Column on the Tenacity of Nihilists

The Tenacity of the Nihilists

Tibor R. Machan

In the book Reading Obama (Princeton, 2010), James T. Kloppenberg makes a case for how the kind of approach President Obama takes to public policy is now widely preferred, to put it paradoxically, on principle at the most prestigious universities. Obama’s rejection of general principles, the kind of we find stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, is in sync with what has come to be mainstream philosophy in America.

Mind you this is no novel insight about American intellectual life. Pragmatism is, after all, America’s homegrown school of philosophy, one that on principle rejects the value of principled thinking! Now pragmatism has several versions but the one that has become fashionable is what such people as Paul Krugman ridicule by calling principled thinkers “fundamentalists” as if they were dogmatic, mindless, and doctrinaire.

Principled thinkers, such as the American founders, are nothing like this. The principles they found valid for governing a free society were learned from extensive studies of history, by philosophical education and reflection, and by reading a lot of others who embarked on inquiries about human affairs.

In a way those alleged fundamentalists whom at least the more vulgar type of pragmatists try to marginalize are like medical scientists. They learn about the criteria of good health and physical condition from their study of human life, a study that comes up with certain reasonably stable notions about what can be done to achieve and maintain good health. These notions are not Platonic forms, fixed in heaven forever and incapable of being modified and updated. But they aren’t the infinitely flexible ones that are preferred by those who scoff at principled thinking. Engineers, farmers, gardeners, pharmacists and others who take the findings of the various sciences and translate and apply them to problem solving aren’t doctrinaire or dogmatic for being guided by generalizations, principles that come out of those sciences and the experimentation that is part and parcel of them.

Indeed, all disciplines are comprised of more or less fundamental notions that come out of the studies being done in them and the practical implementation of the results of those studies. It is like a pyramid, with some very basic propositions that, to use a phrase the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made prominent, “stand fast for us,” as well as ones that are less and less well established and more subject to revisions.

Instead of denying that there are fundamentals in fields like political economy and political science, embracing a vast Heraclitian flux that leaves everything indeterminate, ambiguous and open to infinite interpretation, depending upon the personal preferences of those concerned with a discipline, a better, contextual approach is warranted. Even pragmatists tip their hats to this when they for example refuse to be flexible about the viciousness of rape or murder. They know that some things do stand fast for us, including the value of human life, maybe even of human liberty!

However, those spending reams of paper apologizing for Barack Obama’s wobbly political economic decisions and policies act as if this abyss of pragmatically invented ideas could really guide public policy reasonably, productively. (Check out Sam Tanenhaus’s “Will the Tea Get Cold?” in the March 8, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books as a good example!) They ought to check with those who study and practice such fields as medicine, engineering, farming, or auto mechanics and see if anything could be dealt with successfully without general principles, with well founded theories in them. They would find that none of these vital areas of concern can bear fruit without principled thought. And thus they could also realize that neither can the discipline of political economy.

To put the matter bluntly, so called market fundamentalists–as Krugman likes to call people who hold that the best economic arrangements in societies should rely on the free choices of economic agents–are on solid footing; it is sheer laziness not to seek out firm economic principles and theories and proceed by mere intuition, by, literally, nothing at all. Such nihilism hasn’t advanced any of the fields of study, research and reflection that human beings have relied upon to steer them toward a more and more successful way of living, including of organizing their communities.

And let us no kid ourselves: One reason the nihilist’s stance is attractive is that it supports the policy of arbitrary governing, governing that need not give any account of itself, governing that is, ultimately, autocratic and a matter of pure will. Yes, there are some authentic pragmatists and even nihilists but mostly these positions give aid and comfort to corrupt leaders and their cheerleaders in the academy.

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