Ideological Straitjackets Turn Citizens Into Subjects

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Posted: Oct 28, 2020 10:00 AM
Ideological Straitjackets Turn Citizens Into Subjects

Source: AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

The ideological mindset of mass political movements poses a threat to life, liberty, and property that has, if anything, grown more insidious. Our public disputes have become semantic minefields with everything hinging on connotation and context.  

At the beginning of The Tacit Dimension (1966) the chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi recounted a conversation with the soon-to-be purged Soviet theoretician Nikolai Bukharin in Moscow in 1935. Bukharin’s contempt for scientific norms surprised him.

When I asked him about the pursuit of pure science in Soviet Russia, he said that pure science was a morbid symptom of a class society; under socialism the conception of science pursued for its own sake would disappear, for the interests of scientists would spontaneously turn to problems of the current Five-Year Plan.

Polanyi was struck “that this denial of the very existence of independent scientific thought came from a socialist theory which derived its tremendous persuasive power from its claim to scientific certainty.” 

The scientific outlook appeared to have produced a mechanical conception of man and history in which there was no place for science itself.  This conception denied altogether any intrinsic power of thought and thus denied any grounds for claiming freedom of thought.

Powerful moral motives led adherents to accept an intellectual straitjacket as a token of allegiance. By stipulating that “the mechanical course of history was to bring universal justice,” the ideology conjured an atheistic proxy for the Christian doctrine of Providence that presupposed “the pre-existing harmony between scientific and social aims.” Its radicalizing combination of scientific skepticism with moral perfectionism borrowed its social aspirations from Christianity even while attacking it. “Scientific skepticism would trust only material necessity for achieving universal brotherhood. Skepticism and utopianism had thus fused into a new skeptical fanaticism.”

The unscrupulous utilitarianism—Polanyi called it “moral inversion”—exhibited by this fanatical cult of power “acknowledged no higher obligation than that of defending its own supremacy, which it must do at all costs. Those who rule in its name are entitled to scorn mercy and honesty, not simply for expediency, [...] but on account of their moral superiority over the emotionalism, hypocrisy, and general woolliness of their moralizing opponents.” They exemplify what Thomas Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed.”

In Science, Faith and Society (1946), Polanyi described a moral and cultural crisis that is “most sharply manifest as a menace to all intellectual freedom based on the acceptance of a universal obligation to the truth.”  It arose “because the strictly limited nature of intellectual freedom had never been fully accepted by those who helped establish it” during the scientific revolution. The medieval system “was replaced by a society founded on general principles interpreted by public opinion.” Truth was “to be built up on the foundations of critical reason alone.” But this proved self-destructive. “They did not recognize that freedom cannot be conceived except in terms of particular obligations of conscience, the pursuit of which it permits and prescribes. [...] Freedom of thought meant in their view the rejection of any kind of traditional beliefs, including, it would appear now, those on which freedom itself is based.“

Polanyi took issue with a theory of knowledge—an epistemology—that leaves no place for the tacit dimension. Since moral questions and, by extension, a universal obligation to the truth are not “self-evident propositions,” statements of value are culled from “facts” and consigned to the outer darkness of mere speculation.

Michael Oakeshott’s essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” is especially useful in helping clarify the assumptions that underlie the cultural shift which has reshaped the moral and intellectual landscape in favor of a peremptory moral inversion and even nihilism. Following Polanyi’s lead, Oakeshott distinguished two different sorts of knowledge: technical and practical. The first, technical knowledge, is “susceptible of precise formulation.”   Practical knowledge, by contrast, exists only in use. The “method by which it may be shared and becomes common knowledge is not the method of formulated doctrine.”

And if we consider it from this point of view, it would not, I think, be misleading to speak of it as traditional knowledge.  In every activity this sort of knowledge is also involved; the mastery of any skill, the pursuit of any concrete activity is impossible without it.  These two sorts of knowledge, then, distinguishable but inseparable, are the twin components of the knowledge involved in every sort of activity.

They differ in how they are transmitted.  Technical knowledge can be both taught and learned in the simplest sense. “On the other hand, practical knowledge—whether the artistry of a pianist, the style of a chess-player, or the judgment of a scientist—can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired.”

What Oakeshott calls Rationalism in Politics is characteristic of intellectuals whose thinking is formulaic and whose “cast of mind is gnostic.” The ideologue attempts to divorce technical from practical knowledge in much the same way that the positivist divorces what can be verified empirically from what cannot.   The result is a tendency to substitute abstractions and ideological formulas for practical solutions to intractable problems which may require reaching out and finding convivial solutions. 

Oakeshott attributed the uprooting of social and moral conventions to the intellectual arrogance of the Rationalist who has “no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into a formula: the past is significant for him only as an encumbrance.” What has come to pass for “a higher morality is merely morality reduced to a technique, to be acquired by training in an ideology rather than an education in behavior.”

C. S. Lewis similarly wrote that “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means [...] the power of some men to make other men what they please.” It should be evident by now that the Enlightenment project to control nature through science has caught humanity into its dragnet, as well. As Lewis expresses it:

I am only making clear what Man’s conquest of Nature really means and specially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off.   The final stage is come when man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.  Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man.  The battle will be won. [...] But who, precisely, will have won it?

Thus we are reduced from citizens to subjects. Having begun by seeking liberty from a distant and intrusive Parliament, we now defer to remote and ubiquitous images of authority projected on a screen. It takes practical wisdom honed by a sense of history to resist beguiling ideological snares that reduce reality to a slogan or a soundbite.