-knowledge to the making of critical and coherent analyses. It involves the possession of phronesis, techne and nous as the modes of viewing of political things, the “lens” through which one views one’s world https://mytok.blog/2019/11/30/ct-1-perspectives-woks/.

The nature of political things is in question or “controversial” because the meaning of the “common good” is controversial and this controversy is due to the political’s comprehensive character. Because the political is so comprehensive, we try to evade or deny this comprehensive character and seek solace through our engagement on less than the whole situation such as social media platforms and the like. We go from the serious and weightiness of political things to something more mundane. We go to those things that are not “heavy”, that do not carry any weight or substance. We want to avoid controversy so we do not talk about politics and religion at dinner.

donal trumpToday, knowledge and politics is dominated by the relative knowledge of the “How” of those things that change and has abandoned the quest for understanding the “Why”, or the search for the principles that originate the political things and that do not change. One of the reasons for this abandonment is a consequence that results from the “fact-value” distinction where only factual judgements are within the competence of the social sciences because “values” and “value judgements”, meaning the things preferred and the principles of preference, these things and preferences are difficult to turn into “objects” and, thus, are inaccessible to reason. This stance of the social sciences has led to a “moral obtuseness” which social science believes is necessary in order to carry out its work scientifically. The consequences of such “moral obtuseness” are coming to flower in our societies/regimes today and are a part of what is the great concern in the new TOK guidelines. One does not need to look far to see the prevalence of this “moral obtuseness” throughout our politics, our current educational systems, and in our young people today.

But ethics demands “value judgements”; it requires distinctions between good and evil however good and evil may be understood. “Truth” is a “value” which one can either accept or reject in today’s world since as a “value” it is of human creation. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play which shows this moral obtuseness and its consequences most clearly. The play shows that in the rejection of truth, one does evil; and evil is, at bottom, “making wrong choices” to put it at its simplest, not having the self-knowledge to know what is fitting for oneself. It is, to repeat, Socrates’ statement: “No human being knowingly does evil”. But Plato has stated that the opposite of knowledge, of knowing, particularly self-knowledge, is not ignorance but madness; and if this is truly the case, then we must be living in a “mad society” and these must be “mad times” and we are living far from “the best regimes”.

Today’s sophists are the social scientists and the politicians whom they teach, which Plato outlines in his dialogue entitled Sophist. The purposes or aims of today’s sophist is not much different from the sophist of the past for it is to increase his safety, his income, and his prestige, and his techne is available to the highest bidder. He may be found in the various “think tanks” and lobby groups which surround the politicians. He is able to adapt to the “values” of whatever is posited by the society or regime of which he is a member as his research has given him an understanding of that complexity that Plato called “the great beast”; today we call it knowledge of the media. Social science positivism in the modern, when it takes political form, fosters conformism and vulgarity due to its thoughtlessness and lack of substantive content. We may say that this is the present condition of many societies today.

It is impossible to study social phenomenon, all important social phenomenon, without making “value judgements”. It is impossible to understand thought or action or work without evaluating it and we do so constantly in our everyday lives. This is part of our “common sense” and part of what we are as human beings. If we are unable to evaluate adequately, it is because we have not yet understood adequately. In their understanding of the multitude that is both their audience and the object of their investigations, the value judgements of the social scientists derive from the sciences of human beings, what is called psychopathology, psychology, and their conclusions might well be that the slick con man is as well-adjusted or even better adjusted than a good man or a good citizen. Because civil societies arise from their mutually agreed upon purposes, these purposes that civil societies have chosen necessarily serve as standards for judging other civil societies, as Plato demonstrates in Bk VIII and Bk IX of his Republic.

“Sophistic” reasoning rejects value judgements based on the notion that the conflicts between different values or value systems are essentially insoluble for human reason. This has led to the evasion of serious discussion of serious issues in many TOK classes by the simple device of passing them off as “value problems” and, therefore, “subjective” preferences. But as we have shown in Part I of this optional theme, knowledge and politics must begin by clarifying what the political things are and what is political. It must be done through “speech” i.e. dialectically, beginning with pre-scientific knowledge or “common sense” and using diaeresis and dianoia, the separation of what the things are and are not, arriving at a determination of what the political things are. Everyone is familiar with sociological studies driven by Cartesian doubt which “prove” the things that people already know through their “common sense”. It is in the attempt to move from “common sense” to philosophy that the quest for knowledge of the permanent things begins.

In order to answer the question regarding the nature of political things, “cross cultural research” is required i.e. knowledge of “indigenous systems” and “religious systems”. But it needs to be remembered that the conceptual scheme, the “lens” through which these systems are viewed must necessarily be that which originated in Western Europe. Therefore, it is an historical understanding that is primarily required. But a consequence of historical understanding is that modern science is but one way, a relative way, of understanding things which is not, in principle, superior to any others since it is dependent on the relative conditions and times in which it appears.

The sophist’s mode of being is language and his chief concern is with those things that are subject to change. This causes him to look down on the things which are permanent if not to treat them with outright contempt. It was, perhaps, this contempt for permanence which allowed the modern age’s greatest historicist and philosopher, Martin Heidegger, to welcome the least wise and least moderate part of his society (Adolf Hitler and Nazism) as fate’s dispensation to the people of Germany in 1933. That such an event occurred proves that human beings cannot abandon the questions of the good society, and that human beings cannot abdicate responsibility for attempting to answer the political questions through the proper use of reason. It rather proves the old adage that when it comes to politics the only thing required for evil to triumph is that good people remain silent and take no action whatsoever. It is the reason why the philosopher must return to the Cave once he has been outside the Cave, for the philosopher, too, has a responsibility to the others in the community where he resides.

The “regime” is the order, the form which gives a society its character. The regime is the society’s way of life, the form that life takes when human beings live together in communities. The manner of living depends on the predominance of human beings that are of a certain type: their lifestyles, their moral tastes, the form of society, the form of the state, the form of government, the spirit of the laws within the community i.e. what is called its “culture” . Individual life is the activity directed toward some goal; social life is directed to a goal that can only be achieved by a society. To be able to do this, a society must be ordered, organized, constructed and constituted in a way which is akin to that goal and the authoritative leaders must also be akin to the goal. For most modern societies, be they capitalist or communist, that goal is the emancipation of technological innovation and the progress that will keep that technology securely dynamic within that society. The Presidents of China and the United States sail down the same river in different boats, and that river is technology. The question then arises: what is the best regime given this technological dynamism? As was mentioned, the social sciences, political science cannot aid us in answering this question because they do not wish to make “value” judgments, but it is the tools and instruments of technological progress which has brought about our “age of progress”. 

In both Plato and Aristotle, the actualization of the best regime is a matter of chance for so many variables are involved in the comprehensiveness of what is political. In Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens the best regime will show us the “good citizen”. But what is the “good citizen”? The “good citizen” is seen as “the patriot”, one for whom the country comes first beyond any and all regimes. The “good citizen” of Hitler’s Nazi Germany would not be a “good citizen” in other regimes: he would be seen as a “bad citizen” as are the many neo-Nazis of Europe and America seen today. Whereas the “good citizen” is relative to the regime in which he resides, the “good man” does not have such relativity. The meaning of the “good man” is always and everywhere the same. The “good man” is only identical to the “good citizen” in the “best regime”. In Aristotle, the goal of the good man and the best regime are the same i.e. “virtue”, and “patriotism” or love of country is not enough for this virtue to come to presence. From the point of view of the “patriot”, the “good man” is a “partisan” (not to be confused with its military sense of the word) and a “traitor”. A “partisan” nowadays is understood as a committed member of a political party. In multi-party systems such as the USA, the term is used for politicians who strongly support their party’s policies and are reluctant to compromise with their political opponents. History is replete with examples of good men who have been destroyed at the hands of bad regimes and their “partisans”, the most notable being Socrates and Jesus Christ during the times of the democracy in Athens and during the Roman occupation of Palestine. 

In Part III of “Knowledge and Politics”, we will once again return to the sophist and examine more closely the world in which the sophist dwells through the language that he uses.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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