Arnold De Graaff, R.C. Smith
Table of Contents
1. The Interrelated Nature of our Global Crisis: A Summary
i) The situation today – A brief statement of need
ii) A critical intervention – Methodological Innovation
2. Why does the Enlightenment still matter?
i) An uncritical introduction
ii) The Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment
iii) Building on and advancing Bronner’s reclamation project
3. The Enlightenment: A Critique
ii) Reason entwined with power – Dialectic of Enlightenment
iii) “Domination of Nature” – Moving the debate forward
4. Enlightenment, Reason, Science
ii) What is Reason?
iii) A critique of Reason
iv) Negative reason as abstract reason
v) Enlightenment Reason as a holistic view of human knowing and science
vi) Concluding notes: Reason and Myth
vii) Concluding notes: Objectivity
5. An Alternative Cosmology: The Ecological Inter-connectedness of All Life
ii) Nature as separate from the human world: The need for a new paradigm
iii) The use of nature
iv) The objectification of nature
6. An Alternative Anthropology: The Free Human Subject in Intersubjectivity
ii) The underlying issues in philosophical anthropological models: A brief summary
iii) Carl Rogers’ anthropology and view of psychotherapy: An example
iv) Critical retrieval of Rogers’ anthropology and view of psychotherapy: A core view of the healing aspect of societal transformation
v) The human subject in inter-subjectivity: Toward egalitarian relations
7. An Alternative Foundation for Enlightenment Morality and Values: Phenomenological Ethics
i) A critical retrieval of humanistic values: A precarious undertaking
ii) The modern distortion of human nature and humanistic values
iii) Normativity and Phenomenological Ethics
iv) A phenomenological foundation for our common human values
v) Example: A touchstone for doing justice
“The Enlightenment”, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously wrote, “understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p. 1). But instead of fulfilling its promise, “the wholly enlightened earth is” today “radiant with triumphant calamity” (p.1). Along what philosophical and empirical lines might we outline such “triumphant calamity” in the contemporary social world?
We could begin with a reference to systematic research concerning key crises confronting human civilization – crises defined, for instance, by two notable experts in systems theory as global, industrial, and capitalist in nature (Ahmed 2010; King, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016). Research by Nafeez Ahmed highlights the systemic interconnections between a number of global crises: from water scarcity and food insecurity to climate change; potential energy crisis; food insecurity; economic instability; forced migration; international terrorism; mass surveillance and increasing militarization (Ahmed, 2010; 2013a; 2013b; 2014a; 2014b; 2015a).
Additionally we may consider as further evidence of the deep crises of the modern social world, new scientific models supported by the British government’s Foreign Office that are being developed at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) – models which show that if we don’t change course, that if the status quo continues, in less than three decades industrial civilisation will essentially collapse (Sample, 2009; Ahmed, 2015b). Catastrophic food shortages, triggered by a combination of climate change, water scarcity, energy crisis, and political instability are cited as key issues (Ahmed, 2015b). Even Lloyds (2015), an insurance market specialist, has released a study for the insurance industry entitled Food System Shock, detailing potential impacts of acute disruption to global food supply as part of its “emerging risk report”.
To add to this picture, it was estimated recently by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (2015) that one in nine human beings – that is, approximately 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world – suffered from chronic undernourishment. On top of this, a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (2015) reports that lower grain yields and increase in crop prices across the developing world, as a direct result of climate change, will further increase malnutrition rates, leading to a 20-percent rise in child malnutrition. The report, which also draws similar systemic links between hunger and violence, appears to be one of many highlighting the precisely interrelated nature of global crises today. Furthermore, a 2016 research article published by the IFPRI, Global linkages among energy, food and water: An economic assessment (Ringler, Willenbockel, Perez, et al., 2016) emphasizes the same point.
We offer this sample of research and empirical evidence to disclose the magnitude of crises confronting human civilization. But it’s not just issues of food insecurity, energy crises, global violence and potential climate catastrophe that we face. Focusing on empirical and philosophical assessments within the United Kingdom, United States and Canada in particular, one can discern a number of pressing and interrelated crises. Due to lack of space it is impossible for us to cite each particular issue, but we can highlight a few for contextual purposes. We may cite, for instance, the crisis of education (Amsler, 2016; De Graaff, 2012/2015; Giroux, 2011;); the detrimental effects of neoliberalization on the whole of life (Barnett, 2010; Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Evans and Sewell, 2013); psychology and social pathology (Harris, 2010; Smith, 2016); the diminishing of psychological and emotional well-being (Smith, 2016; Sugarman, 2015; Verhaeghe, 2015); severe environmental degradation (De Graaff, 2016); the crisis of democracy and community (Brady, Schoeneman and Sawyer, 2014; Isakhan and Slaughter, 2014); inequality (Geier, 2016; Jacobs, 2014; Piketty, 2014); international conflict (Ahmed, 2010; 2013a; 2013b; 2014a; 2014b; 2015a); and global economic injustice (Smith, 2012).
Providing extensive research on the issues at hand, our intention is to offer more clarity as to what an alternative foundation – an alternative vision of life – might look like from a number of key perspectives. In the light of all the evidence about the present crisis, it is remarkable that for each area of life there are significant, proven alternative projects and practices available. With regard to poverty, hunger, undernourishment, food production, for example, new research and reports of workable global solutions appear on a regular basis. It is the ideologies and power structures that blind political and industrial leaders from embracing and implementing these measures (Desmaris, A. & Wiebe, N. 2011; Reganold, J. 2016; Peter, O. 2013; De Schutter, O. 2014, 2015; Frison, E.A. 2016; UNCTAD, 2013). These sources referenced above highlight how much we are in need of a structural change based on an alternative morality and values.
In any or all cases, each particular negative aspect of our modern social reality, each systemically interlinked crisis, evidences, we suggest, a fundamental conflict of values. On the one hand, this conflict of values relates to global political economy. Empirically, we can discern a direct connection between contemporary crises and the system of global capitalism. However, in this paper we argue that the state of the contemporary social world is not isolated from broader global trends and patterns, as well as particularly historical cycles and configurations. At the heart of the crisis of civilization is a moral and ethical conflict centred on two generally very different visions of life and society – an egalitarian, ecologically just and actually democratic vision on the one hand, and an alienated, exploitative, destructive global capitalist vision on the other hand. We suggest, from the perspective of philosophy of history, that this conflict directly relates to the dialectic of enlightenment (Zuidervaart, 2007).
On this point, we have come to a similar conclusion as Stephen E. Bronner (2004), and argue that if a revival of emancipatory efforts is to materialize, what is urgently required is a comprehensive and coherent alternative vision of life.
This point is emphasized further considering the various detrimental effects poststructuralism and other postmodern theories have had when it comes to the general erosion of normativity and the emergence of relativism (moral, ethical or otherwise), which, we may state, has resulted in or certainly at least compounded the crisis of social theory (Kellner, 2014a). Additionally, when it comes postmodern and poststructuralist accounts, it is perhaps no coincidence that, in their particularly definitive state of “great confusion” (to borrow from Habermas), the postmodern view has, as Bronner puts it, resulted in a period of significant “intellectual and political disorientation” (Bronner, 2004, p.1). We can trace a significant part of such a state of disorientation and incoherence all the way back to the question of values and the advent of postmodern and poststructuralist theories as a particularly flawed response to the various philosophical conflicts, issues and deep seeded problems related to modernity. In turn, if what is required today is a comprehensive and coherent alternative vision of life, what this requirement necessitates, philosophically and empirically, is a direct confrontation with basic questions concerning morality, ethics and values and the damaged status of normativity and universalism. What this entails, in part, is a deeper emphasis on the importance of how we understand history, tradition, normativity, and the ongoing struggle for progress and transformation (Bronner, 2004). In the western world – and one could certainly argue globally, considering the history of colonialism – what is required today is a return to the Enlightenment and progressive retrieval of Enlightenment values – a critical retrieval and decolonization of normativity and universalism and other vital designations (Allen, 2016) for the benefit of a radical universal politics.
There is substantial reason to suggest that a progressive and contemporary guide to egalitarian democracy is principled on a reconciliation of certain antagonisms underlining modernity, including the Enlightenment. In realizing the highest ideals of emancipatory transformation, the Enlightenment still has much to offer. However, as we have alluded, the Enlightenment – its core values of cosmopolitanism, democracy and equality require significant critical retrieval. Currently, in the dark and almost barren desert of neoliberal capitalist society, progressive movements may provide us with some light. But today, movements in the global north mostly exist as fireflies, scattered, often isolated, without universal solidarity or a broader social philosophical foundation to draw on. In the global south greater solidarity and unity is developing among the peoples’ movements often at the risk of their lives and much suffering (Desmarais, A. 2006; Tramel, S. 2016). And yet still, the need for a comprehensive alternative vision remains.
Why open with a reference to the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1964/2002)? Adorno and Horkheimer provide one of the most comprehensive philosophical studies of the modern social world. They offer a philosophy of history that progressively “traced the fate of the Enlightenment from the beginnings of scientific thought among the Greeks to fascist concentration camps and the cultural industries of U.S. capitalism” (Kellner, 2014). Moreover, they showed how Western rationality served as an instrument of domination and how “enlightenment” turned into its opposite: mystification and oppression. The book criticized enlightenment scientism and rationalism, and implicitly implicated Marxism within the “dialectic of Enlightenment” (Kellner, 2014). We intend to expand this thesis, focusing particularly on the formulation of a positive notion of the enlightenment.
Since the time Dialectic of Enlightenment was originally published, much has been written and discussed about the implications of this work, what remains significant about the text today, what requires critical retrieval, and which concepts or lines of analysis are no longer accurate or applicable (Bronner, 1995, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2014; Kellner, 1989, 2014; Zuidervaart, 2007; Sherman, 2007; and Smith, 2015). In this paper, however, we do not seek to reproduce these arguments or focus on developing yet another piece of secondary literature on the dialectic of enlightenment. Instead, we seek to build from and advance efforts that re-engage with the enlightenment in progressive ways, while turning our focus to a critical retrieval of enlightenment values and morality.
To add to the above: it is becoming increasingly understood that, in spite of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical analysis of the Enlightenment, one of the primary aims of their study was not to do away with the liberating force of the enlightenment project (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p. xviii; Bronner, 2004). Moreover, “it should not be forgotten that its authors were concerned with criticizing enlightenment generally, and the historical epoch known as the Enlightenment in particular, from the standpoint of enlightenment itself: thus the title of the work. Their masterpiece was actually “intended to prepare the way for a positive notion of enlightenment, which will release it from entanglement in blind domination.” Later, in fact, Horkheimer and Adorno even talked about writing a sequel that would have carried a title like “Rescuing the Enlightenment” (Rettung der Aufklärung)” (Bronner, 2004).
Though, as Stephen Bronner correctly points out, “this reclamation project was never completed, and much time has been spent speculating about why it wasn’t” (Bronner, 2004), significant efforts have been made toward accomplishing just such a task. Over the past two decades, Bronner himself (Bronner, 1995, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2014) has offered a number of particularly significant contributions to a wider project of critical retrieval when it comes to the Enlightenment and Enlightenment values. Indebted to his efforts, this research paper, the result of several years of detailed study, directly engages with and seeks to advance his project, combining his research and study with a diversity of scholarship from across numerous disciplines.
Moreover, the following study provides a comprehensive account of what we identify as an alternative foundation for the Enlightenment project. In working toward this alternative foundation, our research undertakes a cross-disciplinary and methodologically innovative approach, one which bridges philosophy and empirical study. Through considerable research in the areas of psychology, cognitive science, social and natural science, anthropology, epistemology and critical philosophy (to name a few), we illustrate why any positive notion of enlightenment values and morality must find direct and concrete expression in what we term “a radically virtuous alternative of normative (critical) humanism” and in what we identify as a phenomenological ethics.
Furthermore, in taking from Adorno and Horkheimer’s seminal thesis, it is our goal in this work to attempt to contribute to a broader explanation of the crisis of civilization on the basis of a radical philosophy of history and an alternative epistemology, cosmology and anthropology. If “the wholly enlightened earth is” today “radiant with triumphant calamity” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p.1), we intend to ask: is it possible that a connection may be drawn between the dialectic of enlightenment and the ongoing crisis of civilization? In a very general sense, we believe a connection can be drawn, particularly in relation to a critique of the capitalist vision of life and the formulation of its systemic alternative.
For us to state at the outset of this paper that after reviewing and working through numerous sources, the Enlightenment and debates around its legacy are today some of the most fundamentally culturally important, this statement may sound extreme or excessive. But it’s not. The impact that the Enlightenment had on Western society – and, indeed, throughout the world – underlines a significant part of modern political history, for better or for worse (Bronner, 1995, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2014). This political history concerns not only the emergence of such values as reason, progress and science (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013). It also concerns issues of imperialism and colonialism (Allen, 2016); the industrial revolution (Mokyr, 2012); instrumental reason and the domination of nature (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002); and even also the current crisis with regards to the deficiency of and struggle for a universal and emancipatory politics (Bronner, 2014), to name a few.
Whether explicitly realized or not, the basic values often shared today by progressive social movements around the world are tied to the Enlightenment and its social-political legacy (Bronner, 2004, 2014). In fact, it is fair to state that many basic values popularly celebrated in contemporary society, whether in the mainstream or on the progressive fringes, owe a great deal to the revolutionary ideals of the 18th Century philosophical movement (Bronner, 2002; Trevor-Roper, 2010; Pagden, 2013). Equality, cosmopolitanism, and modern conceptions of democracy are a few examples (Bronner, 2004). Then, of course, there is the basic value of reason, understood as the basis for authority and legitimacy in thought and action, grounding such ideals as empiricism, scientific rigor, and finally also the view of social-historical progress (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013).
Conversely, and in addition to the above, modern emphasis on individual liberty and religious tolerance, along with notions of constitutional government, normative critique of the abuses church and state, and popular scepticism of traditional authority can all be traced to the Enlightenment (Bronner, 2004). In the world of thought and, especially, the broad philosophical basis for contemporary society, such 19th century movements as liberalism and neo-classicism are a direct product of the Enlightenment intellectual legacy (Pagden, 2013).
In short: with just a brief overview, it is clear how much modern western society and culture is entangled with the Enlightenment. Far from a distinct historical period without connection to the present, the legacy of the Enlightenment remains a central if not primary point of reference when it comes to how we currently view society, social-historical and cultural progress, and the advance of basic humanistic ideals (Bronner, 2004; Trevor-Roper, 2010; Pagden, 2013).
The humanistic underpinning of the Enlightenment is of course no coincidence (Trevor-Roper, 2010). Widely understood as the continuation of a process rooted in the Scientific Revolution, dated roughly between the years of 1550 and 1700, the Enlightenment can be traced back to the “renaissance humanists” in France and Italy in the 14th and 15th century (Trevor-Roper, 2010). As a very broad cultural and intellectual movement in Europe that affected every area of life – especially views regarding science, political and legal theory, and morality – the Enlightenment represented more than a distinct era (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013). It symbolized or sought to symbolize significant turns in philosophy, culture and society, coinciding with the emergence of a new worldview or perspective on life (Bronner, 2004).
Responding to the closed structures and practices of medieval society, the Enlightenment’s best representatives argued for a project, a political vision, and a certain philosophical framework based on the emancipation of human beings (Bronner, 2004). Its main objective was about liberating life, society, culture, and our common human values from the authority and control of the church and established monarchies (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013). The God-ordained order of the universe mediated by the church had to be broken through to allow for the free flourishing of the human subject; for human freedom, initiative, discovery, exploration and the transformation of society (Bronner, 2004). These humanistic values were not static, universal, objective principles (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013). Instead they served first of all to liberate the person and society from external authority and oppressive governments (Bronner, 2004).
With these summarized points noted, it should also be said that the Enlightenment encompassed many different aspects of life and there were many historical and national variations (Bronner, 1995, 2004, 2005; Pagden, 2013). In other words, it was not a monolithic movement (Bronner, 1995). Though our research does not cover all of the variations and history, as this has already been accomplished by several leading and notable scholars (Bronner, 2004; Trevor-Roper, 2010; Pagden, 2013), the intention of our study is to focus on the common values amongst Enlightenment thinkers. This paper, adhering thematically to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and epistemology, emanates from a detailed and comprehensive look at common Enlightenment values and their ongoing significance, which we take as socially, politically, philosophically and empirically evident.
Perhaps now more than ever, the legacy of the Enlightenment represents an important and deeply relevant site of contemporary debate. The many issues which characterize or define this site of contention cut across almost every aspect of modern social life (Bronner, 2004). A philosophical project, a programme of revolutionary humanistic ideals and values, and an open-ended intellectual process resistant to dogmatic and totalitarian political movements, the Enlightenment is more than a distinct historical period (Pagden, 2013). It is the beginning of a movement which seeks to establish an alternative way of looking at the world. Indeed, recent scholarship even shows in systematic detail how Enlightenment ideas go beyond the “empire of reason” to include a potentially universalizing vision of humanity – of common emancipatory values – as well as the full recognition of the emotional ties that bind all human beings together (Pagden, 2013).
The caveat, however, is that when asked ‘Why the Enlightenment?’, the answer does not have to do with a Eurocentric view that, as a philosophical movement, the Enlightenment is relevant because it is the only source of common human values. Nor do we consider the Enlightenment free from criticism. Understanding, for example, that there is validity to certain aspects of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s (1964/2002) “dialectic of enlightenment” as well as to certain aspects of other notable critiques, the conclusion of our research is that the Enlightenment must be approached in a deeply nuanced and critical way. Working from this perspective, we are able to draw an account which recognizes the positives and negatives of the Enlightenment and its legacy.
Additionally, and to expand on the above, it should be noted that the Enlightenment did not invent or discover many common human values about individual freedom, science, governance and society. Rather, they ‘merely’ liberated them from external authority and re-asserted them at that particular time in European history. With roots traced back to the renaissance humanists (Trevor-Roper, 2010; Pagden, 2013) we can see for example how Enlightenment thinkers critically retrieved certain basic human values from this 14th and 15th century movement and freed them from their religious bias and dogma (Bronner, 2004). But it need be said, too, that there are many other cultures at different historical times that have lived these directives, whether successfully or not, starting with the ancient Greeks. In fact, in certain places and in certain ways, other cultures can be said to have practiced one or more of the relevant values we now tie to the Enlightenment in more adequate ways than previously seen in Western society. Consider, for example, the Cree nation and their study of the environment and ecological inter-relationships, egalitarian relations, and the basic ideals around communal sharing (De Graaff, 2016). Another example can be seen in the Guna tribe, particularly when it comes to their thoughts on child rearing, democracy, and the intricate relation between the individual and the tribe (De Graaff, 2016). In many important ways, we can dispel the myth of “western progress” as the only guiding example of actual, transformative social-historical and cultural progress. Seeing the Enlightenment achievement from a broader historical and cultural perspective delivers it from the critique of being Eurocentric (Bronner, 2004).
In closing: one cannot deny that the Enlightenment has had a significant impact on the world, and remains deeply relevant in the west. Debates on science, reason, and economics are now often practiced around the world, and within these debates resides the Enlightenment legacy. Indeed, when answering the question ‘Why the Enlightenment?’, one can simply point to the Enlightenment’s impact in relation to the many conflicted views it evokes, truly striking the heart of the conflicts of the more general contemporary vision of life – global capitalism – how we view society, our relation with each other and the natural world.
The source of criticism for both sides of the political spectrum, the Enlightenment is considered negatively on many parts of the left today (Bronner, 2004). On the right, conservatives have traditionally detested the “nihilism” of the Enlightenment project, which in many ways is a view inherited from the Counter-Enlightenment (Bronner, 2004; Ralston, 1992; MacIntyre, 1984; Pagden, 2013; Thomas, 2014).
Historically and empirically, we can trace back or in the least draw parallels between many of today’s conservative viewpoints against the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Counter-Enlightenment in the 18th century (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013; Thomas, 2014). This counter-enlightenment was essentially made up of political conservatives and clerical defenders of traditional religion (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013; Thomas, 2014). “It deplored the progressive assault on communal life, religious faith, social privilege, and traditional authority” (Bronner, 2004, p. 1). The very contemporary idea of personal freedom, for example, rooted in the enlightenment’s resistance against the authority and control of the Church and the closed structure of medieval society (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), represented a significant challenge against established power structures of the time.
Keith Thomas (2014) summarises this complex history and the political dynamics of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment in his article “The Great Fight Over the Enlightenment”, when he writes how counter-enlightenment resistance attacked materialism and scientific scepticism, not to mention the natural sciences and philosophy (Thomas, 2014). In sum, if the enlightenment was meant to blow open history in the sense of challenging and breaking free from traditional doctrines and dogmas as well oppressive regimes of thought and social organization (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), this is because the very idea of the Enlightenment as a project and as a set of ideals was meant to become the “source of everything that is progressive about the modern world”, standing “for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future” (Thomas, 2014). Perhaps more emphatically, the Enlightenment was meant to liberate human beings once and for all (Bronner, 2004). Even Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (2002), whose study is widely referenced as a leading critique of the Enlightenment, state that the Enlightenment originally meant to emancipate human beings. This project of emancipation was not only social and political; it represented the possibility of a certain existential liberation as well (Israel, 2002), especially when it comes to the advent of reason and science as common values which support humanity’s overcoming Myth more generally and certainly also the oppressive grip of the Church in particular (Pagden, 2013).
One can cite numerous texts by key Enlightenment thinkers which support the above view. Marquis de Condorcet (1794/2012), in his famous work titled Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, writes for example on the interrelation between the progress of the sciences and enlightened social behaviour (Michael, 1975, 2004; David, 2004; Gregory, 2010; Leiss, 2011; Pagden, 2013). William Leiss summarizes this nicely while quoting Condorcet: “He [Condorcet] remarks that ‘all errors in politics and morals are based on philosophical errors and these in turn are connected with scientific errors’. He is saying that there is a connection between our conceptions of natural processes, on the one hand, and our understanding of society and individual behaviour, on the other” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29). Moreover, “Condorcet envisioned a future in which ‘the dissemination of enlightenment’ would ‘include in its scope the whole of the human race’” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29). He maintains the position that the enlightenment provides a new way of thinking, a new view of the world, and that this view, based on a transformative ethos (Bronner, 2004, pp. 4-5), not only connects science and reason with morality and ethics, but is principled, as Stephen E. Bronner (2004) writes, on a series of core human values. Condorcet’s reflections in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind share a common vision with many other Enlightenment thinkers (Bronner, 2004). Indeed, “the Enlightenment” as a whole “crystallized around the principles connected with fostering the accountability of institutions, reciprocity under the law, and a commitment to experiment with social reform” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). It sought not “imperialism, or racism, or the manipulation of liberty”, but instead the ideals of liberty, individual rights and dignity (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013) and what we might describe today as social conditions which foster the “free flourishing subject” (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2015a, 2016). These ideals and many others (which we’ll address later) formed the basis of Enlightenment universalism (Israel, 2001; Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), which sought to protect rather than threaten the exercise of subjectivity (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). Enlightenment universalism, in other words, “presumes to render institutions accountable, a fundamental principle of democracy, and thereby create the preconditions for expanding individual freedom. Such a view would inform liberal movements concerned with civil liberties as well as socialist movements seeking to constrain the power of capital” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). In much the same way, Enlightenment universalism – or what we may also describe as the common values of the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2013; Israel, 2002) – moves against prejudice to include “the other”, underpinning the liberal notion of the citizen with its “inherently democratic imperative”, while also pushing back against capitalism’s drive to reduce people to the mere status of ‘economic objects’ and therefore, too, mere ‘costs of production’ (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). Therefore, there should be no surprise when Condorcet, for example, writes in rather radical fashion:
Thus an understanding of the natural rights of man, the belief that these rights are inalienable and [cannot be forfeited], a strongly expressed desire for liberty of thought and letters, of trade and industry, and for the alleviation of the people’s suffering, for the [elimination] of all penal laws against religious dissenters and the abolition of torture and barbarous punishments, the desire for a milder system of criminal legislation and jurisprudence which should give complete security to the innocent, and for a simpler civil code, more in conformance with reason and nature, indifference in all matters of religion which now were relegated to the status of superstitions and political [deception], a hatred of hypocrisy and fanaticism, a contempt for prejudice, zeal for the propagation of enlightenment, all these principles, gradually filtering down from philosophical works to every class of society whose education went beyond the catechism and the alphabet, became the common faith . . . [of enlightened people]. In some countries these principles formed a public opinion sufficiently widespread for even the mass of the people to show a willingness to be guided by and to obey it. (Condorcet, 1794/2012, p. 101)
As we read here and elsewhere, including in the works of lesser-known figures, Enlightenment universalism – its core values – “provide a foundation for opposing contemporary infringements on individuals rights and dignity by new global forms of capitalism” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). Even in terms of the oft-cited “crisis of democracy” today, where democracy, as a concept and as a thing, has less to do with the actual content of “democracy” as an egalitarian system of political-economic values than it does with the neglect of this content for its (mere) form, “The Enlightenment notion of political engagement […] alone keeps” the very notion of “democracy fresh and alive” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9).
The same could be said for the frequently contested notion of social and historical “progress”. It is true that the western myth of “progress” must be challenged, such as it was done for example in Dialectic of Enlightenment (2002) or even more recently in Amy Allen’s (2016) book The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. Over recent years post- and decolonial theorists have criticized the idea of historical progress, rooted in and a product of the Enlightenment, as Eurocentric, imperialist, and neo-colonialist (Allen, 2016). It is even argued that this idea is largely central to the ‘western fallacy’ (Allen, 2016). In many or all cases of such critique, the notion of progress is risk being thrown away (Allen, 2016). This is a mistake. While there is certainly a critical normative imperative to breaking open the view of a purely progressive reading of history, which tends to suppress the many critical realities – consider, for example, the issue of “land grabbing” or resource-based wars and terror – that is representative of the mainstream western view of progress, the very notion of “progress” itself is also a critical-political imperative (Allen, 2016). And, contrary to post-structural and especially post-modern critiques of the Enlightenment, which, usually, are guilty of lacking nuance (Bronner, 2004), the common view of “progress” by Enlightenment thinkers was employed as part of a critical project of thought (Bronner, 2004; pp. 20-28). The notion was used to attack the institutions and ideas of a bygone age in the name of reason, rights, and interests of the individual (p. 21), not to mention to support the philosophical vision concerning the need to promote common decency, a sense of compassion for people in relation to the direction of society, and respect for the ideals of fairness, reciprocity, and civility among others (pp. 20-22). Progress was viewed, most importantly, in relation to the critical challenging of prejudice, oppressive customs, and dominant instincts; it was employed in explicit contempt for dogma and privilege, and relied upon as part of a guiding principle of critique of political purposes that questions tradition and authority on behalf of an open-ended, transitory, many-sided and complex view of societal transformation (pp. 20-28). No doubt that the Enlightenment attempt “to “soften” the vices of humanity […] reaches back to other cultures: Jewish law condemned the torture of animals; the Buddha spoke of “selfishness” and compassion for suffering; Confucius saw himself as part of the human race; Hinduism lauded the journey of life; and Jesus articulated the Golden Rule” (p. 20).
In this sense, there is a clearly distinguishable and very real “anthropological grounding for the historical experience of Enlightenment” (p. 20). In this sense, too, there is a common and shared human value to the broader historical, cultural project which seeks what we may identify as the egalitarian ideals of transformative emancipation along several important lines. No doubt the struggle continues. But what makes the Enlightenment so historically significant in this regard concerns how, as an intellectual movement, it made important strides toward grounding these values. In contrast to renaissance humanists, for example, who evidenced a very strong religious emphasis, Enlightenment thinkers begun the task of grounding transformative values, particularly through the notion of reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy.
So what are we to make of the 18th century Enlightenment? For over two hundred years the legacy of its most prominent thinkers, from Locke and Newton to Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, and Kant, has been the subject of bitter debate. Its supporters hail it as the source of everything that is progressive about the modern world. For them, it stands for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future. By contrast, its enemies accuse it of “shallow” rationalism, naive optimism, unrealistic universalism, and moral darkness. Certain criticism can be understood as legitimate, while another portion has been shown to be illegitimate (Bronner, 2004).
Regarding the former – the legitimate criticism of the Enlightenment – Bronner (2004) makes it incredibly clear that with its emphasis on civil liberties, tolerance and humanism, there is something to be preserved about Enlightenment political theory. However, in what seems at times as a bit too one-sided in attempt to disprove claims and accusations concerning the connection between the Enlightenment and the “Terror” of the French Revolution or twentieth-century totalitarianism (Bronner, 2004, p. 8), Bronner doesn’t always convincingly address where the Enlightenment went off the rails. What’s more, it is clear that in viewing the Enlightenment and its complex and deeply nuanced political history in accurate terms, this requires opposition to “current fashions and conceits”, including recognition of the many systematic and unbiased studies on the Enlightenment (Bronner, 2004, p. 10) as well as detailed historical scholarship, while also preserving a critique of where the Enlightenment betrayed itself or was eventually betrayed. Moving forward, such a project requires on the one hand a certain course of critical retrieval from questionable programmes of thought which essentially reify the Enlightenment and the many particulars of its universalism, while on the other hand recognizing the emancipatory potential of the Enlightenment through the course of internal critique.
Moving forward, the issues we must address are extensive. Humanistic thought has been appropriated by capitalism, and has been corrupted to serve as the basis for such concepts as “human capital”. “Human rights”, yet another lasting legacy of the enlightenment project, is now a concept often employed “as an ideological excuse for the exercise of arbitrary power” (Bronner, 2004, p. 1). Democracy, likewise, which as a concept and a distinct political value once possessed discernible revolutionary characteristics, has undergone a “hollowing out” process. The actual content of the radical moment of the enlightenment’s uniquely modern understanding of democracy (Bronner, 2004, p. 58) has been increasingly boiled away. “The security of western states”, often cited by governments throughout the world, “has served as justification for the constriction of personal freedom” (Bronner, 2004, p. 1). All the while “rigid notions of progress have fallen by the wayside”, and “liberal regimes have often been corrupted by imperialist ambitions and parasitical elites” (Bronner, 2004, p. 1). In reclaiming the Enlightenment, one must not only reclaim these concepts among others from less-than-revolutionary movements of thought and political orientation.
Notions of “reason”, “science” and “progress” too require critical evaluation. Where “progress” once meant a critical normative value which sought to challenge the status quo of systems of domination and exploitation for the betterment of all of humanity; the confronting of traditional authority; a contempt for dogma, prejudice, and elitism; resistance to dominant institutions and practices, as well as political movements which attack rights and the vision of individual and collective well-being (Bronner, 2004, pp. 19-22, 39, 40); “progress” today has been divorced from its core radical political purpose, serving instead the ideological agenda and neoliberal political project of global consumer capitalism.
It is around this point where, later in this paper, we will insert what we view as an important critical intervention. If it was the aim of Bronner’s project (2004) to take up the task which Adorno and Horkheimer could not adequately achieve – namely to work through a critique of “enlightenment betrayal” for the sake of preparing “the way for a positive notion of the Enlightenment, which will release it from entanglement in blind domination” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p.xvi) – his overall reclamation project should be considered a great achievement. However, Bronner’s project too can be advanced and progressed.
Moreover, while Bronner goes some way to critically retrieving important Enlightenment values and to preparing the way for a radical alternative foundation for those values, it seems that he too struggles when it comes to finally rooting them in a coherent, concrete and transformative framework. Much as with early Enlightenment thinkers, Bronner’s attempt brings important radical values closer to being ‘down to earth’ without actually finally formulating veritable and defensible anchors and therefore, too, a valid basis for vital claims toward normativity. The task of our research is to take this next step: to build from Bronner’s important interventions and ground his reclamation project in a radical and progressive alternative framework.
The main point at the current juncture is to understand that many Enlightenment thinkers understood “progress” in emancipatory ways and would contest the notions current distortion under the global capitalist, imperialist, definition. Indeed, it was always and continues to be open for perversion and to be stripped of its critical character (Bronner, 2002, p.23). Today, the evidence of such a reality is truly striking. “Progress” is celebrated in light of the advance of medical science, for example, and yet the reality that many are unable to access necessary medical treatments; that the privatization of medicine has led to a new kind of social-economic barbarity, where vital treatments are controlled by business and are deeply prejudiced, governed by the capitalist law of inequality (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2014; Grewal, 2014; Piketty, 2014) goes unspoken by those same people quick to revere. The need of the hour, then, is not to abandon this critical concept, but to critically retrieve it as part of the retaining of the belief in the possibility of an emancipated future. Rather than being zealous dogmatists, some of the best Enlightenment thinkers perceived “progress” and, impliedly, the struggle for societal transformation as something that may never be complete (p. 21), often resisting the urge to secure a totalitarian utopian ideology, understanding in a very critical way that we must continue to critique, to improve, to challenge and strive to do better (pp. 21-22).
We could dedicate an entire series of books on the Enlightenment; its history and key figures; its values and their ongoing relevance; and the need for a deep project of critical retrieval. Later on, we will offer a number of examples and expand on the direction of such a project, in hope that others might continue the effort. For the time being, it is enough to state that, with regards to the notion of progress, Bronner’s (2004) effort is notably advanced. But it is also the focus of several points of constructive engagement in this paper. For example, Bronner’s ideas of progress in the earliest pages of his book are wonderfully descriptive and illustrative, offering the reader historically very careful attention to the real meaning and intention behind key Enlightenment concepts and movements in thought. But what is missing, as we have alluded once already, is a critical structural analysis of those concepts. The result of this lack, we argue, is that his analysis does not seem to grasp satisfactorily enough where the potential flaws might have started to dominate as the 18th century enlightenment transformed in and through the 19th century (Malik, 2013a, 2013b).
We are therefore concerned with the lack of analysis historically where some of the key Enlightenment emphases went astray. Consider, for example, the accusations of racism against a number of different Enlightenment thinkers. No doubt that, “With its emphasis upon autonomy, tolerance, and reason – no less than its attack upon received traditions, popular prejudices, and religious superstitions – the Enlightenment was generally recognized as the foundation for any kind of progressive politics” (Bronner, 2004, p.2). However, one cannot completely erase the contradictions within the Enlightenment when it comes to the issue prejudice, as one example. One such criticism, particularly from a postcolonial perspective, highlights indeed just to what extent certain Enlightenment thinker’s evidenced moments of social prejudice and, strikingly, a Eurocentric point of view.
It is doubly true that, on the one hand, the Enlightenment was a critical movement and sought, for instance, to attack popular prejudices. On the other hand, certain passages expose lasting traces of such prejudices and of distinct aspects of what we might today describe as the language of oppression (Bosmajian, 1974/1983). And the evidence of these lasting traces of deep historical, cultural prejudices were particularly held against non-Europeans (Malik, 1996, 2009a, 2009b, 2013a, 2013b). Moreover, it is undeniable that there was an emerging contradiction in enlightenment thought moving into the 19th century (Malik, 2013a, 2013b). Notable scholar Kenan Malik (2013a, 2013b) provides a deeply nuanced account of the now oft-termed Enlightenment’s ‘race problem’, particularly in a series of articles which questions the idea that the modern roots of the idea of race lie in the Enlightenment. He writes: “The relationship between race and the Enlightenment is […] far more complex than much contemporary discussion allows for. It was the transformation of Enlightenment attitudes through the course of the nineteenth century that helped mutate the eighteenth century discussion of human variety into the nineteenth century obsession with racial difference” (Malik, 2013b).
This account seems to affirm or validate Bronner’s (2004) study. Whatever the misguided prejudices of Bernier, Voltaire or Kant (Bronner, 2004, p. 89), or even those of Hume and Jefferson (Malik, 2013a), it is important to understand:
The first intimations of a contradiction that was to become a key motor of nineteenth century social and political thinking – a contradiction between the intellectual categories thrown up Enlightenment philosophy and the social relations of the emerging capitalist society, between an abstract belief in equality, on the one hand, and the concrete reality of an unequal society. It was out of this contradiction, as we shall see, that the idea of race emerges.
It is true that in the eighteenth century, a number of thinkers within the mainstream of the Enlightenment, Hume, Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson among them, dabbled with ideas of innate differences between human groups, including ideas of polygenism – the belief that different races had different origins and were akin to distinct species. Yet, with one or two exceptions, they did so only diffidently or in passing. Hume’s comment about the innate inferiority of blacks appeared in a footnote. Thomas Jefferson conceded that ‘the opinion that [negroes] are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination must be hazarded with great diffidence’ particularly so ‘when our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them.’ Twenty years later, he wrote to a French correspondent that he had expressed his opinions about the inferiority of negroes ‘with great hesitation’. He added that ‘whatever their degree of talents, it is no measure of their rights’. (Malik, 2013b)
As we can see, “the roots of the racial ideas that would flourish in the nineteenth century” in a certain sense “lay in Enlightenment writing” (Malik, 2013). But we must also approach this complicated issue by recognizing there were two basic movements within the Enlightenment (Israel, 2002). These two movements can be differentiated as: Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested (Israel, 2002). As Malik summarizes: “The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul” (Malik, 2013a). Additionally, for Kant and Voltaire especially, concern with race had little bearing on their general theories (Bronner, 2004, p.89). In most cases, where any contradiction may appear, it is found within “the equivocations of the mainstream” (Malik, 2013a). “Yet”, writes Malik, “eighteenth century thinkers remained highly resistant to the idea of race”. (2013a). Furthermore, the actual universal principles of Enlightenment political theory left little room for racism (Bronner, 2004). Indeed, as Malik also notes: “political attitudes towards progress and human unity left little room for race” (Malik, 2013a). The deeper issues, it appears, is the “transformation of Enlightenment attitudes through the course of the nineteenth century that helped mutate the eighteenth century discussion of human variety into the nineteenth century obsession with racial difference” (Malik, 2013a). But what inner contradictions and antinomies remained to allow this to happen?
It is fair to suggest that in some respects we can trace this transformation in the “attempt of the mainstream to marry traditional theology to the new philosophy”, which “constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs” (Malik, 2013a; citing Israel, 2002). As Bronner (2004) notes: messianic visions of Christian destiny have always intoxicated the advocates of both racism and the Counter-Enlightenment” (p. 88). And this is certainly apparent in the Counter-Enlightenment resistance to the Enlightenment’s radical political theory, which, at its core, valued the idea of universal emancipation (Bronner, 2004). One of the main issues, then, is primarily that of conceptual distortion and the perversion of the enlightenment project, particularly “The Radicals”, who “were driven to pursue their ideas of equality and democracy to their logical conclusions because, having broken with traditional concepts of a God-ordained order, there was no ‘meaningful alternative to grounding morality, politics and social theory on a systematic, generalised radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons’” (Malik, 2013a; citing Israel, 2002).
It is fair to say, too, as Bronner acknowledges, that the Enlightenment was always open to distortion (Bronner, 2004). It is clear that “the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophes judged people largely according to their moral capacities”. And yet:
By the second half of the nineteenth century, biology determined identity and fate. It was, in the words of historian Nancy Stepan, ‘a move away from an eighteenth century optimism about man, and faith in the adaptability of man’s universal “nature”, towards a nineteenth century biological pessimism.’ And such biological pessimism marked a shift ‘from an emphasis on the fundamental physical and moral homogeneity of man, despite superficial differences, to an emphasis on the essential heterogeneity of mankind, despite superficial similarities.’ (Malik, 2013b)
Originally published in 1964, Adorno and Horkheimer’s seminal text remains one of the most deeply relevant critiques of the Enlightenment in the 21st century. Tracing the roots of “the self-destruction of enlightenment” (p. xvi), their research can be described as “an interdisciplinary experiment”, not unlike the research presented in this paper. “Neither a work of history, anthropology, sociology, nor politics”, Adorno and Horkheimer “instead combined these disciplines to remarkable effect” (Bronner, 2004). Providing one of the deepest accounts of society’s long-standing entanglement in blind domination (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p. xviii), they essentially “turned the accepted notion of progress upside down” (Bronner, 2004). Bronner writes:
The scientific method of the Enlightenment, according to the authors, may have originally intended to serve the ideals of human liberation in an assault upon religious dogma. Yet the power of scientific reason ultimately wound up being directed not merely against the gods, but all metaphysical ideas—including conscience and freedom—as well. “Knowledge” became divorced from “information,” norms from facts, and the scientific method, increasingly freed from any commitment to liberation, transformed nature into an object of domination, and itself into a whore employed by the highest bidder. (Bronner, 2004)
Adorno and Horkheimer, to be sure, offered a significant study which contributed toward dispelling the myth of western progress (Allen, 2016). But it should be understood that, while they offered a critique of the Enlightenment, at no point did they aim to completely do away with the Enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, pp. xvi, xviii). In fact, it is stated quite clearly that the authors sought to work through the enlightenment for the benefit of the enlightenment (Bronner, 2004; Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2015a; Allen, 2016). Adorno and Horkheimer aimed to expose how the Enlightenment had been betrayed, even indicating their intention to “prepare the way for a positive notion of enlightenment, which will release it from entanglement in blind domination” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; p. xvi). As Bronner points out, the authors also talked about writing a sequel that would have carried a title something like “Reclaiming the Enlightenment” (Bronner, 2004; p.9).
There are several significant arguments to be read in Dialectic of Enlightenment. For the purpose of this paper, we do not intend to offer a comprehensive engagement with this book and it numerous core theses. Our focus is primarily on the issues of the regression of the Enlightenment and on Adorno and Horkheimer’s “domination of nature” thesis. For a fuller treatment of the book, its main arguments, as well as an analysis of legitimate and illegitimate criticisms, a selection of quality scholarly texts have been published in recent years (Brunkhorst, 1999; Bernstein, 2001; Sherman, 2007; Zuidervaart, 2007; Cook, 2011; Leiss, 2011; Vogel, 2011; Smith, 2015a; ADD MORE). More recently, Allen (2016) offers a summarily introduction to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment in relation to a study of the alternative histories of Enlightenment modernity.
One of the more basic arguments presented in Dialectic of Enlightenment and, too, in Adorno’s own analysis with regards to the psychology of civilization, has to do with the author’s well-known thesis concerning “the domination of nature”. Here we understand in particularly existential terms (Smith, 2015a) that irrational fear or anxiety not only once drove Myth but also the Enlightenment’s eventual regress to irrationality. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the domination of human beings’ natural environment was made possible by controlling human beings’ inner nature – what we may also equate to psychological repression (Smith, 2016) – which thus ultimately leads to a limitation of the human horizon to cycles of self-preservation and power (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; Sherman, 2007; Zuidervaart, 2007; Cook, 2011; Smith, 2015a).
In psychological terms we can equate this to the problem of the pathology of the hardened and colonized ego (Smith, 2016), which has subordinated itself to the specific socio-economic system in the interest of individual self-preservation (Parton, 2015; Smith, 2015a, 2016). A progressive reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment in this regard is one which combines Adorno and Horkheimer’s seminal social philosophical theses with contemporary research in psychology, wherein the author’s “domination of nature” thesis – including a critique of the modern genesis of instrumental reason, scientism and technicism – refers simultaneously to the systemic or structural workings of capitalism as well as to a radical existential thesis (Smith, 2015a) based on the notion of ‘self-preservation gone wild’ (Cook, 2011).
Understanding the Enlightenment as a continuation of the impulse toward identity and mastery, which is rooted in the existential thesis of irrational self-preservation drives (Smith, 2015a), we are able to ground the study of how the basic impetus of instrumental rationality or, indeed, a distorted and mutated form of “enlightenment reason”, is to essentially attack the very thing it is supposed to serve. Instrumental reason coupled with the hardened, closed nature of “constitutive subjectivity” (Adorno, 1992; Sherman, 2007) employs the cognitive tactics of the domination of the object and of one’s self for the benefit of increasing control of (internal and external) nature.
…the justifying idea of a divine commandment to subdue the earth and to have dominion over all creatures reduces the sensitivity of civilized humans for the conditions of their violent domination of nature organized in and by society. Finally, the internalized violent domination of nature also facilitates the use of force in social life. (Fischer, 2011)
If the Enlightenment was about liberating life, society, culture, and our common human values from the authority and control of the Church and the closed structure of medieval society (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), it has regressed – or, more accurately, has the tendency to regress – to replicating now global trends of domination (Zuidervaart, 2007). The God-ordained order of the universe mediated by the church might have been sought to be broken through the earliest philosophical and practical developments of the free flourishing of the human subject – human freedom, initiative, discovery, exploration and egalitarianism. However, as we learn, these ultimately humanistic values were eventually betrayed (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002). Instead of genuinely serving to liberate the person and society from external authority and oppressive governments, enlightenment values are said to have been increasingly appropriated by dominant, controlling and exploitative ideologies. The clearest and most direct example can be found in the contemporary context of global capitalist ideology.
“Instrumental reason” was seen as merging with what Marx termed the “commodity form” underpinning capitalist social relations. Everything thereby became subject to the calculation of costs and benefits. Even art and aesthetic tastes would become defined by a “culture industry”—intent only upon maximizing profits by seeking the lowest common denominator for its products. Instrumental rationality was thus seen as stripping the supposedly “autonomous” individual, envisioned by the philosophes, of both the means and the will to resist manipulation by totalitarian movements. Enlightenment now received two connotations: its historical epoch was grounded in an anthropological understanding of civilization that, from the first, projected the opposite of progress. This gave the book its power: Horkheimer and Adorno offered not simply the critique of some prior historical moment in time, but of all human development. This made it possible to identify enlightenment not with progress, as the philistine bourgeois might like to believe, but rather—unwittingly—with barbarism, Auschwitz, and what is still often called “the totally administered society.” (Bronner, 2004)
Adorno and Horkheimer offer a number of explanations as to where things have gone wrong. One such explanation concerns the critical analysis of the emergence of a certain analytic structure (Sherman, 2007). One could also describe the issue along the lines of a critique of a certain cognitive paradigm (Cook, 2004; Smith, 2015e). Tracing the general tendency of the Enlightenment’s regress to myth, of reason’s regress to irrationality, this analytic structure or cognitive paradigm is particularly dominating and coercive in anthropological, epistemological and cosmological terms (Sherman, 2007; Zuidervaart; Cook, 2011; Smith, 2015a, 2015e; De Graaff, 2016). However, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that these issues didn’t start with the Enlightenment, as they trace the problem back to “primitive objectification” (Smith, 2015a). Moreover, along anthropological and epistemological lines, the example of how certain nature religions, in response to nature as fate, deified a particular dimension of life in attempt to obtain mastery of nature is particularly apt (Smith, 2015a, 2015e; De Graaff, 2016).
… Dialectic of Enlightenment is best read as an account of the human inclination to constantly drive toward establishing a sense of (existentially-centered) dominant security in the name of the absolute, there is no better example of primitive objectification than in how certain nature religions, especially those who, in response to nature as fate, deified “fertility”. In this case, “fertility” was made absolute – it was universalized as an absolute faith-based principle – while the other dimensions of life were perceived as inferior or secondary. The objective of such deification? To master nature, or, at least, achieve a sense of mastery over nature. Was it possible that nature be actually mastered? No. But the existence of the drive to do so is precisely what is important to acknowledge. Moreover, the mythic concept of fertility in the past was really an effort to obtain a (false) sense of control over pure fate, not only in terms of pregnancy and childbearing, but also in terms of an attempt to control the fate of future harvests, and so on. Thus human beings turned the concept of fertility into the god of Fertility – into an Idol, an absolute or “totalized experiential orientation” in order to achieve a (false) sense of ultimate security in the midst of extremely precarious life. […] In the same way that the deification of the concept of fertility resulted in the securing of a “totalized experiential orientation”, so too does the drive of abstract reason aim toward a certain analytical and explanatory schema which, in turn, fosters a totalized and reductionistic approach to the phenomenal world. Adorno’s critique of the principle of “universal exchange” is more than telling in this regard. In the case of both myth and instrumental reason, it has already been described how everything tends to get reduced to the status of mere ‘object’ which can therefore be manipulated and controlled – where everything can be absolutely accounted for. Thus the statement by Horkheimer and Adorno that the enlightenment confuses “the animate with the inanimate, just as myth compounds the inanimate with the animate”. (Smith, 2015a)
Some thinkers have recently criticized Adorno and Horkheimer’s “domination of nature”. William Leiss, focusing on a passage by Horkheimer’s, namely that the problem of “primitive objectification” relates to the “disease of reason” insofar “that reason was born from man’s urge to dominate nature” ( Horkheimer, 2003), claiming that this formulation leaves “no exit” (Leiss, 2011). This strikes a similar point as Habermas’ critique (Zuidervaart, 2007; Sherman, 2007). To be sure, it is true that, while Adorno and Horkheimer wish to preserve some hope for a positive conception of enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, pp. xvi, xviii), they ultimately leave us with few glimpses as to what this positive conception might look like (Bronner, 2004; Zuidervaart, 2007; Smith, 2015a; Allen, 2016). The reason for this, Bronner speculates, “is that the logic of their argument ultimately left them with little positive to say. Viewing instrumental rationality as equivalent with the rationality of domination, and this rationality with an increasingly seamless bureaucratic order, no room existed any longer for a concrete or effective political form of opposition” (Bronner, 2004, pp. 3-4). There is an element of truth to this observation; but as in Habermas’ and Leiss’ case, perhaps Bronner’s critique here misses the larger point.
A correct reading is one which understands that at no point do Adorno and Horkheimer claim power and reason are absolutely identical (Sherman, 2007; Zuidervaart, 2007; Cook, 2011; Allen, 2016). One of the basic theses at the core of the book concerns how reason becomes entwined with, if not in the service of, power. Rather than what at times appears as an attempt by Bronner to abandon a critique of instrumental reason as a particularly distorted conception of reason for the benefit of a one-sided defence of the Enlightenment, the main point of Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis, as David Sherman (2007) highlights, is that the relation between reason and domination is historically contingent. Indeed, Allen (2016) hits the nail on the head when she writes: “If, however, the relationship between reason and domination is historically contingent, and if it doesn’t involve a reduction of reason per se to domination, then the paradox emerges from a certain process of rationalization and is not internal to reason as such” (Allen, 2016, p. 170).
This is exactly what was meant earlier in reference to a critique of a certain analytic structure or cognitive paradigm. In the same sense that a critique of scientism is not the same as a critique of science, it is particularly fruitful to read relevant sections of Dialectic of Enlightenment as a critique of enlightenment reason as both conceptual and historically contingent (Allen, 2016, p. 170). This is what gives possibility to the hope of a positive conception of enlightenment; because the focus of study is a particular deformation of reason (Smith, 2015a, 2015e). As Allen summarizes: “In this sense, Horkheimer and Adorno do posit an essential tension between enlightenment rationality in the broad sense and power relations understood as the control or domination of inner and outer nature” (Allen, 2016, p. 171).
The source of the fascist and totalitarian regression to barbarism that Horkheimer and Adorno witnessed as they wrote this text in the early 1940s, against the backdrop of the war and the horrors of Nazism, is not merely the concrete historical or institutional forms of enlightenment thinking: it appears to be enlightenment rationality itself, which they describe as “corrosive” and “totalitarian”. The key to this shocking claim lies in the meaning of the term “enlightenment”. It refers not – at least not exclusively and not even primarily – to the historical epoch of European Enlightenment that began in France and flowered in Germany in the eighteenth century, but rather to a more general process of progressive rationalization that enables human beings to exercise greater and greater power over nature, over other human being, and over themselves. It is the latter meaning of “enlightenment” that allows Horkheimer and Adorno to link enlightenment rationality with the will to mastery, control and the domination of inner and outer nature; this will to mastery comes to fruition in the historical period known as the Enlightenment, but it does not originate there. (Allen, 2016, p. 167)
What motivates the enlightenment’s regression from its potentially positive, critically self-reflective, and emancipatory aspects to a negative, totalitarian, and dominant form is revealed from deep within. Adorno and Horkheimer offer one important site of examination: what motivates today’s blind pattern of domination is irrational fear (Zuidervaart, 2007). “The gods cannot takeaway fear from human beings, the petrified cries of whom they bear as their names. Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. […] Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. […] Nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the “outside” is the real source of fear” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p.11).
According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the source of today’s disaster is a pattern of blind domination, domination in a triple sense: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others. What motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown. […] In an unfree society whose culture pursues so-called progress no matter what the cost, that which is “other,” whether human or nonhuman, gets shoved aside, exploited, or destroyed. The means of destruction may be more sophisticated in the modern West, and the exploitation may be less direct than outright slavery, but blind, fear-driven domination continues, with ever greater global consequences. (Zuidervaart, 2011)
Adorno and Horkheimer’s task, then, was to hold a mirror up to the enlightenment; thus to think through the enlightenment for the sake of the enlightenment. More clearly put: the aim is to hold up “a mirror to enlightenment so that it can become aware of its regressive tendencies” (Allen, 2016, p. 168).
However, where Adorno and Horkheimer fail, firstly, concerns the lack of identifying of the underlying existential aspect of this drive to dominate nature (Smith, 2015a). Secondly, while Adorno in particular offers many elaborate analyses, not least in Negative Dialectics, when it comes to the tension between enlightenment – or instrumental – rationality and power relations, he never quite gets to the core of the issue. This failure, we will elaborate later, is what ultimately opens up the possibility for Dialectic of Enlightenment to be the subject of several points of criticism, particularly Habermas’ (1987) misguided claim of there being “no way out”. In other words, it is suggested that Adorno and Horkheimer abandon the concept of reason, or a potentially positive conception of reason and likewise enlightenment, which is why Habermas’ eventually seeks to formulate his alternative of communicative reason. But, again, we believe this misses the point.
“If the relationship between reason and domination is a conceptual aporia, and if this means that reason is reduced to domination, then either there is no rational way out, in which case the way out can only be found through a nostalgic return to a romanticized understanding of magic or mimesis, or the way out can only be found by articulating an alternative conception of reason”. (Allen, 2016, p. 170)
Admittedly, Adorno and Horkheimer do not disentangle reason and power once and for all. But they do leave us with a fundamental sense of direction. They leave us, in other words, with a critical examination which renders reason self-aware of its entanglement with power (Allen, 2016, p. 172). This entanglement is not inevitable; it is a trend or tendency (Zuidervaart, 2007; Smith, 2015a), and in this sense their “domination of nature” thesis should be understood as preparing the way for potentially radical reflection on a fundamental alternative cognitive paradigm (Smith, 2015e). “On their understanding, the concept of enlightenment is not in itself barbaric or totalitarian; rather, it is deeply ambivalent, in the sense that it contains the potential to descend into barbarism and totalitarianism” (Allen, 2016, 173).
What allows for this regression? What resides at the heart of this tendency? In answering this question, we will endeavour to insert one of our key these: namely, that the problematic relation between enlightenment rationality and domination – that is, reason’s regress to irrationalism, enlightenment to myth – is a result of the Enlightenment’s deepest, innermost core antinomy.
In Christoph Görg’s (2011) article, “Societal Relationships with Nature: A Dialectical Approach to Environmental Politics”, we read in parts an argument toward how, as humans, we cannot avoid exploiting and transforming nature. Presenting an account of the reality that society has always had to extract from nature – that, in scientific systems terms, there has always been a degree of entropy (Prew, 2015) – Görg offers a critical intervention against the extremist views represented in Deep Ecology or in anti-extractivist movements. He even goes so far to explain that a certain degree of exploitation and transformation of nature is a “natural” aspect of human society. In light of Adorno and with Dialectic of Enlightenment in mind, Görg asserts that, if contemporary critical theory is going to grasp a critical ecology, we must understand that: “society is […] always dependent on its material conditions of existence, which are anchored in nature” (Görg, 2011, p.49). He then presents a striking discussion on how society can no longer ignore that such dependencies exist (Görg, 2011, p.49), calling, in turn, for a more advanced understanding of the mastery of nature, which, fundamentally speaking, requires that we “distinguish among the appropriation of nature for human needs” , the “destruction of nature”, and the “mastery of nature” (Görg, 2011, p.49). For Görg, “the former two are to some degree necessary”, “whereas the mastery of nature refers to a neglect of the non-identity of nature” (Görg, 2011, p.49).
It should be stated explicitly that Görg’s philosophical reflections correlate with scientific approaches to the issue of natural extraction. As we learn in systems analysis, for example, the problem isn’t entropy per se but the rate of entropy (Prew, 2015). Regarding this last point, the “non-identity of nature” that Görg describes is in reference to Adorno’s negative dialectics. What is important to note is that, what Görg is pursuing in his application of Adorno is a critique of the “total subsumption” of nature under societal aims (i.e., under capitalist forms of appropriation), which essentially functions without respecting that nature has its own meaning. This is a very similar reading of Adorno and Horkheimer’s “domination of nature” thesis as found in Lambert Zuidervaart’s Social Philosophy after Adorno (2007).
In short, for Görg, we can effect change within our current sociohistorical-cultural circumstances and, indeed, we must alter our way of doing things (Görg, 2011, p. 49). However, the fundamental issue we face today – or at least one of the fundamental issues we face – does not necessarily pertain to the will to dominate or master nature; rather, Görg sees the problem as being in the pervasive manner in which capitalism drives to accumulate. In this respect, he is partly right. One of the most destructive parts of capitalism, as we increasingly witness, is its lack of concern with regards to natural limitations. Hence one of the basic arguments by green movements regarding the insanity of ‘pursuing constant growth on a planet of finite resources’. The logic of critique here speaks clearly for itself – as does the science.
However, there is a much deeper philosophical issue here that relates back to the dialectic of enlightenment and, also, to what we identify as the innermost core antinomy of modern thought: namely, the subject-object parable. Before qualifying these claims, we should like to preface our analysis with a few notes of particular importance.
Firstly, for Adorno, it should also be recognized that within his critique of the “domination of nature” resides the disputed relation between subject and object. In considering this disputed relation, “the question of normative judgements about economic systems” comes to the fore (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 120). As Zuidervaart rightly asserts: “the subject-object relation and the question of normative critique are at work in “The Concept of Enlightenment”” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 120), which is the first essay in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Zuidervaart goes on to explain:
This can be seen from the prominence given to a pattern of blind domination when Adorno and Horkheimer explain the “disaster triumphant” that has befallen “the wholly enlightened earth.” In their account, blind domination occurs in three tightly interlinked modes: as human domination over nature; as domination over nature within human existence; and, within both of these modes, as the domination of some human beings by others. To provide terminological markers for these three modes of domination, I shall use the terms “control”, “repression,” and “exploitation,” respectively. Critics of Adorno either downplay one of these modes or argue that they are not tightly interlinked in the manner he suggests. My own response is that all three modes do actually characterize modern Western societies and that understanding their interlinkage is crucial for a transformative social theory. (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121)
In pursuing his analysis of these three interlinked modes of domination, Zuidervaart rightly claims that each requires its own form of normative critique (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). Indeed, if Dialectic of Enlightenment “hovers near the trap of totalizing critique”, this is because “it does not differentiate sufficiently in its critique of domination” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). Accordingly, Zuidervaart, a notable Adornian scholar, contributes constructively to the retrieval and advancement of Dialectic of Enlightenment by showing why:
1) For Adorno and Horkheimer, violence is systemic, particularly insofar that “this systemic violence has emerged in a specific configuration, namely, in the imbrication of control (Naturbeherrschung) with repression and exploitation (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).
2) Why the differentiation of cultural spheres, and particular advances within science, art, and morality, are neither separate from nor reducible to societal tendencies (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).
3) If developments within the cultural sphere are to “deliver what they promise – for so-called progress not to be cursed with “irresistible regression” – systemic violence needs to be recognized and resisted”, a point which, for Zuidervaart, is the truth to Adorno’s “remembrance of nature” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).
Zuidervaart’s analysis allows for us to more finely intervene in a critique of control in relation to the need for control than Görg (Smith, 2015a). Moreover, in return to Görg’s article, his argument could be strengthened by Zuidervaart’s sufficient differentiation in his analysis of Adorno’s critique of domination (Smith, 2015a). As Zuidervaart also argues, not all control of nature is illegitimate (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). “In fact, [Adorno] regards some control to be necessary if human freedom is to be possible” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). But, as in Görg’s essay, the question that ultimately arises concerns, “how the distinction should be drawn between legitimate and liberating control, on the one hand, and illegitimate and destructive control, on the other” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).
Zuidervaart offers one possible solution. He argues that if enlightenment mastery gets distorted in being driven by fear, then an alternative to this fear would presumably be a form of recognition, which Adorno’s Eingedenken der Natur suggests (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). And yet, as Zuidervaart reflects, “it cannot be a straightforward recognition of “nature” as “other” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). Nor can this recognition “be merely a recognition of nature’s power as the object of fear” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121). Instead, Zuidervaart argues, this recognition must be a form of “mutual intersubjectivity of human beings with other creatures in the dimensions of life they share” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 121).
The control of nature becomes violent when it does not promote the interconnected flourishing of all creatures but promotes human flourishing at the expense of all other creatures. The formation of the self becomes violent when it represses urges and desires that would lead to the satisfaction of basic needs. And the social distribution of power becomes exploitative, and therefore illegitimate and destructive, when it persistently promotes the apparent flourishing of one group at the expense of another (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 124).
This formulation represents a key aspect of the practical synthesis of Adorno’s critical social theory (Smith, 2015a). We now endeavour to take it a few steps further. If, for Zuidervaart, the first measure of an alternative – that is, a break from blind patterns of domination – is a form of recognition, we seek to further ground this argument in an alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology.
We shall argue, moreover, that in line with the need for a radical alternative conception of reason – an alternative we will introduce – what is also required is a double reconciliation: an existential reconciliation (Smith, 2015a) on the one hand, and cognitive reconciliation on the other. If “a clear first step” would be a form of recognition of the indescribable suffering caused by capitalism, what must underpin this recognition is a critical repairing of the very source of fractured thought which makes the “domination of nature” possible (i.e., the reduction of natural phenomena to the status of mere economic objects). It involves a confrontation with the existential impulse to master nature and, in turn, the core antinomy which came to fruition in the Enlightenment.
It is undeniably important when surveying the Enlightenment, its history, and its many philosophical complexities and political nuances, that one should consider “the actual movement with which enlightenment ideals, against competing ideals, were connected” (Bronner, 2004, p. 6). Along historical and empirical lines, this involves recognition of the assault undertaken by the philosophes against the established order (p. 6). The Enlightenment’s legacy of course does not end here, as its basic values have long since informed the international liberal and socialist struggle against reactionary, religious, prejudiced and even fascist movements which, in many definitive ways, continue to gain inspiration from the Counter-Enlightenment (p.6). Modern political life is in fact very much defined by this “great divide” (p. 6), and on that point Bronner is correct to advance the case that:
“Dialectic of Enlightenment never grasped what was at stake in the conflict or interrogated its political history. Its authors never acknowledged that different practices and ideals are appropriate to different spheres of activity or that only confusion would result from substituting the affirmation of subjectivity, through aesthetic-philosophic criticism, for political resistance”. (Bronner, 2004, p. 6)
Today, it is indeed striking how those “most concerned about the “loss of subjectivity” have shown the least awareness about the practical role of genuinely democratic as against reactionary pseudo-universalism and the institutional lessons of totalitarianism (p.6). The fact remains that enlightenment values are still not hegemonic or establishmentarian (p.6). In spite of whatever criticism that may befall Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment when it comes to its translation – or lack of translation – along practical political lines, as it is most certainly largely absent of a comprehensive alternative vision of the way forward (i.e., praxis); their analysis nevertheless evidences several fundamentally important insights, speculations and points of study which help explain the lack of “enlightenment” – the deep irrationality – of contemporary capitalist societies.
Although, in attempting to reclaim the Enlightenment and advance beyond Adorno and Horkheimer’s book, Bronner appears to preserve and at times defend the notion of instrumental reason on behalf of what seems an overall desire to defend the concept and positive potential of enlightenment reason, we suggest that Bronner’s formulations indicate an incorrect turn. We shall argue that it is necessary to differentiate instrumental reason from different modes of rationality, and that it is a mistake to conflate instrumental reason with scientific practice (as appears to be the general perception). Additionally, as a friendly point of critique, we claim that, similar with Adorno and Horkheimer, Bronner too struggles to formulate an alternative framework. Instead he resorts to a committed defence of the Enlightenment and its actual emancipatory movements, its spirit, and transformative values. To this extent, Bronner does a fantastic job and comes closer to a positive enlightenment political-theory than Adorno and Horkheimer were ever able to formulate or clearly communicate. But his views on reason and science are not entirely adequate, and can be advanced. The reason for this, we will argue, refers to how Bronner overlooks a deeper antinomy which continues to block, in his study and elsewhere, a progressive understanding of reason, rationality and science.
To begin qualifying our central claims, the question “what is reason?” must first be answered. The etymology of reason can (of course) be traced back to Latin and Classical Greek terms (Davidson, 1992). Debates concerning the nature of reason can be traced back to Classical Philosophy, and can be found in medieval Islamic philosophers before receiving popular philosophical attention in Europe through the renaissance (Davidson, 1992). It is also an important notion in the history of Iranian philosophy (Davidson, 1992), and (of course) is a central concept in the Enlightenment philosophes (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013).
When it comes to the notion of reason and its critique, especially as read in Dialectic of Enlightenment, it is important to understand the debate not as a critique of instrumental reason versus an abandonment of reason as a potentially emancipatory concept. This is a fallacy, a false debate. In other words we must differentiate “instrumental reason” as a social practice and as a particular mode of cognition from other forms of reason and a potentially positive notion of enlightenment reason, which Bronner rightly wants to defend. But in order to explain this need more clearly, we must first come to understand what actually constitutes “reason” as a concept and as a thing.
From philosophy of science to epistemology, critical theory to sociology, cognitive science to classical philosophy, “reason” has been given many definitions. Very generally speaking, reason is considered a type of thought. Confusion around the use of “reason” and “rationality” in the world of philosophical literature however, seems to stem from the ambiguity of the concept. Much like the notion of power, reason is something that has been notoriously difficult to nail down as concept. Ram Adhar Mall (1972) writes in the opening of his article Phenomenology of Reason:
The term “reason” is one of the most deceitful in philosophy and it has given rise to a number of theories ranging from reason as a supernatural God-like faculty to reason as a fixed entity with a priori principles constituting human experience, actual as well as possible. Reason, as against experience, is generally thought to be the source of certainty, universality and truth. Reason, according to Blanshard, “is the function of grasping necessary connections.” This definition is no doubt clear and short, but it lays much stress on demonstration in opposition to description, explication, understanding and justification.
This brief description already highlights two fundamental ways in which the concept ‘reason’ may be used. First of all, it draws attention to the deification or absolutization of reason during the course of history as an ultimate source of certainty and truth. In keeping with this overestimation, reason becomes the most important human function at the expense of all the other dimensions. This use stands in sharp contrast to the Enlightenment ideal of what we may term ‘emancipatory reason’ as a liberating direction for society and scientific development. Both indicate the role reason can be given in life, for good or ill. Secondly, the description focuses on one aspect of our actual cognitive functioning, whether it creates logical coherence and validity. This reference beckons for further elaboration with regard to other aspects of our cognition and how it functions in scientific research. We will keep these different meanings in mind as we add other uses and refer to other discussions.
In critical theory as in much of social theory and philosophy more generally, we often read (for example) recurring arguments on the ‘deficiency of reason in society’; but rarely do we read anything comprehensive on what this actually means. In other words, reason is often cited in the abstract. One of our challenges will be to bring more clarity to this concept.
To make matters more complicated, there are numerous definitions of “reason”. As William Thomas writes in the Introduction to the online project Rational Action:
Rationality is an ancient and notoriously difficult concept. Philosophers have debated at great length not only how actions can be deemed rational, but what we might even mean by the concept. Many commentators have worried that a preoccupation with the seemingly rational can lead to actions, policies, and styles of life that are not truly rational, or that are at odds with a well-rounded, humane existence.
At the same time, rationality is a real, practical problem. Through reflection and theorization, through improvements in technique and reforms to institutions, people have strived to act more rationally in science and engineering, in commerce and industry, in administration, and in everyday life.
This description once again highlights the use ‘reasoning’ can be put to, namely in the service of our actions both individually and socially. Very practically it focuses on how we can be more effective in achieving our goals. It also points to the fact that an over-emphasis on our rationality can result in a very lob-sided view of human life.
Surveying a diversity of studies and research from across numerous disciplines and academic fields, we read multiple accounts of reason with very particular focal points. Reason is associated with theories of knowledge or with logical reasoning and philosophy of mind. We have discursive reason, intuitive reason, substantive and formal reason, communicative reason, analogical reason, deductive reason, inductive reason, and instrumental reason, (and even emotional reason). The social philosophical notion of “reason” appears quite regularly in the abstract, almost as a symbol of a certain ideal for social practice. In political theory and radical social philosophy there are (then of course) notions of transformative reason, emancipatory reason, democratic reason or the all the more ambiguous notion of radical reason. Then, (of course) there’s the notion of dialectical reason. Often these views or theories of reason imply a theory of knowledge inasmuch as they imply a theory of social and political practice (i.e., praxis). What’s more, we frequently read unclear references citing ‘dominant forms of reason’ or democratic styles of reasoning. The latter, again, suggests reason as a way of organizing, relating and engaging with reality, each other and the phenomenal world in a more or less progressive or emancipatory way.
How might we integrate all of these different notions of reason? One way would be to understand many different definitions of reason as a response to one or more dimensions of rationality or to a certain particular process of rationalization. On this view, we can say there are many different aspects to rationality and our ability to reason. (rationalities); though few are actually based on the strict definition of reason in relation to consciousness (Sartre, 1972; Tieszen, 2011; Tymieniecka, 1991; Wider, 1997) and studies in cognitive science (Fisherman and Weinstein, N.d.; Stein, 1996; Stenning and van Lambalgen, 2012 ) – a particular human conscious ability – with its capacity for complex, dynamic and open thinking often cited in relation to freedom, transformative praxis, and self-determination.
Later on we will focus on some of those other dimensions of rationality. Here we, first of all, want to call attention to the ‘emancipatory’ role of reason in the Enlightenment and present-day critical theories. This is especially so if we follow the Enlightenment philosophes concept of reason (Bronner, 2004). This critical use of rationality enabled the Enlightenment philosophes to link progress with the extension of freedom and the exercise of the intellect (Bronner, 2004, p. 20). Directly indicative of the ‘spirit of the Enlightenment’, the “respect accorded “reason” by the Enlightenment was intertwined with a belief in the need to cultivate common decency and a sense of compassion” (p.20). Once again, ideas of fairness and reciprocity were intimately associated with the Enlightenment view of reason, particular when translated as social practice – a rational society (p.20). This notion of reason, it should be said, is one that prizes freedom – especially among the Radical Enlightenment – insofar that it is “implicitly informed by a certain sensibility” (p.20).
When it comes to the Enlightenment philosophes, reason in this broader sense was viewed as the new basis for cultural and scientific development (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013). Enlightenment reason as described in the philosophes is close to the more generally accepted view of reason as principled on the basic human capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information (Kompridis, 2000). In a very concrete sense, the Enlightenment notion of reason represented a radically different way of seeing and engaging with the world. Contained within were early glimpses of an alternative epistemology, anthropology and cosmology, however philosophically and practically incomplete. Along radical political lines, enlightenment reason meant that any new social, political, economic, aesthetic advances should not be limited and held back by outside ecclesiastical convictions or conservative invested powers (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013). Societal developments should, in other words, be free from any external interference. Today, we can identify with the meaning of this development in thought insofar that the concept of reason, for many Enlightenment thinkers, was a critical tool to help fight against established systems of oppression. This broad cultural sense of the word ‘reason’ can be used alongside other qualifying descriptions like the ‘free unfolding of all of society by means of human initiative and exploration’; or ‘scientific development unimpeded by external authority’; or ‘open, critical, dynamic thinking’. Reason, in the emancipatory social philosophical sense, also describes an openness to change, diversity, and to new ideas, conclusions and directions (Bronner, 2004).
Most of all, enlightenment reason is a critical concept (Bronner, 2004). Today, however, reason isn’t always seen as a critical tool, as this tends to be limited to the notion of inductive reasoning, particularly with the emergence of the “critical thinking” movement, which premises itself on the idea of clear, concise rational thought involving critique (Elkins, 2014). In a sense, popular views of reason have been divorced from their critical content, whereas the notion of “critical thinking” today now seems closest to the enlightenment definition. Well-known enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant once described philosophy as critique (Kant, 2011). In fact, the popular definition and understanding of “critique” today is based on Kant’s definition, emerging from out of the Enlightenment’s introduction of critique in relation to oppression, prejudice and established authority (Bronner, 2004; Foucault, 1992; Gasché, 2007; Pagden, 2013). In this sense, the modern concept of reason has deep critical roots, implying in many respects an emancipatory social philosophical quality emphasizing the human capacity for freedom and self-determination (Bronner, 2004; Foucault, 1992, 2003), even if it has been increasingly separated from these roots. In this sense, it is shorthand for the development of a new vision of society in all its dimensions. The many qualifications and explanations of the words Reason and Science confirm this point of view (Bronner, 2004; Foucault, 2003; Pagden, 2013).
Enlightenment reason is generally used in at least two ways today: 1) As a broad term for indicating a radical new social, historical, cultural and scientific direction (i.e., ‘The Age of Reason’) and 2), as a more limited use of a new view of scientific investigation and experimentation.
Discerning the legitimate and illegitimate uses or views of reason will need to be reserved for a separate work. What’s clear is that, like any other concept or value (not to mention human capacity), reason is open to distortion and deformation (Fisherman and Weinstein, N.d.; Stein, 1996; Bronner, 2004; Stenning and van Lambalgen, 2012; Goel, 2014).
There are also longstanding debates concerning whether human beings can be considered inherently rational (Stein, 1996; Stenning and van Lambalgen, 2012; Goel, 2014), with research ongoing in philosophy and cognitive science (Stein, 1996). This site of research has been particularly energetic, especially since a variety of experiments by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky (et al.) began to emerge in the early 1970’s challenging established views of human beings as rational animals (Stein, 1996). At the core, this line of research has to do with the multi-dimensional unity of the human person and the inter-connectedness of our cognitive functioning. Feelings, projections, rationalizations, defensiveness, idealizations, sub-conscious reactions, or religious passions, can all dominate our rational functioning. We respond to life holistically and never just rationally. Our cognitive functioning may be quite submerged and in the background at times, while at other times it may be in the foreground. This kind of research once more brings to the fore the basic motivations that deeply influence people’s actions and reasoning, for better and for worse. People can follow a very destructive worldview or a liberating vision and humanistic values.
Putting these issues aside from the time being, from a broader historical point of view, it seems fairly clear that one can rationalize and celebrate even the most heinous acts in the name of “reason”. Even if we follow the strictest definition of reason, from a cognitive- and neuroscience perspective, as well as a philosophical and logical one, there is nothing to safeguard “reason” from being an instrument of domination and oppression, as opposed to the Enlightenment view of reason as being a liberating force. This is a serious problem, and it has everything to do with the normative principles of reasoning in their critical context.
To solve this problem, one must formulate and put into practice a concrete notion of historical normativity, hence the Enlightenment concept of progress (Allen, 2016) referenced earlier as one particularly important source. In fact, the Enlightenment more generally already offers vitally important normative foundations which can guide sociohistorical, cultural designations of reason. In spite of the many misinformed and inaccurate accounts of Enlightenment history, reason was never an enemy of progress (Bronner, 2004, p.20). Instead in almost every case the enemies of reason and knowledge were also the enemies of progress (p. 20). Bronner writes more to the point that, “Unreflective passion offers far better support than scientific inquiry for the claims of religion or the injunction of totalitarian regimes. The scientific method projects not merely the “open society”, but also the need to question authority” (p.20).
And yet, in our research, the reality appears more nuanced than the argument that reason is “good” or “bad”. On the side of Bronner’s project, there is far too much evidence, systematic scholarly and historical accounts, as well as far too many practical examples, that highlight the liberating force of reason (even if the definition of “reason” is not always clearly honed). The problem, then, more accurately worded, is not just whether reason is good or bad, but whether the modern notion of reason is complete – whether, enlightenment reason still contains some hidden antinomies which leave it open to distortion, exploitation and eventually disfigurement.
The nuance and complexity of the issue combines the perspectives in Adorno and Horkheimer’s deeply critical Dialectic of Enlightenment and Bronner’s more positive Reclaiming the Enlightenment. The very broad and general thesis that “reason” has become entwined or entangled with (coercive) power, that reason has become subservient to forces of domination in a triple sense, grows increasingly defendable. At the same time, in the midst of this historically contingent process, the entanglement of reason with domination is never absolute. Thus, examples of what we may discern as positive notions of enlightenment reason in practice remain evident, especially in certain movements within the natural and social sciences. So how, then, in the face of this twofold aspect – the distortions and the redeeming notions – might we introduce a more reconciled critique of reason? To answer this question we will seek to engage in a critical retrieval of Enlightenment notion of reason conscious of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s critique.
At the heart of the matter is what we shall describe as reductionist, instrumental, objectifying reason. This notion of reason, considered in a negative sense, carries a very specific definition which we argue can be observed throughout the whole of life in contemporary neoliberal capitalist society. This type of reason, while commonly associated with science and scientific practice, is not actually inherent or internal to science or scientific practice per se. Likewise, it is also not inherent or internal to reason. Rather, it is a historically contingent form of rationalization which is dominant, coercive and exploitative. It is indicative of a prevalent, conspicuous process of rationalization that is utilized primarily on behalf of capitalism. To offer one immediate, simple example of such a fallacious reason, consider the established rationale in capitalism when it comes to the reduction of phenomena to the status of mere ‘objects’ that can be exploited, often unreflectively, for the sole purpose of economic gain (Smith, 2015a, 2015e; De Graaff, 2016; Zuidervaart, 2007; Sherman, 2007). (We could, in a certain sense, describe this reductionist element of negative reason as “eidetic reduction” or “bracketing”, which is a technique in the study of essences in Husserlian phenomenology).
The previously referenced shift from the 18th century Enlightenment and its political-theory, not to mention its early formulations in philosophy of science, to the 19th century version of biological pessimism is already quite telling of the prevalence of this mode of reason. It reveals in its own way reason’s entanglement in domination. From there, we can (then also) trace the emergence of Scientific Racism (Malik, 1996, 2009b, 2013a, 2013b), the deepening cognitive paradigm of “identity thought” (Adorno, 1992; see also Sherman, 2007; Cook, 2005; Smith, 2015e) or what we might call “constitutive subjectivity” (Adorno, 1992; Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2015a) and finally, today, the hyper-efficient practice of instrumental reason (Amsler, 2016; Brown, 2005; Horkheimer, 2013a, 2013b; Malkinson, 2010; Sherman, 2007). In and through these developments are (of course) other notable phenomena, not least what might be described as the prevalence of a dominant and violent epistemology (Smith, 2015e; Titchiner, 2016). Historically we can also identify and analyse the development of many other contradictory events, beliefs and phenomena which (start to) run against the ‘spirit of the Enlightenment’ (Bronner, 2004).
On the one hand, the enlightenment – considered in the sense of the dialectic of enlightenment – may have spawned what should be seen as what’s best about modernity (Bronner, 2005). This is particularly or especially true when we think of the positive legacy of such values as cosmopolitanism, secularism, scientific exploration, and civil liberty (Bronner, 2004, 2005; Fine, 2011; Pagden, 2013). On the other hand, there is truth to the claim that what also eventually emerged was a capitalist class certainly contemptuous of feudalism, or what was known as l’ancien regime, but ultimately moved ever more away from the Radical Enlightenment (Bronner, 2004, 2005). Additionally, although there is much to criticize about John Gray’s account (Smith, 2015c), he isn’t complete inaccurate to challenge Locke’s dismissal of indigenous rights; Voltaire’s “pre-Adamite” theory of human development; and Kant’s position that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery. In turn, he also enumerates every violent episode of the past century, to further show the extent in which violence exists today – even after the alleged “enlightened” moment in history (Gray, 2015). At no point in Gray’s case is there any semblance of a convincing dissection of the dialectic of enlightenment, and how and why the enlightenment which once promoted reason and liberty may have regressed to irrationalism, violence and myth (Smith, 2015c).
There is another debate going on with regard to ‘instrumental reason’ that is of quite a different nature. In these studies the focus is not on the broad critical social view of reason as a potential tool for liberation during the Enlightenment, its subsequent entwinement with domination and power, and the reduction of all phenomena to mere objects to be manipulated and exploited – reason as an instrument for good or ill. Instead the emphasis is on a very limited aspect, namely our ability to ‘reason’ in very practical situations. We take stock and determine a course of action. This is reasoning in the service of our actions. It is a ‘means to our ends’ aspect of our reasoning ability. However, the debates on this kind of rationality can be very reductionistic and simplistic.
Consider, (for example), the debates on the scope of this kind of instrumental rationality (Kelly, 2003; Setiya, 2007; Schroeder, 2004; Wallace, 2001; Way, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013). Many are uncritical, often concerning issues of normativity in relation to instrumental rationality. Here, instrumental reason is taking in its simple(istic) literal sense: means to ends. “We are instrumentally rational when we take necessary and effective means to our ends, and instrumentally irrational when we fail to do so. For instance, if you decide to give up smoking, it would be rational to stop buying cigarettes, and to limit the time you spend around other smokers. It would be irrational not to take any means to this end” (Way, 2013). Within these discourses on instrumental reason, there is also debate about its relation to practical reason (Way, 2013).
In recent years, there has been considerable discussion of what to say about this issue. Jonathan Way writes, for instance, how “It is often suggested that instrumental rationality might be all of practical rationality – that to be rational in respect of one’s actions is just to be instrumentally rational”, a view which has “serious implications for the normativity of morality, since it suggests that it is not always rational to be moral”. (Way, 2013)
Aside from such debates, it is also unclear how to formulate principles of instrumental rationality (Way, 2013). Moreover, if it is “natural to think that if you have an end, you ought to take the means to that end. But if it would be wicked or crazy to take the means to one of your ends, then you ought not to take this means” (Way, 2013). This basic ethical dilemma – considering ethics eventually always implies an ought – is incredibly stuck in studies on instrumental rationality as a positive form of rationality, as it usually depends on a one-dimensional theory of the rational agent combined with some sort of desired-based view or virtue ethics. In each and every case we have reviewed, it is clear that positive discourses on instrumental rationality lack grounding. We frequently read views which defend a narrow view of reason and how this narrow definition of being rational is equivalent to being coherent (Smith, 1994). Arguments concerning the defence of the notion that the principles of instrumental rationality derive from principles of theoretical rationality can also be found (Setiya, 2007).
What’s more, the lack of critical thinking when it comes to the practice of instrumental rationality is disturbing. Taking a more complex view, Max Weber’s (2013) studies on rationality and social action illuminate four interactive types of rationality: instrumentally rational, value-rational, affectual, and traditional. William Thomas’ (2015) summarizes Weber’s basic thesis in this regard, concluding:
In the wake of the mass slaughter of trench warfare, Weber’s fears concerning the uncertain end state of civilizational progress had become commonplace. The more specific idea that modern society had subordinated itself to the rationality of a system interested only in the action of its own mechanisms was well on its way to becoming a pervasive anxiety among twentieth-century intellectuals. (Thomas, 2015)
Weber (of course) had a heavy influence on the Frankfurt School, and one can draw many correlating points between Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason (2013a) and Critique of Instrumental Reason (2013b) with Weber’s own studies, even though Horkheimer and the rest of the early Frankfurt School sought to push Weber’s thought forward. In any case, the basic thesis of the Frankfurt School revolved around a critique of the pathology of reason. What is to say that the argument was that the prevalent rationality of Western civilization was entangled, as we have already described, with domination and technological rationality (Feenberg, 2014). The central problem here is to explain the grip of instrumental rationality not simply as means toward ends, but in terms of a far more complex critical conception that pertains to negative or, indeed, destructive social practice.
Moreover, instrumental rationality has, in some respects, a natural human conscious aspect. To adopt suitable means to one’s ends is a practical everyday conscious behaviour (Way, 2013). “At least part of what it is to be practically rational – rational in our actions and decisions – is to be instrumentally rational – to take necessary and effective means to our ends” (Way, 2013). In this sense, our critique of this view of instrumental rationality – considered on the basis of a critical retrieval of past formulations in critical theory – is not the equivalent of reducing instrumental reason to domination per se. To do so would be grossly inadequate, as not all instances of instrumental rationality (defined in the strict sense of the word) are dominant, coercive or exploitative. Rather, the focus of critique is more of instrumental rationality as it is entwined with power, with domination, as the prevalent rationality in contemporary capitalist society. This notion of instrumental rationality is considered in a much more complex way than discourses on means and ends. It entails a particular conception of instrumental rationality – one might call it abstract reason (Smith, 2015e) – which intersects with or also combines the problem of identity, positivism, objectivism, reductionism and the ethical questions they raise.
Reason abstracted from concrete, holistic phenomena and persons – ‘abstract reason’ – is a mode of absolutizing. It serves to describe the regress of reason to a rationality in the service of self-preservation gone wild (Sherman, 2007, pp. 185, 205; also see Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, pp. 21-26; Cook, 2011). The very servile nature of abstract reason speaks to how one strives not only reduce and absolutize the identity of phenomena as ‘nothing but’ mere ‘objects’ that can be manipulated, controlled and dominated, but of how one also employs his/her experiences in the service of economic ideology (Smith, 2015e). The whole practice of abstract reason, in this sense, is based on a certain form of selective seeing (Smith, 2015e). It is based on a certain method that turns the most wondrous floral gardens into inert economically exploitable things-in-themselves, into unreflective means toward unvirtuous ends (Smith, 2015e).
In a more technical sense, abstract reason pertains to what we have already described as a certain analytic structure (Sherman, 2007, p. 242) – an abstract, reductionist, objectifying, classifying logic that serves the system of capital. Referring back to Adorno, David Sherman (2007) writes: Adorno’s concern is with an analytic structure, an analytic structure that is constituted by the entwinement of myth and enlightenment: mythic rationalization processes, which are already instrumentally rational, betoken enlightenment rationalization process, which harbour a mythic core in that they banish the nonconceptual from the concept to better instrumentalize it” (p. 242). We can also that the practice of abstract instrumental reason is also one which employs the means of “identity thought”.
There is an example I will consider later in relation to two phenomena, X and Y. In this example I discuss how one can discern the experiential identity of X and Y. One can assess both of their particularities, even amongst other X’s and Y’s. One can also generalize, that most X’s have similar features while most Y’s have other similar features. For instance, birch trees have white bark. Willow trees have brown bark and unique, hair-like leaves. The idea that I will present later is how, then, all X’s are not like all X’s – that is, all birch trees are not absolutely identical to all birch trees. Though appearance may be the same or similar, and though birch trees share an experiential identity, upon closer inspection there are often dynamic differences: i.e., this one is older than that one; this birch tree has unique patters in its bark, while this other one appears diseased. The issue, when it comes to conceptual subsumption – that is, the false universalizing propensity of human thought, the drive toward the absolute – is that such bad generalizing inherently violates the unique individuality of particular phenomena of our experience. The false universalizing propensity, the absolute character of dogmatic thought, subsumes the uniqueness (particularity) of our experience under a bad general category. This, I argue, in taking from Adorno’s negative dialectics, equates to little more than a conscious suppression of the very realities of our present experience. It is a cognitive manoeuvre tantamount to experiential blindness. (Smith, 2015e)
We will elaborate on these distinctions between the general, particular and unique individuality in a following section. There we will distinguish further between bad and good generalities and ‘classifications’. Here we wanted to highlight the distorting and destructive consequences of ‘identity thinking’.
Considering these accounts, we can also describe the political implications of distorted instrumental reason: instrumental reason as a mode of organization which, along practical political lines, translates into a restricted philosophy of democratic possibility (Hill, 2008). Wendy Brown (2010) argues, in addition, that democratic rationality – i.e., basic principles of ‘constitutionalism, legal equality, political and civil liberty, political autonomy and university inclusion’ – has been displaced by neoliberal or what we will call instrumental rationalities (‘cost/beneﬁt ratios, efﬁciency, proﬁtability, and efﬁcacy’).
Likewise with regard to the implications of instrumental reason and science, there has been a tendency even within critical theory to defend the universalizing, instrumentalizing impulse as though it ought to be at the heart of science (Bronner, 2004; see also Sherman, 2007, p. 203). We shall argue that this view isn’t accurate or indicative of a positive enlightenment conception. On the one hand, when it comes to delineating the issue, Sherman is not entirely misguided to say: “if the universalizing, instrumentalizing impulse that undeniably is, and ought to be, at the heart of science is allowed to run rampant – both in terms of the larger society, and, indeed, even in terms of the scientific enterprise’s own self-understanding – it is actually a reflection on society rather than science” (Sherman, 2007, p. 203).
As we have already made clear, instrumental rationality is, for lack of a better word, a natural conscious capacity of human beings. The issue, for one, is that instrumental rationalizing processes have been allowed to run rampant as the prevalent rationale of capitalism, serving the political-economic ends of the market and of market coercion and exploitation. It not only lacks normativity, but also what we might call “experiential coherence” (Smith, 2015e).
This last point leads to another, more pressing concern. Criticisms of science – focusing mostly on those made within critical theory – and defenders of science, often confuse the ‘instrumental’ quality of scientific practice as the sole rationality of the scientific enterprise. As Sherman alludes, this is a mistake in self-understanding, an error in the very fabric of philosophy of science. That is why on the other hand, what is required today is that we work through the contradictions of modern thought, of which the legacy of the Enlightenment is one key focus, and formulate an alternative and more reconciled framework for a positive notion of enlightenment reason and of science. Such a project certainly entails, to borrow from Adorno and Horkheimer, a more hopeful vision of the reverse of the enlightenment’s extinguishing of its own self-consciousness. Deeper yet, it requires a critical retrieval of the very concept of reason itself and of scientific practice – an alternative philosophy of science closer to the Radical Enlightenment.
Bronner’s assertion that the Enlightenment philosophes should be seen as a directional movement is apt. This is what made the Enlightenment so historically significant. Underlining the philosophes writings on reason, science and progress was, even if only implicit, the earliest studies toward an alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology. These three fields are foundational to philosophy, and it is clear that the Enlightenment sought to formulate, with reason as the primary authority, a radical alternative way of relating with the phenomenal world, ourselves and each other. Especially in the work of the Radical Enlightenment, we read in such thinkers a philosophical and empirical programme of study that seeks to do justice to the particular, the individual, the richness of natural phenomena whilst informing and also enriching the general, the universal. While, for example, the issue of the “domination of nature” was always a risk – thus the entwinement of reason with (coercive) power – there was awareness of this potential problem, writes Leiss, in the work of Francis Bacon (Leiss, 2011, p.26). But this is beside the point. If the Enlightenment, or what followed the Enlightenment in terms of Adorno and Horkheimer’s particular focus of critique, was an eventual – perhaps intentional or at times even unwitting – entwinement with power, the need of the hour is to disentangle reason and science from domination in a triple sense.
In addressing the issue, Bronner seeks to defend instrumental reason as vital to scientific practice (Bronner, 2004, p. 159). In making his case he draws many important points worth serious consideration. However, we feel it is ultimately flawed and inaccurate in a very particular sense. While there is no debate that science requires the need for criteria of verification and falsification, and that science without such criteria is essentially “no science at all” (p. 159); instance on the progress of science ultimately travels beyond flawed debates of either for or against instrumental reason. If instrumental reason is, in fact, one particular process of rationalization, never is it accurate to suggest that it is a particularly flawed process of rationalization. To instrumentally rationalize is, arguably, a more or less natural extension of human cognition. The issue, rather, is that the modern view of reason – and therefore scientific practice – is incomplete.
In his critical intervention which deserves significant attention, Leiss draws an intriguing argument between the need for a more dialectic view that acknowledges the “internal tension” of the sciences (Leiss, 2011, p.27). He labels these “inventive science” (p.27), which, in a sense, could be read along the lines of the existential project to conquer science (considering, again, that some degree of domination over nature is necessary). The other side is what he terms “transformative science”, which, in sum, describes the penetration of the ‘ethos’ of the modern scientific method throughout the whole of society and its institutions” (p.27). This ethos includes the experimental method and an evidenced based approach, among other things. For Leiss, this is more or less the essential dialectic of modernity (p.27). What’s more: “the two forms of science” and “the tensions between them” exist as “creative tension” (p.27). He argues that they “counteract the twin obstacles to human development: first, the lack of material security […] and second, a subjection to irrational forms of thought” (p.27). Leiss concludes, “The two do not exist in creative tension when the hyperdevelopment of one side (inventive) is matched by the underdevelopment of the other (transformative)” (p.27).
In making his argument and in describing his own well-researched account, Leiss strikes something important. He suggests a direction of investigation which comes close to the heart of the matter. Even though we can clearly trace “ethical progress” (Bronner, 2004, p.159) in the sciences, or perhaps “moral progress” more generally (Smith, 2015c), the critical step to securing ethics in science, to completing the modern notion of reason, is by retrieving them both from remaining insistence on their absolute foundations and therefore one-dimensionality. There is still, in other words, a blocked view of reason – even instrumental reason – divorced from its multidimensional integrality (De Graaff, 2016; Smith, 2015e).
Bronner is entirely correct, moreover, to criticise “New Science” movements which seek to diverse scientific practice from instrumental reason. But the ongoing struggle of science to impact society for the better, for the benefit of a critical notion of progress and for the benefit of achieving a more ethical and rational society, faces resistance from within insofar that reason and science is not generally perceived in terms of a broader inter-modal, differential framework that resists absolute foundations – as seen in positivism, for example – while avoiding the pitfalls of relativism – exemplified, for instance, in poststructural and other postmodern theories.
The Enlightenment essentially gave rise to a double distortion of human reason. The first tendency was to make reason an absolute; Reason with a capital. Along the lines of a certain existential thesis, we might describe this as the “deification of reason” or the “absolutizing of reason above all other dimensions of life” (Smith, 2015a, 2015e). One of our many ways of functioning was elevated to the most important human ability in order to control or guide all the rest of life, including human behaviour and society. When the ability to reason, explore and experiment is absolutized at the expense of all other ways of functioning, the entire human personality and society become distorted. The liberation of science from the control of religious authority became a new final authority over the rest of life. Before long – during the industrial revolution – science and technology were enlisted to serve economic gain and political domination that led to exploitation, ecological disintegration and the distortion of society and the human personality. Scientific, political and personal freedom became once more in jeopardy, in spite of the progress that was made on so many fronts.
The second distortion is inseparably related to the absolutization of reason. When everything is reduced to a scientific object that can be categorized, controlled and manipulated, then all life becomes objectified and commodified. Everything is open to be violated and distorted. In this process human reason has become perceived almost solely as “instrumental” reason.
Scientific rationalism has gone through many different phases and functions in the Western world. Today’s form is primarily in the service of a mechanistic, utilitarian, dominion-over-nature worldview. It is this kind of approach that has and still largely dominates conventional resource management like forestry, fishing, agriculture, etc. (De Graaff, 2016). Fish stocks, for example, are like discreet commodities that can be kept in balance and provide a maximum yield by means of certain regulations related to catch sizes, kinds of species, closed seasons, size of nets, etc. (De Graaff, 2016). It is a very calculated, rational and scientifically managed approach. It is part of the great transformation of treating all lands, forests, natural resources and even peoples’ labour as potential commodities for the market; all for the pursuit of private wealth for the few. It involved a radical change in social attitudes, in which people became alienated from themselves, each other and nature (De Graaff, 2016).
It is in the face of these distortions – making reason in a new kind of ultimate security and everything else into an object for rational and technical control – that we need to delineate an alternative view of human knowledge and science. In introducing such an alternative view, we will break this section into several digestible parts ranging from a holistic view of knowing and science to an alternative epistemology, scientific knowledge, inter-subjective cognition and an alternative to technicism.
a) A holistic view of human knowing and science
In contrast to Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter, of subject versus object, of culture versus nature, of human beings versus the environment, our underlying assumption is that all of life, including human life manifests a multi-dimensional unity (De Graaff, 2016; Smith, 2015e). Nothing is two-dimensional. There are many aspects to life that exist as a complex inter-related unity. Any dimension is an integral part of the whole and cannot be separated or isolated from all the other dimensions without distorting and violating the whole. All subjects function physically, organically, sensitively, creatively, technically, symbolically, cognitively, socially, economically, politically, relationally, and spiritually or ‘meaning-fully’ (De Graaff, 2016; Smith, 2015e). Not only humans but all creatures manifest such a richness and many-sidedness that ought not to be violated. There is a multi-dimensional coherence (Smith, 2015e) and interaction in the way we function. In each activity and in each relationship, every dimension is present and plays its role.
This view of the subject is supported philosophically as well as empirically and clinically. Inasmuch that we may employ the well-established humanistic notion of the “whole human being” or “whole person” (Greening, 2006; Maslow, 1962; Rogers, 1959, 1965, 1983; Rowan, 2011) to help conceptualize the multidimensionality of the individual subject, it is based on the phenomenological study of the bodily nature of consciousness (Wider, 1997). Perhaps one of the most significant features of the existential-phenomenological tradition (Sartre, 1972) one may insert the notion of embodied cognition (Balcetis and Dunning, 2007; Gibbs, 2005; Schmicking and Gallagher, 2010; Wilson and Foglia, 2011; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1991) drawing from recent high-profile research in psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, dynamical systems and systems theory, as well as neurobiology (Dawson, 2013). New research has also emerged questioning the traditional or established foundations in much of cognitive science, drawing clear and concise connection between mind, body and world (Dawson, 2013) and mind, body, being (Shaughnessy, 2013). Though debate may be ongoing regarding to what extent cognition is embodied, pushback against the fragmenting of such academic disciplines as psychology, computer science, cognitive science, linguistics, and philosophy, has resulted in rich and progressive transdisciplinary research that increasingly supports a much more unified view or framework (Dawson, 2013). Additionally, advanced studies in cognitive science (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Turner, 1989; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Lakoff & Nunez, 2001) have coincided with new research currently emerging in social and cognitive psychology as well as in the fields of artificial intelligence (Pfeiffer, 2001; Pfeiffer and Bongard, 2006), neuroscience (Edelman, 2004, Damasio, 1999; Liberman and Trope, 2008), biology (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1992) and in research on speech and language (Liberman and Whalen, 2000). Psychophysiology, a relatively new field, is also beginning to shed new light on the connection between the bodily functioning of the individual subject and psychological affliction (Rothschild, 2006). Further to this point, there is then of course a growing body of scientific evidence which concludes how toxic chemicals ingested through the body ultimately affect the mind (Walton, 2014). A more multidimensional and complex view of the individual in relation to society is also taking form in studies in social pathology and social psychology (Smith, 2016). In systems theory, too, the ecology of human development increasingly recognizes a view of the subject that we are arguing toward (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
This is just a small selection of research. The main point is that the Cartesian view of the mind-body, subject-object dualism – the deeper antinomies which remain in Enlightenment thought – is an antiquated view which emerged in a specific historical period and within a certain cultural context. Philosophically, the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (1972) marked a significant achievement in his critique of Descartes and in his critique of functionalist accounts of mind (Krueger, 2006). What’s more, in contemporary studies concerning early childhood development and in 4th wave psychoanalysis, it is being increasingly confirmed that the Cartesian view of the subject is incorrect (Krishnan, 2014; Lichtenberg and Kaplan, 2014; Piaget, 1929, 1977; Spodak and Saracho, 2004; Stern, 1985).
One could, in a way, summarize this view philosophically according to the need for a new sensibility (Parton, 2015a, 2015b). Although our view may differ from that of Marcuse (1969), who inspired this philosophical call from within critical theory, we see our proposed alterative framework as much more reconciled.
b) Phenomenological givens
One of the philosophical conclusions we have drawn in our studies is that the many inter-connected aspects of life are not arbitrary or endless. At this point in history and our western culture about a dozen or so fundamental, irreducible dimensions have become differentiated. In many older indigenous communities, settling disputes, allocating hunting and fishing areas, teaching the young, religious ceremonies, healing, decorative art, etc. did not take on separate institutional form and were often performed by the elders, a designated or particularly skilled person. Over time these tasks embedded in the community became separate functions and gave rise to government institutions, courts, schools, hospitals, religious organizations, art galleries, etc. These (un-)differentiated dimensions of life are given in our experience, as we mentioned earlier under section ii. They are not categories in our minds or ontic qualities. They are part of the phenomenological givens of life (De Graaff, 2016), similar, perhaps, to the notion of basic societal principles drawn out by Zuidervaart (2007). There are no universal laws, no eternal ordinances, no absolute identities, and no unchanging structures that we can identify and possess (Smith, 2015e). Nor is the opposite true, that everything is change, that there is nothing but change and there are no givens or regularities that we can come to know (Smith, 2015e; De Graaff, 2016). In fact, what we are arguing toward is a far more complex view of reality and history.
Historically, from the Greeks on, these two viewpoints have gone back and forward, between abiding structures and relentless change. In either case ‘structure’ or ‘change’ has been made into absolute opposite poles. What is needed is a viewpoint that is far more nuanced and acknowledges and integrates the truth of both. The notion of ‘structure within change’ or ‘continuity in the midst of discontinuity’ may begin to describe how these two characteristics of reality are interrelated, not only when it comes to natural phenomena but also historical social processes.
There is no doubt that things change over time and new features of each dimension keep unfolding. Historically, all creatures in all their dimensions keep unfolding, differentiating, and integrating further. In the natural sciences or in the knowledge disclosed by indigenous peoples, older knowledge, however new and exciting at the time, becomes out-dated. We only need to check the history of any human activity or the history of any academic discipline to realize the changes that have taken place over time, geologically, geographically, organically, as well as socially and culturally. At the same time we are aware that there is an abiding continuity in life. Each irreducible dimension of life – much like each phenomenon – keeps revealing more of itself throughout history and in different cultural settings. Undifferentiated dimensions become distinct and take on their own form. Historically there is an on-going process of differentiating, individuating, and integrating. During the millions of years of geological and physical time, things can undergo subtle or more drastic changes as a result of climatic changes, geological upheavals, or human activity. All phenomena continue to reveal more and more of their potentiality and possibilities. Nothing is fixed or static, whether it is the expanding universe or the marvels of nano particles. Everything has its secrets and there is always more to discover, even about the “law of gravity”, which seems so fixed to us. Yet in the midst of all this there are regularities or a phenomenological givenness that we count on, in spite of changes over long or shorter periods of time.
c) The practical element of knowledge and an alternative epistemology: a summary
The emphasis on reason within a broader integrative alternative is crucial since rationalism in all its various forms dominates scholarship and distorts life. This more integral viewpoint is not anti-reason per se. Nor is it a crusade against modern science – but an appeal for the development of an integral view of science and reason that is truly free and serves life and not just the market economy. It is in opposition to the absolutization of science, reason and technology; against ‘in science is our trust’ and ‘we will find technological solutions to all our present-day problems’, and many other variations of this belief. As an over-emphasis, it has become an ultimate trust and basic belief on a culturally existential level Science and technology will solve the crises of our civilization, is the principle of faith. With today’s globalization and the domination of neoliberal capitalism this belief has spread far and wide. No doubt that science and reason – the Enlightenment and its basic values – are important tools for a wider critical project which seeks “progress” in terms of eliminating needless suffering and supporting the flourishing of all human beings and the environment. However, when subservient to the driving force of capitalism, science and reason has brought humanity and the environment to the brink of disaster.
All we need to do is look at the overwhelming science and social research available to us today. Challenging the negative cognitive paradigm described earlier, along with the social-political and economic system entangled with that paradigm, is an important part of emancipatory philosophy. Because of the long rationalistic history in Western society, we will present a brief summary of the nature of our cognitive functioning in general. This viewpoint goes against the centuries-old tradition of scientific rationalism and warrants careful attention. If we do not absolutize scientific reason and its application in economic theories and guidelines, what place does our reasoning have in life and what could its role be in economic activities? What follows is a brief summary of an alternative understanding of human cognition, or an alternative epistemology.
What role does human reasoning or better, cognitive distinguishing, play in daily life? This may seem like an obvious question, but it refers to a complex issue. Does our reasoning just happen inside our minds or is there more to it? If so, how does reality enter the picture? A common view is that through our sense perceptions we take in raw data from our environment which we order and categorize in our mind. The raw data out there have no discernible meaning. They are random facts or raw data; that is all. We give these raw sense perceptions meaning. They have no meaning in themselves. In this viewpoint a table is just some chunks of wood or metal, which in our culture we happen to call a ‘table’. In fact, it could represent anything. In this somewhat simplified account reason comes to stand over against matter. This mind-over-matter dualism – certainly another antinomy that persists at the heart of modernity – in whatever variation has a long history and can be seen as a secular version of the age-old body-soul dualism. In an integral or phenomenological view of life this relation between our cognitive functioning, our other ways of functioning and reality comes out very differently. In the past an attempt to conceptualize this alternative view was described through the notion of “experiential coherence” (Smith, 2015e).
We can say that all of our cognitive functioning is embedded in the whole of our activities. To think is to identify, but thinking does not solely mean to take note and discern, rather one thinks with the whole of their being. Distinguishing is only one of the many ways in which we function. There are many other dimensions to our lives and they each play their role in coming to know our world. One dimension may stand in the foreground but all the other ones are present as well. There are as many kinds of awareness as there are dimensions to our way of functioning. Most of them are submerged and just below the threshold of consciousness. At any time, however, when we stop to reflect, we may become aware of these other impressions about our body, our feelings, our relations, our sense of justice, the meaning of what we were doing, and so on, because all along they are an integral part of our total experience. That is a first conclusion we can draw, just as everything else, we function in a multi-dimensional, integrated way in which one or more dimensions are in the foreground and all the rest in the background.
Of course this multidimensional integrality can become blocked, which is a problem in itself. In psychology, moreover, we learn a great deal about such “blocking”. Increasingly, also, we read in cognitive science research which supports certainly basic theoretical and clinical assessments in psychology. But let us, for a moment, continue to sketch out an alternative epistemology in relation to the notion of the free-flourishing and mediating subject (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2016). If this is the way we function as humans, in a multi-dimensional unified way, it immediately becomes apparent that if we reduce our functioning to one dimension, like the rational, or the economic, or any other aspect, how much we are distorting our existence. Then we become nothing but religious beings, rational creatures, or political animals. As a result, all of life is wrenched out of context and becomes distorted. Then we, and all other creatures with us, suffer. In as much as scientific rationalism, in its present dominant form of positivism, involves a basic reductionism, there is no way to harmonize this form of modern science with experiential knowledge. Much of present-day science has basically abstracted the cognitive dimension of life from its integral coherence with all the rest of life and made it into an object for analysis. It is assumed that the result of such scientific research provides value-free, context-free, objective scientific evidence. Such reductionism distorts and violates reality. The cognitive side of things is not available by itself; it cannot be abstracted from the whole; it is always contextual and intertwined and determined by all the other aspects. Whatever is knowable is only knowable holistically, as an integral whole. Economic life is inseparably connected to the ecological foundation of life and other social dimensions – including social justice – and it always involves a particular worldview and values. Economic processes too do not exist by themselves and cannot be abstracted from the real economy, regardless of what the neoclassical economic textbooks tell us.
Summarizing, we can say, cognitive distinguishing is only one dimension of the integral ways in which we come to know. We cannot separate cognition from its embeddedness in all the other dimensions, nor can we reduce anything to one dimension in order to objectify and manipulate it.
As an aside, not all knowledge is cognitive; or only the result of our cognitive awareness and reflection. There are many other kinds of coming to know. In fact there are as many ways of knowing as there are dimensions to our experience. We know emotionally or intuitively, or as people have called it, we have ‘emotional intelligence’. In the same way we have a social awareness, a bodily sense, a technical insight, or an aesthetic sensitivity, or sense of justice or spirituality. In all these instances the cognitive dimension is submerged and in the background. That is why in education, for example, there is a growing awareness of the different kinds of ‘intelligence’ children may excel in and which may be their favoured way of learning. These ‘intelligences’ or ways of coming to know, can range from spatial and bodily knowledge, to emotional, technical, creative, social, or perspectival (‘philosophical’) knowledge. Good education will provide children opportunities to learn through anyone of their favourite avenues: through discussion and sharing, through listening, observing, researching, constructing, creative writing, composing a song, developing a dance, reading poems or stories, making a display, dramatizing a situation, making a graph, sharing activities and projects, etc. Those are all equally important ways for children to come to know and to respond to a particular subject or issue. Only after such a rich exposure and encounter with a subject does it become meaningful to draw out the cognitive dimension, the conceptual side of the subject. In such a learning environment, the majority of children with specific learning difficulties and others whose brain functions somewhat differently can more easily find their place and flourish. A perfect example and empirical illustration can be found in a number of alternative education environmental – consider Summerhill, for instance. Such multi-dimensional learning and ways of responding is a long ways away from the highly conceptual and fragmented curriculum of much of public education today (Titchiner, 2016). This is true for adult education as well.
c) Inter-subjective cognition
The process of coming to know is always inter-subjective as we have already assumed in the previous sections. There are no brute data out there, no objects, without much rhyme or reason. From a phenomenological point of view, there is a countless array of phenomena that display a richness and a fullness that we can only come to know if we immerse ourselves in the experience. We encounter and experience concrete, whole phenomena that exist in their own unique way. Our coming to know the other is always based on an interaction between two or more subjects. All subjects, including all non-living things, plants, trees, animals, and other humans exist as subjects, each in their own way. There are no subject-object relations, only subject-subject relations. As soon as we perceive and treat something or anybody as an object, we are violating the richness of the other, reducing it to a physical, biological, political, economic, or social object that can be analysed, used, manipulated, dominated and exploited.
Modern science, if it had not been trapped in a formal analytical framework, could have learned, among other things, from the rich phenomenological tradition. It could have learned that it is subjects in all their subjectivity that try to understand other subjects in their subjectivity. For a while phenomenology was fruitfully practiced in Europe, at Duquesne University in the US, and other places. It gave rise to many outstanding studies in the areas of physiological anthropology, psychiatry, developmental psychology, education and religion. Even today the phenomenology of religion continues to make significant contributions to our understanding of religious beliefs and practices. They understood something of the personal and subjective involvement of the investigators and the rich phenomenology of their subjects. Regrettably it mainly survives as a philosophical movement investigating human consciousness, which seems like another form of abstracting. A similar more holistic understanding was beginning to develop in the many ethological studies of previous decades, observing animals in their natural setting, as well as in the anthropological and religious studies from an insiders’ and participants’ point of view. Most of these approaches have been side-lined and pushed to the background.
To give another example, a forest is never just a stand of two-by-fours to be harvested and sold at a profit. If it is not harvested, it is considered useless and of no value. In fact, many entrepreneurs would consider it wasteful to let it just stand there and not do anything with it. Such forests are reduced to economic objects. The real forest, however, has many different aspects of which the economic side is only one dimension and needs to be seen in the light of all the other sides. Only then can we truly relate and respond to a particular forest that exists in a particular place, that is of concern to a particular people, and, ultimately, to all of life on earth. To relate to a forest as an economic object, we need to close ourselves off from the richness and diversity of the forest and its ecological embeddedness. In the process we distort ourselves as well as that forest.
It is only in the inter-subjective flow between two subjects that we can truly come to know something of the other. When we open ourselves up, from our own many-sidedness, to the many sides of the other subject, we can truly come to know the other and ourselves, at least partially and for a time. Each subject functions in the whole of reality. They each exist in their own unique subjectivity. All the aspects of reality, the organic, the sensitive, the aesthetic, the cognitive, the economic, the relational, etc., truly belong to each subject. Even physical objects are not just physical objects, they function in an ecological context and they have a discernible, aesthetic, economic side, and so on. These various aspects beyond the physical, including the cognitive dimension, are not just categories or attributes in our minds that we add to the raw data of our sense perceptions. ‘Physical objects’ too have a discernible side, as well as many other sides that are inherent to their phenomenological identity.
All of reality has a discernible side. There is a discernible or cognitive dimension to the trees in the forest that is inherent to their phenomenological identity. They present themselves as distinguishable creatures. Their ‘tree-ness’ is an integral part of and given with their subjectivity. We recognize that a tree is not a frog and that a bird is not a fish. We recognize some of them as pine trees, some as spruces, others as aspen. Even these more particular differences are given as distinguishable characteristics. Our experiential categories are merely cognitive approximations or descriptions of the distinct identities they carry. They are fluid categories, many of which have changed over time as a result of more detailed observations, or cultural use.
Today our classifications are strictly physically and biologically based, and even then there are many boundary questions and uncertainties. Experientially these boundary issues do not present a problem to us. Regardless, identities and general categories remain cognitive approximations of what presents itself in our experience. Both the general kind of identity (i.e., trees, frogs, birds, fishes) and the particular kind of categories (i.e., pine trees, aspen, tuna, blue jays) of each subject are given in our experience. What is important to highlight in this context is that these kind of phenomenological identities are only a cognitive description of their biological identity, nothing more. It does not say anything about the uniqueness of each subject. Nor does it say anything about all the other aspects of trees, nor about the specific characteristics of any particular tree. Each tree has its own variations, no tree is exactly like any other tree, but we still recognize that we are looking at an oak tree and not a larch. Individuality, or individual characteristics like this specific oak tree with its gnarled trunk, its uniqueness, is something different than noting that it is a tree or more specifically an oak tree. What is implied here is a basic working through of the general-particular dialectic, in which the general – or universal – is normatively tied to and informed by the particular (and vice versa). Along the lines of such an alternative paradigm of intersubjective cognition – as opposed, indeed, to the subject-object paradigm – each day when we walk by this specific tree we may notice something new about its uniqueness and its many aspects. These descriptions of general and specific kinds or categories as well as individual, unique features are a long ways away from abiding rational categories by which we can classify and control our environment. Many indigenous or local people have a very extensive and intricate knowledge of such forests, far beyond most of us, based on long experience and tradition. In more reconciled scientific practice we also see a similar intersubjectivity emerge. This is important to identify, name and develop.
Because many people have become alienated from nature and their own bodily awareness and sensations, it is not easy to be aware and open to the richness of our inter-subjective experiences. Many things in our western culture are geared to numb and desensitize us to the reality around us. Whether sensationalized newscasts, relentless advertising, the double-talk of political and corporate leaders, reality TV, the stress of work, or our hurried way of life, they all contribute to our lack of awareness. From an early age we are also pulled through an education system that is instrumental to a market economy view of life: a conveyor belt system of learning and of individual social classification based on their successful (or not) adaptation to a certain epistemological, anthropological and cosmological orientation. This is just as much an assault on our bodily and sensitive awareness as it is on deeper philosophical issues concerning knowledge, truth, and the subject. This can make us blind to the significance of a particular forest or the reality of the suffering around us, of countless indigenous people deprived of their livelihood and their way of life. In the end it can blind us to the decline of the quality of our own lives as well. Such numbing can easily lead to denial, rationalization and self-forgetfulness. Epistemology – that is, a dominant, violent and coercive epistemology as studied by Beth Titchiner (2016) – is at the heart of modern capitalist society. It is based, as we have argued, on lasting core antimonies within modernity and on broader historical trends with regards to the genesis of the subject.
d) Scientific knowledge
Practical knowledge and generalities based on experience do not tell us what is characteristic of scientific knowledge, and how it may differ from experiential knowledge. The answer can be brief. Scientific theorizing, if done rightly, is not inherently different from the generalizing and conclusions we draw that are based on our local experiential knowledge. Perhaps the best way to indicate the difference between the two kinds of knowing is that scientific hypothesizing, developing theories, experimenting, drawing conclusions, formulating, generalizing, etc. is done systematically. Such systematic generalizing based on actual personal and local knowledge is always flexible, approximate, and changing. Rationalistic or positivistic science tends to objectify the phenomena and abstract them from their integral context in time and location. Adorno has a wonderful word for this: ‘hypostatization’. Rather than an abstracting and objectifying science that distorts reality, we need a kind of scientific generalizing that is embedded in and based on experience and practice (perhaps similar to what Adorno describes as ‘mimesis’).
Systematic generalizing in this context does not mean that these generalities suddenly take on an ontic identity; that they become scientific laws that exist as such. Systematic generalities are based on many particulars and a lot of experimentation and research. As particular situations change or new evidence accumulates, so does our understanding of the basic ‘law’ that seems to govern them. All we mean by systematic generalities is that in all these instances in this place and at this time, such and such seems to be the case. Some systematic generalities of course are broader and longer lasting, because they are based on long historical insights across many cultures, or they are the result of creative hunches and new experimentation. But even these long-standing insights that seem so certain do change over time or as the result of a breakthrough in understanding. The history of the natural sciences is very illustrative and humbling in this respect. We have no reason to smile at the ‘childish’ theories of a hundred or five or even two thousand years ago. Our present-day scientific insights too are limited and culture and time specific. This is what, indeed, gives so much value to the ongoing nature of scientific pursuit and the sharing and developing of knowledge across generations.
Theorizing, hypothesizing, developing mathematical models, drawing conclusions, can aid our praxis if they are based on actual experience or hypotheses that are tested in reality. They can serve life if they elucidate experience and further our insights. Many studies on depression and anxiety, for example, were so flawed in the earliest period of research in psychology, that as a practitioner, on a clinical level, it was more useful to look at the ten year overviews and evaluation of the research then any specific study. Often the hypothesis to be tested was based on an abstract idea that did not arise from experience, or the ‘tested population’ was so limited and specific (college students, hospitalized psychiatric patients, prison inmates, etc), that no general conclusions could be drawn. To give another striking example, questionnaires for social work research tend to be meaningful only if they are based on in-depth personal interviews. Without such preliminary interviews, many questionnaires end-up containing questions that have no relevance to the people interviewed. There are countless other examples from many fields of study that illustrate how much academic research is limited and flawed, and as a result, irrelevant or meaningless. Usually the reason given for these shortcomings and failures is that academic knowledge accumulates slowly over decades. More often the reason is the faulty set-up and construction of the research, or favourite and in-topics that get research money, regardless of how meaningful the proposal. Added to all this are the basic presuppositions and the total cultural context of the research that colour the study from the beginning no matter how solid the research methods. Much of today’s research is commodified (Jaschik, 2010; Radder, 2010). It is no coincidence that increasingly commodification of research exists within a market-based vision of life and, indeed, with a certain cognitive and epistemological paradigm which allows for the reduction of research to its economic dimension.
Summarizing, we could say that scientific generalities are no different in nature than particular cognitive insights. They are both contextual, relative to time and space, changeable, and experientially based. A particular refers to one instance, a generality to many similar instances. Generalizations, whether systematic or experiential, do not lead to absolute, verifiable, dependable facts, concepts, definitions, categories, laws, models or theories; they can only provide provisional, open-ended approximations or suggestions. Ultimately it is our worldview or our presuppositions that determine the direction and context of our scientific research. Scientific theorizing, if done rightly, is based on the inseparable connection between experience, knowledge, and presuppositions or worldviews. They are inseparably intertwined. The different kinds of experiential knowledge or ‘expertise’, our systematic research and our worldview form an integral unity. Human knowing is inseparably connected to all the ways we exist.
e) Technology that serves praxis; an alternative to technicism
When technology is no longer in the service of ‘economic growth’, ‘efficiency’, ‘material prosperity’, and the accumulation of ‘wealth’, then technological innovations and developments – as with scientific ones – can serve and open up all of life. When technology is liberated from the straightjacket of one-dimensional economic practices, then it can be guided by a very different vision. Here durability, practicality, usefulness, simplicity, elegance can guide technological creativity and innovations instead of obsolescence and the constant pressure of developing ‘new products’ in the quest for more profits. From out of a different economic vision and practice it is clear we do not need ten or more kinds of toothpaste, cereals, cell phones, cars, vacuum cleaners, bicycles, razors, computers, toasters, televisions, soft drinks, and an endless number of other products. In most instances we only need a choice of a few kinds of anything. Imagine how many resources and materials could be saved. Then obsolete or outdated parts can simply be exchanged and replaced on cars or computers. Then material things can once more serve and enhance all aspects of life and not just consuming for the sake of consuming. In short: what is required for such a transformation in view is essentially a redesign of the whole technical system inherited from the industrial era (Feenberg, 2002, 2015) in accordance with the critical normative foundations of the Enlightenment we are currently seeking to retrieve and advance.
Within a liberated technology – or technical system – creativity and innovation can be recaptured and celebrated. It is always astounding and surprising to see the innovative ideas people and research centres come up with (consider the Peer-to-Peer movement, for example). Within a different perspective these ideas can flourish and enrich life. To be an engineer within this context can be a great contribution and passion. Manufacturing and constructing can take on a whole new dimension. There are many examples of manufacturing things in innovative and ecologically sustainable ways that involve team work and shared responsibilities (De Graaff, 2016). The growth of worker co-operative within the framework of sustainability is one such illustration. There are moreover astounding examples of new building materials and intriguing new ways of constructing, including less polluting ways of making cement. Small projects and models have been developed in different countries and have been shown at different international exhibitions. This is just a fragment of the rich technological movement currently unfolding.
New technologies and ways of manufacturing also provide a basis for what kind of metals and minerals and how much of each are needed in the future. If we start from the premise that in view of ecological survival ‘two thirds’ of resources or more need to stay in the ground, then it becomes crucial to know what resources are truly essential for the ongoing unfolding and enrichment of life. If the touchstone for technology and manufacturing is, sustainability, durability, practicality, simplicity, comfort, elegance, then it is not hard to know what metals and minerals are essential for our well-being. In this new context resourcefulness and frugalness can come to its own again. Then it will also be possible to find ways to extract that ‘one-fifth’ of resources in an ecologically sustainable and socially just way. Extracting and mining has taken place for thousands of years often by means of destructive and cruel ways (slave labour) that create health hazards and pollution. It can also be done differently. There are already surprising examples of non-destructive ways that protect both humans and the environment, and which help also surpass the false dualism of extraction (which every society requires) versus non-extractionism or anti-modern ‘deep ecology’ perspectives.
Another potential confusion and opening for distortion and contradiction are the ideas behind the use of the words ‘Reason’ and ‘Myth’. They are often paired as opposites, indicating a radical choice between reliance on Myth or Reason, one or the other.
As somewhat reified and generalized words both Reason and Myth are open to misunderstanding, distortion and misappropriation. The notion of Scientific Racism, or indeed the example of scientific extermination by Nazi Germany, are basic examples. Historically and conceptually, reason as in ‘The Age of Reason’ could and did lead over time to another absolute, rationalism. It became the basis for a new ultimate trust; rationality as the final ground for certainty and confidence in life. Conversely, it became entwined in the existential drive to secure yet another ultimate vision of life (Smith, 2015e; De Graaff, 2016).
However, no single human ability can give us that kind of security, nor any abstract universal rational principles. What is required is a far more complex, integral and intermodal view, a point to which we shall return later. Meanwhile, distortion in thought and in action shows itself today in a particularly instrumental form of rationalism and in various other reductionisms – that is, in and through a certain reductionist, coercive and dominant cognitive paradigm. This paradigm of thought operates on the basis of a one-dimensional view of reason that distorts reality and serve primarily economic and financial interests at the expense of millions of exploited and suffering persons. In this case analysis, research and technical developments no longer serve life but impoverish and exploit life. Instrumental reason – a certain process of rationalization – serves the capitalist disintegration of life (De Graaff, 2016).
Over against these kind of disfigurements and in radical opposition stands a multi-dimensional, unified view of our ability to reason that is embedded in an understanding of the whole human being, and too the whole of life. It is a view of human reasoning that is complex and has many dimensions. Our ability to observe and analyse is part of every human activity, either explicitly as scientific investigation and critical philosophical reflection, or implicitly as the cognitive basis for other activities and relations. But cognitive functioning isn’t the only way we come to know. There are many other ways, like bodily, emotional, aesthetic, or experiential ways of coming to know. This insight is particularly important in education and parenting, or in any other formative activity. Children for example learn in multiple ways, and not just cognitively. When we use the word reason in this more limited sense of referring strictly to human cognition we will use words like ‘rational inquiry’ or ‘reason understood as’ to avoid misunderstanding.
The new vision of coming to know by means of analysis, experimentation and investigation, stands in stark contrast to an appeal to ‘Myth’, which usually means relying on some form of divine revelation. This revelation was seen as coming from another realm, from a super-natural source or a transcendent authority, from God or the gods. In reality, the appeal to Revelation was often misused to serve existing power relations and justify positions of privilege. Such appeals to an ultimate source of authority are not limited to religious convictions. They are characteristic of any absolute that serves as a final court of appeal. Within the Judea-Christian tradition the view of divine inspiration of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures has become more and more untenable as the result of historical, archeological and literary research. The scriptures are turning out to be a fully human book that is totally embedded in the history, culture and religions of the Ancient Near East.
In this context of the transcendent breaking into the human sphere, Karl Barth, the famous Swiss theologian, took recourse to a radical existential approach in order to save a space for divine revelation. In the existential moment the Word of God can strike a person’s heart like a lightning bolt. In this way he tried to preserve a narrow channel for a divine Presence to enter the human realm. It was a vain attempt to save the divine inspiration of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures from overwhelming historical and literary evidence, which has multiplied by both orthodox and liberal scholars. It is only by sheer faith that the divine inspiration of the scriptures can be maintained in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. This objection does not mean that these ‘holy’ books, as well as many other religious writings, do not have any basic meaning or do not confirm important and crucial human values, on the contrary.
It is important to recognize, however, that there are other views of ‘myth’ that do not appeal to divine revelation. The most familiar examples are those of the worldviews of many indigenous people. The Cree nation for example acknowledges that there is a Creator that is both above and in all things. In this view all beings, including humans, rivers, mountains, forests and animals are all creatures of Mother Earth and therefore need to be treated with respect and care. They are all inter-dependent and demand an attitude of humility and responsibility. Such socio-ecological views guide all their actions and relationships. It is a vision of life that reinforces caring and respect for all beings and use of the earth’s gifts. It fosters openness to new experiential knowledge, always observing and studying the other and nature’s complex inter-relationships and inter-dependence. Some call this kind of spiritual worldviews a ‘transcendence in immanence’. We could simply say that it highlights the depth dimension and multi-dimensional unity of all that exists. Nothing can be reduced to mere physicality, or usefulness or means to an end. Of course such spiritual convictions too are open to manipulation and distortion, like anything else. The important point is that in such visions the authority comes from within life, from the touchstones or the very nature of the other and their inter-subjectivity. In this sense, we can see how an alternative – or critically retrieved – notion of open-ended, dynamic, integral and complex reason can learn from certain mythic points of view, particularly those grounded in life, in direct engagement with the particular, and more or less embedded in a form of inter-subjective relations.
In introducing a framework for the development of an alternative conception of reason, the main point is the overcoming of the subject-object distinction. We will qualify this argument through a detailed cross-disciplinary and innovative analysis.
To be clear, it is not that we are arguing or debating against the intentional meaning behind the notion of “objective reality”. Objective science, which dates back to the practice of mechanical objectivity in the nineteenth century, finally evolved into what might be described as a combination of mechanical objectivity and trained judgement (Daston and Galison, 1992, 2010). In very general and overly simplistic terms, one of the goals of this evolution had to do with the methodological problem of bias – cognitive bias, cultural bias, or sampling bias – and its elimination from scientific practice and the uncovering truth (Daston and Galison, 1992, 2010). Today, in the social and political world, people generally refer to looking at something “objectively” in everyday life as a way of expressing that they are perceiving something clearly, without bias, and with good reason. Of course, the issue of what one claims as an “objective perspective” can easily also be twisted, and arguably all the more so when there is a lack of intersubjectivity. That is to say that it can also be used as a form of evasion (Smith, 2015e) with regards to taking responsibility for truth claims (Haraway, 1988).
Having reviewed the debates and the many nuances within the theories ranging from Dewey and Popper, Plato and Kant, Hume and Frege, Rorty and Nagel and so on, that while a certain degree of objectivity is possible – that it may be a dimension of scientific practice – it is never pure. One cannot simply outright reject objectivity; nor can one outright accept its thesis and, indeed, its underlying assumptions as accurate. This was one of a number of concerns of the now poorly named “antipositivist” movement (the name signifies a complete resistance to positivism, when, in fact, many thinkers agree positivism has a certain specific place in science). Concerned, for example, with the social sciences, the Frankfurt School, starting with Max Horkheimer’s (1989) address, argued that our concepts, ideas, beliefs and cultural histories – in a word, biases – play a role in how we think about the social world. The argument, therefore, was that a more methodologically innovative approach was required as an alternative to positivism (Kellner, 2014a).
Donna Haraway (1988) in some ways anticipated our argument in Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In this work she argues, quite simply, that when people refer to objectivity in science and philosophy, what they are actually referring to is a sort of disembodied, removed, pure or even transcendent “conquering gaze from nowhere”. Inasmuch as she describes it as a fabricated belief in the possibility of the subject being split apart, with the individual taking a privileged perspective somehow distanced from and set above the object of inquiry, it is interesting how she ultimately describes this notion as a “god trick”. In turn, one senses that Haraway does not seek to do away with the notion of objectivity altogether – in terms of its deeper signification as a scientific and philosophical pursuit. Rather, in introducing the notion of “situated knowledges”, her project is one which in the end demands a critical retrieval of the very concept of objectivity. For Haraway, we must rethink objectivity, reconceptualise it along more reconciled terms, and, in our own terms, retrieve it from the misguided existential pursuit to obtain a supreme perception of phenomena. While Haraway argues that we must nevertheless continue to strive for “faithful accounts of the real world”, we must also understand the presence of our own perspective and positioning within the world.
When it comes to the actual practice of science, it is clear as we have said that there is a certain validity to particular forms of abstract theory. Within physics the theorizing, study and eventual empirical verification of gravitation waves is a perfect example. When one studies such theory, it is very clear that a particular rationale is present and, indeed, very particular claims of toward objectivity from within that theory’s frame. However, in the actual practice of science, it is often already implicitly – or even explicitly – understood that problems arise from not understanding the limits of objectivity. Hence why there is the practice of scientific consensus, which, in essence, is the intersubjective performance of knowledge sharing and of achieving collective judgment from within a particular or across a number of fields of study. Climate Science is, today, an apt example. The very concept of scientific consensus has roots, it would seem, in the very intersubjective reality of knowledge forming within the process of time, duration and development, wherein scientists may agree – indeed, theory may also even correlate – about the accuracy of a particular conclusion, finding or hypothesis at one point in time. But, as the broader history of the scientific enterprise would show (Kuhn, 1962), that very consensus or that previously agreed view of a particular aspect of reality is challenged the more the phenomenon reveals itself.
In this case there is, in a sense, a sort of objectivity. But this objectivity is more a form of critical reason – and, in turn, of critical consensus – than it is of pure objective fact. By ‘critical reason’, we do not mean to refer to Popper’s definition; rather, we are referring to an advancement of the Frankfurt School’s critique of Popper (Adorno, Habermas, et al., 1976; Holub, 1991). Throughout his entire project, Adorno argued quite clearly and quite accurately that the notion of truth must be strived toward by way of the subject-object dialectic. Although this paper does not remain within the limits of Adorno’s theory, expanding where we view his interventions as being too limited, an important question nevertheless arises: can an intersubjective thesis be the outcome of, or in the very least compatible with, such a dialectical approach? Our answer is, yes. If Adorno sought to work through the subject-object dialectic in order to theorize what we might describe as a third alternative which does justice to the mediating subject (Sherman, 2007, 273-282), one of the main points of concern that Adorno understood more than most in the history of the great debate on objectivity, is, to put it crudely, the actual prevention of objectivity in relation to the subject’s repression (Adorno, 1992, pp. 170-171). If it is, as Sherman summarizes in light of Adorno, “now subjectivity rather than objectivity that is indirect”, this is because, writes Sherman, “an objectivity produced by identity thinking performs the subject’s world, and subjectivity becomes a mere function of it. If “the subjective factor” was not overrun by objectivity’s false copy – a social lowest common denominator that constitutes “the average value of objectivity” – it would not fail to identify but would identify in such a way that it would contribute to this “subjective factor”, which is the result of “self-reflection”” (Sherman, 2007, p. 276; quoting Adorno, 1992, p.149). For Adorno, a key aspect of his negative dialectics is its focus on the repression of critical self-reflection (Smith, 2016). In other words: “Self-reflection, the “subjective factor” that is currently overwhelmed, is the mediating moment of the subject, and this mediating moment, in turn, presupposes the subject-object paradigm” (Sherman, 2007, p. 276). Adorno writes (also quoted by Sherman, 2007, p. 278):
The polarity of subject and object may well appear to be an undialectical structure in which all dialectics takes place. But the two concepts are resultant categories of reflection, formulates for an irreconcilability; they are not positive primary states of fact but negative throughout […]. Even so, the difference between subject and object cannot simply be negated. They are neither an ultimate dualism nor a screen hiding ultimate unity. They constitute one another as much as – by virtue of such constitution – they depart from each other. (Adorno, 1992, pp. 174-175)
Adorno, it should be said, is right to be concerned with any sort of false reconciliation. Put another way, there is no ultimate dualism nor is there some sort of ultimate unity. In fact, in working through the logic of Adorno’s analysis, “the two” – subject and object – are also not “pieced out of any third that transcends them” (Adorno, 1992, p. 175). Taking his study and research programme – his critical intervention to various historically important debates – to its ultimate conclusion, we suggest there is space for an intersubjective thesis. Evidenced, in certain ways, in certain passages by Zuidervaart (2007), Adorno himself seems to anticipate a radical notion of critical reason as an expression of the mediating subject – the more reconciled condition of experience in which thought “no longer turns its objects into immutable ones, into objects that remain the same” (Adorno, 1992, p. 154). In the very least, while Adorno does not explicitly theorize a form of intersubjectivity, the theory of intersubjectivity offered in this paper takes great inspiration from his negative dialectics, and can be argued to be an advance correlate of his thesis. Consider, for example, Adorno’s notion of the subject’s relinquishment to the object. Sherman summarizes this best, while also quoting Adorno:
The object, in other words, is not a sense datum that is or could be immediately at hand (ND, pp. 186-189), and it is only by framing it within the context of a non-hierarchical constellation that the “something more” within it has the chance of being emancipated […]. In other words, the subject’s relinquishment to the object must be matched by the object’s relinquishment to the subject […]. (Sherman, 2007, p. 275)
What we intend to argue in the final sections of this paper is a theory of such self-relinquishment evidenced already on an empirical and experiential level, however tentatively or fragile consider the damaged state of the modern subject (Smith, 2016). Here we will introduce the notion of a phenomenological ethics as an extension of the mediating, free-flourishing subject (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2016). Here, too, we will expand on the analysis that it is only after we give ourselves up to a phenomenon that we may judiciously reconceptualise it (Sherman, 2007, p. 275), and further develop the notion of critical reason as the intersubjective moment of reflection, which evidences a shift from the subject-object to the intimate subject-subject that Adorno at times subtly anticipates but can never wholly realize in theory. Critical reason is, to put it succinctly, the overcoming of the false dichotomy between subject and object. Whereas the notion of objectivity today may easily be translated into objectivism (ethical or otherwise), our argument is that a more reconciled understanding of objectivity is actually conveyed in and through the notion of an intersubjectively rooted phenomenological ethics.
In this section we return to the issues raised in section 3 with regard to the “domination over nature” thesis and present an alternative way of seeing and relating to “nature”. Although debates continue on the meaning of “nature” as a philosophical designation (Görg, 2011), we will base the concept of “nature” on a broader cosmological view of the earth and its basic functioning. In this context we will use the word ‘cosmology’ in a very limited sense focused primarily on the earth and its atmosphere as part of the solar system. It will be based on a non-metaphysical and non-essentialist and non-static cosmology. It is a view of the earth that is open-ended, dynamic and unfolding and closely positioned to what may be described as a metanormative constructivism, although with key differences. The cosmos and our planet with all that it contains is a living, developing, changing, intricate world that has unexpected and unknown dimensions. Whatever ‘structures’ there are, they are not necessarily ontological in the sense of a critique of hypostatization; they reflect a ‘structure within change’ as we indicated in a previous section. Because life itself is unfolding and continues to reveal more and more of itself, there will always be more to discover. We are not masters of the universe; instead we are part of its history. Modern Homo sapiens appeared just recently on the scene, gifted with the ability to reflect on themselves and their surroundings. In keeping with our view of epistemology and anthropology, this viewpoint has radical implications not only for our view of the earth (cosmology) but also for our sense of normativity and morality (what we will address later in relation to the notion of phenomenological ethics).
Enlightenment views and practices, especially as it become entwined with the Industrial Revolution and the forces of capitalism, eventually became complicit in today’s radical distortion of the view and use of nature. The objectification and control over nature played a crucial role in this distortion. Although there were counter voices (Bronner, 2004, pp. 161-2) that called for a non-mechanistic and non-objectifying approach to nature, the ‘domination over nature’ triumphed. Reclaiming Enlightenment values will require the formulation of a very different view of “nature” that is more in keeping with or an extension of the basic perspective of the Enlightenment. It will require recognition of the inextricable inter-connection between humans and ‘nature’, or the inter-subjectivity and inter-dependence of all creatures. Any development of the earth and its resources will need to serve the liberation and flourishing of all creatures. We need a ‘re-enchantment of the natural world’ that is not expressive of a romantic or idealistic yearning for paradise, nor symbolic of a return to some essentialist objectifying view. Human freedom and flourishing can no longer be considered apart from the flourishing of our environment. Eco justice and social justice are inextricably intertwined.
Inherent in the concept of ‘nature’ or the ‘natural world’ is a separation, nature as something distinct from or over against humans and human society (Görg, 2011). This distinction is no longer tenable as our understanding of the integral unity and inter-connectedness of all of life has grown over the last decades. Much of that knowledge has been brought home to us as a result of the consequences of disregarding the inter-relation of all life-systems. We are an inseparable part of the ecological embeddedness of all life, including human life, health and well-being.
We can no longer distance ourselves from the world of inanimate objects and living creatures. There is hardly an area of the earth – some pristine natural world – that is not touched by human activities. Even those wild, unexplored areas that may still exist in the world are subject to the consequences of changing jet streams and ocean currents, of air and water pollution, of the loss of hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals, of northward and southward shifting populations of many creatures as a result of warming temperatures. Everything is inter-connected with everything else through a complex of ecological systems, sub-systems and feed-back loops. Perhaps this is one of the greatest lessons of the science of systems theory. Nothing exists just by itself. When one species of fish in the ocean is overfished, it can have radical effects on an off-shore fishery somewhere else. When trees are clear-cut in a particular mountainous area, it has drastic consequences for the whole eco system, the watersheds down the valley and mud slides covering whole villages. The emissions of coal generated power plants on one continent may result in air pollution and smog on another continent, as well as adding to the average rise of CO2. Some of the most isolated and ‘uninhabited’ polar regions are also some of the most polluted areas with rising temperatures and melting perma-frost. The examples are evident everywhere. The human community is inseparably intertwined with all the other non-human communities. Climate change and global warming have greatly underscored this inter-relationship. The free-market ideology and the commitment to unrestricted growth have brought us to the brink of the disintegration of the very foundation of life.
What is required is a profoundly transformative view when it comes to societal relationships with nature (Görg, 2011). Christoph Görg (2011) argues for a dialectical politics. We intend to take the discussion one step further. As we have emphasized earlier, a stand of trees is a part of the tree coverage of a certain area, which is a part of a complex eco system in that location with those inhabitants, which is a part of the regulation of the temperature and the water cycle, which is a part of a larger eco system and various feed-back loops, and so on (De Graaff, 2016). The first and primary way the earth exists is ecologically; everything is inter-twined with everything else; nothing exists in isolation (De Graaff, 2016). This ecological perspective also has its cosmic dimensions. We are a part of a planetary system. What happens on the sun affects us here on earth and the variations in the tilt and the orbit of the earth have an enormous impact on life on earth, resulting in long periods of warming and cooling over the millennia. When examining today’s global warming many studies start by tracing the evidence of previous ice ages and periods of drastic rises in temperature (De Graaff, 2016). There have been many geological shifts in the total ecology of the planet. Most researchers have concluded that today’s rise in temperature is beyond what could be explained by these global changes in temperature over the millennia. Ice cores from previous millennia provide an important base line for their research. Humans have been slow to catch on to this global and planetary ecological perspective and even slower to honor it (De Graaff, 2016).
The importance of protecting endangered species in different countries, for example, is not just about preserving one particular species of birds, animals, or plants, or even about protecting biodiversity in general, even though that is a serious issue in itself. Each species has its own worth and integrity that deserves protection. However, it helps our understanding even more when we become aware of the crucial role each species plays in the whole of the ecological system (De Graaff, 2016). Protecting plants and animals is about maintaining the integrity and ecological sustainability of the environment as a whole, including the human species. It means that we cannot think about the ocean, the air, the global wind and ocean currents, the fresh water supply, the soil, the land, the forests, or any particular species of animals or the inorganic world apart from the function they have in the total ecological system (De Graaff, 2016). There are many sub-systems and feedback loops that interact with each other. Drastically reducing one species of fish by overfishing or the decline of one kind of seagrass can mean the collapse or decline of an entire fishery. When we destroy, exploit, or pollute one ecological system or region, or one particular species, we often have no idea what the consequences will be until much later, when it may be too late (De Graaff, 2016). At some point there is the danger of the ‘tipping points’ where even two or three relatively minor changes can set off a chain reaction that is irreversible.
To gain an understanding of the environmental decline it is not sufficient to focus on one aspect or another or even a few aspects like global warming and climate change. All the ecological systems and subsystems are interlinked and work in tandem. Temporary changes and fluctuations do not change the basic picture. Variations and some temporary ‘slowdowns’ in temperature, for example, are primarily related to oscillations in atmospheric and ocean currents. They do not change what is happening to the soil, or the fish stocks in the oceans or the decline and pollution of fresh water, or how long some glaciers will take to disappear. It is our human activities that have brought us to this crisis point, our major agricultural practices, our global fisheries, forestry, mining, ways of manufacturing and building, transportation systems, mega-cities with their slums, arms production, politicized justice systems, the numbing effect of the entertainment industry and electronic devices, the distortions and half-truths of the mass media, the deficient health care system and the neoliberal corporate educational systems have all brought us to this point of ecological decline, including human decline (De Graaff, 2016). They mutually reinforce each other and create ecological disintegration, social injustice and untold human suffering (De Graaff, 2016).
Positivistic science, as we have already discussed, reduces reality to its physical dimension, which in turn is broken down into independent parts as so many objects. Each part or variable can then be tested for its role in the complex whole. Such research is assumed to lead to value-free and context-free generalizations, providing ‘scientific evidence’. It is this approach – certainly as it becomes an instrument of market ideology – that has and still largely dominates conventional resource management. Reducing physical and organic phenomena to their identity or classification is part of the way in which resources and organisms are objectified in order to master ‘nature’. Much of present-day science and technology is in the service of the free-market ideology and unlimited growth. Scientific research and technology could be in the service of human liberation and well-being and the conservation of the earth and the flourishing of all creatures. Instead it primarily serves economic and political domination and the disintegration of the environment.
Capitalist ideology, domination, control, rationalism, scientism, technicism, and economic exploitation mutually reinforce each other, and each aspect plays its role in the distortion of our life-world. Peoples’ worldviews in the sense of a driving and motivating force, practical and scientific knowledge and practice form an integral whole and reinforce each other.
To summarize: we need a cosmology that takes its starting point in the inextricable ecological unity and intertwinement of the inorganic, organic and human world. “Nature” as a concept is an abstraction that does not exist as such. Considering “nature” as something separate that can be talked about apart from the human interaction and impact on “nature”, inevitably leads to the objectification of the natural world. It is one of the ways in which humans take control of and exploit the earth’s resources. By contrast, many present-day ecologists have adopted a holistic and integral viewpoint that is based on systems thinking and evolutionary processes (De Graaff, 2016). They use such concepts as ‘social-ecological systems’ that look at people and nature operating as interdependent systems (De Graaff, 2016). Journals like Ecology and Society and Conservation Biology are illustrative of this approach. This multi-dimensional unified perspective is also evident in the contributions of eco-socialists that start from the inseparable connection between eco-justice and social justice and the development of a multi-dimensional view of life (De Graaff, 2016). For millennia millions of smallhold farmers, fishers and forest people worldwide have understood much of this inter-dependence of all living communities and have provided for their needs accordingly. In this respect we need to de-colonialize our perspective and develop a mutual appreciation of many peoples’ insights and practices. Eco-agriculture and agro-forestry as practiced and developed on many continents today are a good example of such mutual beneficial exchanges of traditional knowledge and practices, scientific insights and technical expertise (De Graaff, 2016).
This systemic ecological founding of all life means we are pursuing a cosmology that is open-ended, dynamic and unfolding. The cosmos and our planet with all that it contains is living, developing, changing, intricate, and has many unexpected and unknown dimensions. There are many complex interconnections and dimensions that we are only beginning to understand.. Along with our view of epistemology and anthropology, this perspective has radical implications not only for our view of the earth (cosmology) but also for our sense of normativity and morality (phenomenological ethics). Basing cosmology in the fundamental unity of life without artificial separation and objectification has far-reaching implications for our ‘use of nature’ (iii) and the ‘objectification of nature’ (iv).
The argument that ‘we cannot avoid exploiting and transforming nature’, or that ‘not all control over nature is illegitimate’ can detract from moving our insight forward. All creatures, including the human species, ‘use’ other creatures and ‘transform’ their natural habitat. There are parasitic insects and birds, symbiotic relations that use each other, predators of all kinds, and so on. Different creatures transform their environment and use materials in all kinds of complex and intricate ways. In many ways ‘controlling’, ‘exploiting’ and ‘transforming’ is not an issue in itself. The problem is not whether we can ‘use nature’; all creatures do in a manner of speaking. Even posing the question of ‘good or bad’ and ‘legitimate or illegitimate’ use can be limiting if it is not followed by an extensive discussion of normative phenomenological criteria for how we use the earth’s resources and creatures. The point, again, in systems language, is not that empathy exists, it is the rate of empathy that is the problem.
The primary question, then, is whether we are providing for our different needs in an ecologically sustainable way; that is the first and foremost issue with regard to the ‘use of nature’. What effect does providing for our physical and social needs have on the total ecological system and the maintenance of the ecological balance? In our ‘control and use of nature’ are we respecting ecological boundaries, at least in as much as we have come to know them? Many, if not most industrial practices are not in harmony with these boundaries. Stabilizing the emission of greenhouse gasses by itself will not restore this balance. A second question, closely related, is what needs and wants do we try to meet and satisfy, primarily material ones or all human needs, from emotional, social, recreational, creative, relational, to spiritual or the need for meaning? The accumulation and possession of material goods and use of physical services as a primary goal has a profound effect on how we use and exploit resources. Thirdly, do all benefit equally from providing for our needs? These three issues, developing and using resources within ecological limits, honouring the whole range of human needs, for the benefit of all will fundamentally determine how we ‘use nature’.
In providing for our needs, can we maintain and keep the complex ecological systems and sub-systems, including the human system, in balance? ‘Sustainability’ would be a good criterion if it is used in the sense of sustaining the inter-dependent life systems of the earth. In many instances the word sustainability has been co-opted to describe ‘sustainable development’, which usually means that some very limited or piece-meal environmental safeguards (positioned within the status quo) have been put in place without changing the basic approach to development. Sometimes it is just a claim to reassure or mislead us. It is like the ‘greening of the economy’, or ‘environmentally friendly’ products, and a host of other phrases that are co-opted. ‘Ecological sustainability’ would avoid such misunderstanding, at least for a time.
In this sense most industrial farming, forestry, and fishing practices, fossil fuel extraction, mineral mining, manufacturing of steel, building materials, and cement, production and use of many chemicals, shipping and air freight systems, etc. are unsustainable ecologically (De Graaff, 2016). For each of these practices viable alternatives are available and being practiced in numerous places on every continent. However, without a radical systemic change there will be more disintegration, extinction, pollution, poisoning, devastating shortages, and a host of other consequences, like erratic and violent weather, global loss and decline of topsoil, depletion of fresh water, acidification of the oceans, further loss of biodiversity, climate and food refugees, ‘overpopulation’ and much more (De Graaff, 2016). This is the legacy of our un-economic and exploitative use of natural resources that disregards ecological boundaries and inter-connections. There is no ‘natural world’ in distinction from the ‘human world’. There is only one integrated ecological system of which we are an inseparable part. Our human activities take place within and are part of a total inter-related system. We are not even the ‘caretakers’ that have ‘dominion over the earth’, as the miss-interpretation and misuse of Genesis 1 would have it (De Graaff, 2016). Any such views would continue to give humans a superior position in relation to the earth and its resources. Because we can reflect on our actions and are not merely driven by instinct we bear responsibility for how and to what end and for whom we use the earth’s resources.
The use we make of the earth’s resources is always in the service of a larger vision of life. It either serves the well-being of all creatures or it serves the interests of the few at the expense of all others. Our ecological vision, our scientific knowledge, our economic practices and our phenomenological ethics mutually reinforce each other.
Objectification and reductionism play a central role in the violation of ecological boundaries and intertwinements. This process involves a threefold distortion. First of all, phenomena are reduced to their generic identity. A tree is just a tree, perhaps a red pine if that identification serves a useful purpose, but nothing more. Secondly, phenomena are stripped of their integral wholeness, their ecological setting and the role they play in the larger environment. As we elaborated in a previous section, even the biological classification of organisms can be abstracted in order to determine economic usefulness. Red pines are more useful than aspen. Nor does the classification say anything about the unique role a particular stand of trees plays in a specific environment. Thirdly, once objectified, phenomena can easily be reduced to their economic value. Wood pellets for biomass generation of electricity are more valuable than the integrity and ecological usefulness of the forests, as Europe and Nova Scotia, along with many others, are beginning to discover in their promotion of bioenergy. Meanwhile there are other forms of biomass generation of electricity that are ecologically sustainable and tremendously helpful in many communities even though these projects may not give a large return on private investments.
Abstracting and distorting phenomena to their analytic and economic ‘object-side’, has its basis in a more fundamental problem. This tendency highlights a fundamental antinomy that has been inherent in Enlightenment thought from the beginning. Human control over nature, including human nature eventually turns against itself. We could call it control run rampart (Smith, 2015a); objectifying all creatures and resources in order to exploit them. Subjects end up objectifying and controlling their own selves (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2015a). That raises the question of who will do the controlling. B.F. Skinner (1948) in his Walden Two took this antinomy to its ultimate conclusion, the behaviorist seeking and submitting himself to re-enforcing behavioral conditioning. This approach speaks to human pride; humans not accepting any ‘boundaries’ to their investigation and control. It reminds one of Walt Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, based on Goethe’ poem: technique run amuck. However, the question is not one of accepting ‘boundaries’ or limits, but rather of recognizing and respecting the nature of the other as subjects in their own right (De Graaff, 2016; Smith, 2015e; Zuidervaart, 2007. The subject-object relation is a distortion that results in a fundamental antinomy, in which humans ultimately turn on themselves and violate all other creatures.
The alternative is a radical subject-subject or inter-subjective view of reality that honors the integrity or multi-dimensional unity of all phenomena (Smith, 2015a, 2015e; De Graaff, 2016). It requires a radical holistic approach to our ‘use of nature’, taking into account all dimensions and ecological inter-relationships (De Graaff, 2016). We need to learn again, especially in the global north and in all so-called ‘emerging economies’, and all those involved in capitalist enterprises that all creatures are subjects in their own right that play an indispensable role in the total ecological system. The way we view and deal with each other, all non-human creatures and the inorganic world determines our humanity or inhumanity. The latest undercover investigation of cruelty against animals in factory farming illustrate how workers in these factories are dehumanized and owners and investors are guilty of causing cruelty and suffering (Wells, 2016). It is just one of countless examples of the consequences of objectifying and reducing living creatures, including humans and all other phenomena to economic objects and efficient and technical procedures.
The way we provide for our needs, relate to each other and all other subjects, reveals our basic conviction about life. It either serves the well-being of all creatures or it serves the interests of the few at the expense of all others. Peoples’ worldviews in the sense of a driving and motivating force, practical and scientific knowledge and practice form an integral whole and reinforce each other for better and for worse (De Graaff, 2016).
There are many views of humankind both popular and theoretical. People may have positive and idealistic or very pessimistic and critical views of human nature. Regardless, such popular views express basic convictions about humanity, about our origin and destiny, good and evil, health and sickness, birth and death, causality and fate, determinism and free will, and so on. There are as many views about human nature as there are general convictions about life, from religious ideas to existential, humanistic, political, economic, psychological, and biological. These competing viewpoints and anthropological models seek to give an answer to the core questions about the human condition.
From the point of view of a critical philosophical anthropology, we want to assert a form of critical intervention and examine the underlying positions these models exhibit. Such a core understanding and evaluation allows us to engage in a critical retrieval of what is most helpful in any anthropological theory. Our intention is not to add yet another theoretical model to the many philosophical conceptions or to develop a variation of an existing model. Instead we want to present the parameters within which we want to think about the human person and relationships.
No doubt such parameters will reflect our basic conviction about humanity and what contributes to human freedom and flourishing. Yet within those boundaries, we want to present a non-metaphysical, non-essentialist, non-ontological, non-utopian view that is open-ended, dynamic, unfolding, and complex.
Historically our view of human nature presents a changing, developing picture as J.H. van den Berg (1961, 1974) has illustrated in his The Changing Nature of Man. This changing nature is readily evident in the view of childhood in Western society during the course of centuries (Mook, B. 1977, 1984, 1999, 2015; Aries, P. 1960; Kruger, D. 1984; Postman, N. 1982). We want to present a view that can serve as a basic touchstone for the great variety of questions and issues that can arise with regard to the human person, human relations and praxis. Anthropological conceptions are of a compelling nature because they reflect a particular worldview. In that respect they are paradigmatic and prescriptive, which requires a critical evaluation and retrieval in order to reclaim what is valuable for today’s society.
Historically, there have been numerous views of the human person. These can be analysed and categorized in several different ways. Instead of critically reviewing a number of representative anthropological models, we will focus on some basic underlying issues. There are two important questions that each anthropological theory struggles with and seeks to answer. One question is whether we are basically one, unified, integral whole or whether we exist as a twofold unity like body and soul, spirit and matter or mind and body. These are usually described as ‘monisms’ and ‘dualisms’. The second question closely related is whether we are always developing and unfolding (‘geneticism’), or whether we have an abiding nature that we always need to live up to (‘structuralism’). What is abiding in life and what changes? How much are we conditioned and to what extent are we free? How can we account for constancy in relation to change and development? The answer to these questions makes a profound difference in how we approach life and theorize about human nature and relationships.
Throughout we have used the phrase ‘the multi-dimensional unity’ of life, including human life. That phrase accounts for the coherence in the diversity of our experience (Smith, 2015e). A more thorough treatment of this notion of coherence can be found in Smith (2015e) and De Graaff (2016). In short: we live in the awareness that we are the centre of our experience in the midst of all our different ways of functioning, relating and developing. In this ‘monistic’ view priority can still be given to ‘higher’ functions in the divergence of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ that arises out of a basic unity (‘priority models’), like in Bergson, Piaget, Frankl and others. For example, the ‘higher’ function (will, reason, spirit) must integrate the ‘lower’ functions (physical, emotional). The various human ways of functioning can also be conceived as developing in interaction with each other, unfolding in increasingly complex ways (interaction models), like in Rogers, Husserl, Merleau Ponty, Dewey, Buytendijk, van Peursen, and others. However conceived, the drive is to actualize the basic unity in diverse human experiences; it is a differentiating oneness. ‘Monisms’ seek to realize the unity that exists. Very practically that means, especially in today’s society, that we are constantly challenged to integrate our bodily and sensory awareness, our feelings, thoughts, creativity, relations, work, relaxation, use of time, and find a harmony that does justice to the integrality of all dimensions of our life.
This view is quite the opposite of the conception that there is an inherent tension between opposing dimensions that can never be fully resolved. Body, sexuality and matter remain just that and all we can hope for is a measure of harmony and union with our higher functions. We need to hold down and overcome the ‘lower’ tendencies the best we can. We also learn, on this view, that life is about harmony and disintegration, the ideal and reality, good and evil. The mandate in any ‘structuralist’ anthropologies is to live up to our given nature. These are age-old traditions in the history of western philosophical anthropologies.
From previous sections and the above it is clear that our interest is with the ‘monistic’, ‘geneticistic’ type of anthropologies. It is a vision about the integrality of the human subject and freedom that was re-awakened and given strong expression during the Enlightenment, especially with regard to the implications for political life and the rule of law. But there is still more to be added to the incredibly complex picture we have so far addressed, and it comes by way of the advent of humanistic psychology, a movement which, it can be argued, can be traced back all the way to the core humanistic values of the Enlightenment.
We can clarify this somewhat abstract discussion with an overview of Carl Rogers’ anthropological vision and the implications for psychotherapy and education. Rogers’ humanistic viewpoint and approach to psychotherapy is a part of the ‘third force’ psychology – next to psychoanalysis and behaviourism. In the contradiction between freedom and control, Rogers clearly stands on the side of freedom over against all forms of conditioning of the human person. For this reason it is crucial that we engage in a retrieval of Rogers’ views. His conviction about the human personality and approach to psychotherapy remains an inspiring example for today’s practice, not only in the field of psychology but more broadly in the field of alternative interpersonal relations. Although certain points are overstated, they touch on all the core issues of the individual person and human relationships. In today’s society they are in danger of being lost or overshadowed by approaches that tend to instrumentalize, formalize and commodify psychiatric and psychological practice as well as medical care, education and many other inter-personal and social relationships. In retrieving Rogers’ basic insights, his therapeutic practice itself provides us with the givens for extrapolation, additions and changes.
In this brief summary of Rogers’ theory of personality, psychotherapy and interpersonal relations we will leave aside the development of his thought. Although he kept refining and elaborating his theories, his basic conception remained the same. Nor will we highlight the influence of his evangelical upbringing and his journey of liberating himself from its constrictions and distortions of human nature. Nor will we analyse the strong influence of Dewey’s pragmatism on his theories during his early academic development. He soon developed his own distinctive viewpoint that was significantly different from Dewey’s basic position. Finally, as an American he absorbed the cultural emphasis on the ‘primacy of the individual over society’ and the conviction that ‘all men ought to be treated as equal’ – however distorted those views became after the frontier times. Instead of these different influences, we will focus on his underlying conviction about the human personality, relationships and psychotherapy.
Rogers saw the human person basically as an “organismic actualizing process”. Thus the most basic thing that can be said about the individual is that man is an actualization process. All forms of life exhibit this basic actualization tendency. As one species of life, man is one instance of an ever-changing process of actualization. Man can’t be defined as an entity by itself nor as an organism that does the actualizing. The organism itself is nothing; it is wholly defined by its actualizing activity; matter in motion. Man is a process, a becoming, not an entity, being or substance (Rogers, C.R. 1942, 1951, 1959, 1961, 1963 1969, 1970, 1977; Evans, 1975; Wijngaarden, H.R. 1965, Kirschenbaum, H. 1979). In this way, Rogers’ view is very close to that of Sartre (1972) and other influential existential thinkers.
From the very beginning and at every stage the human organism actualizes itself as a totality, as an organized whole or gestalt. Man is always a becoming unity or a forever changing and fluid gestalt, a notion which reminds one of Camus’ famous phenomenological account of friendship and of the developing self (Smith, 2015e). Originally, for Rogers, there is inorganic matter potential with life and growth and tending toward organization or gestalt. Through a process of differentiation and assimilation, the originally undifferentiated, unified organism continually actualizes its potentialities. Out of this original unity as a first level of complexity, the physical organism differentiates itself. In interaction with the ground of physical, chemical and biotic processes and stimuli a new gestalt or figure differentiates itself. To fulfill its physical-organic needs, the organism selects and takes from the environment what it needs to actualize itself. As a dynamic actualizing gestalt the physical organism actively selects and uses whatever it needs to realize its potential.
At the next level of actualization the physical organism differentiates itself into an experiential or psychical organism. The physical and sensory need fulfillment of the first level of differentiation which now serves as the ground out of which the psychic organism comes to stand out as a new gestalt. The potential of physical events for being felt or experienced is now, according to Rogers, actualized. Physical functioning is experienced as sensation, feeling and emotion. Psychic experience puts a person in touch with his or her own original physical reality and functioning.
As soon as physical events are experienced as psychic events they potentially become the perceptual ground for the person’s conscious awareness and symbolization. In this new interaction between ground and gestalt affective experience becomes conscious, perceived and symbolized awareness. Some of all the psychic events realize their potential for being discerned and represented in words or symbols. In awareness a person grasps affective experience as something identifiable and understandable, which allows them to be compared to past perceptions. Persons tend to become aware and understand only those sensation, feelings and emotions that have special meaning for them in the present and the past. In this way perceptual and symbolic functioning have a gestalt character with regard to the total field of psychic experiencing. A self-conscious organism actualizes itself. For good or ill, in conscious awareness persons tend to incorporate certain sensations and feelings and ignore others.
Among all perceptions, a person’s self-perception stands out in a special way. Self-perceptions form the most important and stable group of perceptions and as a self-concept tends to play a regulatory and selective role. In their self-image or self-concept individuals have a more or less stable and consistent awareness of themselves as a separate gestalt. As a distinct gestalt, persons’ self-images tend to regulate their entire perceptual field by determining which affective experiences will become conscious and which not. In this way a person’s self-concept plays a key role in the actualization process or in its interruption. At this level the organismic actualization process becomes self-realization, in which persons experience themselves as the centre of their own sensations and perceptions and the meaning they have for them. The entire actualization process is now channelled as it were through the person’s self-image as a fluid, dynamic self-enhancing or interrupting gestalt.
The next level of differentiation and assimilation requires that persons further realize their self-image in the context of inter-personal interaction. To actualize themselves in a social context requires that persons can take up a position outside of themselves as their own alter-ego or in the actual other self and from that position be able to value themselves positively and ascribe intrinsic worth to their experiences. To value themselves positively they need to be able to assimilate their personal functioning at the inter-personal level. At this social level persons are dependent on the unconditional regard of others to become the unique persons they are. To value themselves positively they must be able to assimilate their personal functioning at the inter-personal level. Such unconditional positive regard is growth facilitating. It indicates the development of the self-regarding and self-valuing organism.
When persons are regarded by others and themselves as having unconditional worth they can genuinely communicate the unique persons they are to others. When two people regard each other as persons with their own unique perceptions and experiences, their communication is mutually enhancing and growth facilitating. That is why, for Rogers, inter-personal communication indicates a further stage in the organismic self-realization process; the development of the transparent organism. The communication level is not the end of the differentiation process. Although Rogers’ description of the actualization process stops at this point, his conception of man as a forever fluid, actualizing becoming demands an open-ended process of subject development.
This finishes our account of Rogers’ theory of the organismic self-actualization process and the development of the human personality. We have followed his description of actualization from the physical, psychic, self-perception, self-regarding, to the transparent organism and beyond. However, to complete this summary we also need a brief account of his theory of psychological malfunctioning and therapy. Together they will allow us to engage in a critical retrieval of Rogers’ contribution to psychotherapy and to human interaction in general.
For Rogers, emotional malfunctioning results when the naturally occurring interaction between the different levels of functioning is interrupted. When our perceptions and self concept are no longer in touch with or consistent with our physical sensations and feelings, we tend to experience and manifest tension, disharmony, rigidity, fragmentation and a loss of wholeness. The incongruence between our perceptual experience and our felt experience means that there are large blocks of our affective experience we are no longer aware of, have distorted and cannot integrate in our self-image. As a result of this lack of awareness there is an equal lack of organic need fulfillment. Thus the whole organismic actualization or growth process is arrested.
The inability to integrate our affective and bodily experiences in our self-conscious awareness and self-concept results in finding the locus of valuation or regard outside of ourselves. When we begin to see ourselves as others see us or think as others see us, we tend to deny and distort those experiences we think are not acceptable to others. Instead of developing our unique self-image that is congruent with and expressive of our physical, organic and sensitive functioning, we develop a socially acceptable self. This theory of subject (de)formation, of the production of a socially acceptable self, is certainly not incompatible with the general view of the subject share by Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm and others. As both Sherman (2007) and Smith (2016) highlight in their development of a progressive, critically retrieved and advanced view of the subject, the process of subject (de)formation almost always results, directly or in-directly, in repression and in the production of a socially acceptable self. Instead of self-regard we develop social regard and begin to live by the valuations of others, taking them as indications of our total self-worth. To fully actualize our own potential we need to be received fully and unconditionally by others. If not, we develop a rigid, static self concept instead of a fluid, changing, open self image. This is, as Smith (2016) argues, one pillar of pathological society due to its many complex outcomes.
In keeping with this understanding of malfunctioning, the core of therapy for Rogers consists of genuine communication of unconditional positive regard and trust in the client’s self- actualization process. Conveying regard and trust helps the client to become aware again and give expression to previously threatening and suppressed feelings. This enlarged perception enables the client to realize that there are basic needs that require fulfillment. Instead of telling his self perception what he ought to feel, he is letting his experience tell him what he is actually feeling. Clients must let go of their present perceptions so that they can once more live and express their feelings and bodily sensations (catharsis) and thereby assimilate them again on the level of conscious awareness (insight). Diagnosis and interpretation are therapeutically significant only if they occur within the client. In this setting of unconditional positive regard, genuineness, warmth, empathy, trust and non-judging acceptance, the client learns once again to value positively and trust his own organismic needs and affective experiences. As a result of this therapeutic process, the client’s self-image changes back again from a social, rigid self to a self awareness that is totally congruent with his own unique functioning. When the client can think what he feels and can say what he thinks, he is most fully himself and totally transparent. Thus the goal of therapy is that the client becomes the organismic experience he is and surrenders his self to the wisdom of the actualizing organism.
Understood in this way the therapeutic process requires that the therapist be non-directive, client-centered and totally genuine and transparent in the relationship. Only the client himself can achieve the clarity and insight that comes from becoming aware of previously suppressed feelings. The client needs to be given the freedom to become himself again by means of the communication of unconditional positive regard and empathy. Again and again Rogers makes the point that it is the safe and free relationship, the warmth and understanding of a facilitating relation that allows the client to get behind his mask and drop his false front. In other words, complete openness, non-possessive caring and empathic understanding is Rogers ‘technique’ for helping the client drop his defences. The therapist needs to fully trust the client’s own capacity for growth and his own organismic actualization process. Such regard and trust can only be conveyed if the therapist himself is utterly congruent with his own experience.
These two brief summaries of Rogers’ theory of personality development and the process of therapy are sufficient to engage in an appreciation and critical retrieval of his insights. With the retreat and decline of humanistic psychology and the advance of the instrumentalization of all forms of guidance and education, it is crucial to retrieve Rogers’ humanistic vision for the healing of individuals and society. Although Rogers’ view of therapy and education is just one example of a humanistic approach, the radicalness and consistency of his vision stands as a paradigm of an alternative approach to human relations. As Rogers himself expressed it in an article in 1962:
It is evident that the kinds of attitudes I have described are not likely to be experienced by a counselor unless he holds a philosophy regarding people in which such attitudes are congenial. The attitudes pictured make no sense except in a context of great respect for the person and his potentialities. Unless the primary element in the counselor’s value system is the worth of the individual, he is not apt to find himself experiencing a real caring, or a desire to understand, and perhaps he will not respect himself enough to be real.
Certainly the professional person who holds the view that individuals are essentially objects to be manipulated for the welfare of the state, or the good of the educational institution, or “for their own good,” or to satisfy his own need for power and control, would not experience the attitudinal elements I have described as constituting growth-promoting relationships, So these conditions are congenial and natural in certain philosophical contexts, but not in others.
These elements [congruence, genuineness, empathy, positive regard, unconditional regard, transparency] are not constituted of technical knowledge or ideological sophistication. They are personal human qualities – something the counselor experiences, not something he knows. Constructive personal growth is associated with the counselor’s realness, with his sensitive understanding of his client’s private world, and with his ability to communicate these qualities in himself to his client.
Therapy and all forms of guidance and helping are relationships that can easily lead to dependency, inequality and foster control and reliance on authority. In contrast, Rogers maintains a truly egalitarian and transparent vision. He genuinely trusts his clients’ ability to heal themselves and break through their own defences. He tends to minimize his own contribution to the healing process, his positive regard and transparency, which is consistent with his view of the ‘organismic self-actualizing process’. These attitudes ‘merely’ help to set the client’s own healing process in motion. He likes to use the image of a midwife for this role, in which the mother giving birth does all the work. Although there may be an inconsistency or contradiction here, these attitudes of regard and transparency on the part of the therapist offer a connection for further elaboration and critical retrieval. Whatever other approaches or ‘techniques’ a therapist may use, they are to serve the person’s own self-healing. No one can do the healing for the person. Only clients themselves can drop their masks and break through their roles. The counselor can only create a favourable emotional climate. His emphasis on unconditional positive regard and empathy remains as the essential – if not sufficient – condition for all forms of therapy. With his emphasis on empathy and positive regard Rogers has made a lasting contribution to psychotherapy and all forms of positive guidance.
The therapist as a facilitator of the organismic growth process applies equally to teachers in Rogers’ view. No matter how intensely teachers are involved, genuine learning remains a personal process. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach To Childrearing (1960) is perhaps the most radical and important example of this approach to learning. Teachers can ’only’ provide a free, inviting and safe climate in which students, each in their own way and according to their own interests and needs can explore and incorporate new materials, relationships and ideas (Kohn, 1999, 2011; De Graaff, 2000, 2011). Children’s learning involves the total involvement of the child and the total involvement of teachers in order to facilitate their learning. Teachers’ genuine involvement and transparency is to serve the students’ exploration and incorporation of new experiences. From this perspective, the purpose of any kind of forming is to lead to children’s self-forming. Here, too, there need not be a contradiction between teachers’ attitudes of genuine warmth, positive regard and transparency as the essential prerequisites – if not sufficient – for students’ self-learning and making use of different educational approaches or ‘methods’. This core view is evidenced by and can be found within numerous positive alternative educational approaches (Titchiner, 2016).
One important limitation of Rogers’ viewpoint is that to some extent clients are seen as a-historical, individual persons without a social context. The person’s life situation and cultural setting are not considered on their own merits. An acknowledgement and affirmation of the clients’ reality with all its perplexities, injustices and suffering is itself a liberating experience. The touchstones of life – justice, stewardship, commitment, caring, communication, sensitive openness, space for living, etc. – can be tremendously confirming of what ought to be and an acknowledgement of clients’ rightful needs and experiences of injustice, exploitation, suffering, etc. If clients are restored to self-awareness, injustice invariably gives rise to anger, fear, disgust or sorrow and calls for protest and rectification. In encountering injustice and prejudice clients need more than a genuine person to person relationship. They do need a healing relation (Smith, 2016), but also an affirmation of their experience with injustice and a new direction.
In spite of this limitation in Rogers’ perspective, his later development of inter-personal relations provides an important point of contact for further development of the communal and societal dimension for growth and the situations that block growth. Rogers’ consistent geneticistic vision does not allow for such an extension. However, his view of the therapist and teacher as the regarding and transparent other provides an important point of contact. They play a crucial role in setting the self-actualizing process in motion (again). These fundamental attitudes of empathy and non-judgemental acceptance remain an essential prerequisite in extending Rogers’ viewpoint to incorporate the relational and communal dimension. They can be seen as an essential component and fundamental commitment to an egalitarian, inclusive, equal, participatory approach and praxis.
In this extension of Rogers’ views the interaction and reinforcement between social pathology and individual pathology requires extensive and separate attention, as has been demonstrated by Smith (2016). Awareness of the broader social context will have a profound effect on the way we approach individual therapy calling for radical forms of psychotherapy and critical social work (Carniol, B. 1990). This point will be expanded on in the following section.
Meanwhile, we could wish that early on in his career Rogers would have encountered some alternative anthropologies and views of therapy. His background in the Judea-Christian tradition mostly provided a faith answer to the core questions of human nature with an appeal to revelation coming from outside our human experience. The pragmatism, positivism and cultural climate he was confronted by during his formative academic years did not provide him with any alternatives either. Neither Skinner nor Freud could answer his basic questions about healing relations. It’s a shame he seems to have had no direct exposure to European existential phenomenology, as it is more than likely he would have found great affirmation in the movement. However, if he had not found his way to a consistent ‘growth’ model, we would not have had the benefit of his unique insight into the depth and extent of empathy.
In conclusion, why a retrieval of Rogers is fundamentally important at this time, is because we can say that Rogers’ so-called ‘monistic, geneticistic’ model does significant justice to – and offers significant clinical affirmation of – the Enlightenment view of the free flourishing human subject in inter-relation, even though we may not want to emphasize ‘change’ at the expense of ‘structure’ the way Rogers does.
In a previous section we have presented a view of ‘structure within change’ that honours the abiding and changing ‘givens of life’. We can only endorse the unfolding unity of the person in the midst of the diversity of experience (Smith, 2015e; De Graaff, 2016) as an example of an anthropological model that highlights the Enlightenment project for the human subject (Bronner, 2004). There is nothing in Rogers’ view that stands in the way of a critical retrieval of his core contributions. The changes we have proposed in summary form are entirely in keeping with the spirit of his view of the human person and therapy.
Likewise with regard to Rogers’ particular view of ‘interactionism’, we can conceive of an alternative conception that is in keeping with his basic intent. Rather than a sequential view of development – an increasingly complex figure/ground mechanism – a unified simultaneous unfolding of all core ways of functioning may do greater justice to the givens, as Daniel Stern has illustrated in his The Interpersonal World of the Infant (1985), which has provided a significant and timely contribution to the advancement of psychoanalysis along very similar philosophical lines as this paper. It seems that from the beginning babies experience themselves as distinct in relation to their caregivers. It is from this inter-relational experience that the sense of self-in-relation and the different ways of functioning unfold through various phases of development (for more see also R.C. Smith, 2016, The Ticklish Subject? A critique of Zizek’s Lacanian theory of subjectivity, with emphasis on an alternative). This alternative understanding underscores once more the multi-dimensional unity and inter-subjectivity of the human person that seems to be present from the beginning. It highlights how we need to acknowledge the uniqueness and individuality of each person in inter-relation in therapy, education and all forms of helping and guidance. This also becomes all the more vital with regards to on-going social struggle and the need for a revival of critically retrieved Enlightenment political theory – that is, a broader engaged social philosophy as a foundation of guidance for social movements.
In building on the above, and in turning our focus toward the concluding sections of this paper, it is important that we continue to draw out a few more issues in relation to the subject, society and social pathology (Smith, 2016). In particular, the focus to begin is on what we have identified as another core antinomy.
Consider, for instance, Manenschijn’s (1996) study where he asserts that ‘liberal morality’ has an inherent antinomy: ‘economic liberalism’ always accompanies ‘personality ideal liberalism’ but in reality the former is always in conflict with the latter. We can expand on this point by noting how the labour market, for example, functions according to the principles of the ‘free market’, but is unable to realize the value of the personality ideal, according to which all people are equal and ought to be able to care for their own livelihood. Instead there is a structural built-in chronic reality of unemployment, discrimination, inequality, oppression and coercion. As Thomas Piketty (2014) has illustrated, and as can be readily observed on an everyday empirical level within the neoliberal era, inequality is growing and this growth is a structural failure of the market to realize a more equal division of income, which violates the fundamental principles of liberalism (Manenschijn, 1996). Additionally, there are countless examples and countless books which highlight such examples where politicians, executives, business leaders, etc. talk about freedom, democracy, equality, and so on but are unable to realize those ‘personality ideals’ of the free-flourishing person. What’s more: similar examples can be provided regarding tolerance and solidarity (Manenschijn, 1996).
For Manenschijn (1996), this can be explained in how the ‘personality ideal’ of liberalism is stuck in the antinomy with the ‘market idealism’ (freedom over against control) and has no adequate foundation in a deeper conviction or anthropological vision about the human person. Human dignity and worth need to be primary and all economic activities as well as any other ones ought to serve this primary value. On this understanding, it is strikingly clear that capitalism – and modern market idealism – really have no roots in the Enlightenment, in spite of the claims of otherwise made by neo-classical economists. Neoliberalism gives priority to the market in organizing social-economic life, which creates inequality on every level. Contemporary economics not only violates but runs directly against fundamental enlightenment values.
But we can also expand this line of study. Manenschijn (1996, p. 15) distinguishes ‘political liberalism’ – which talks about how the state ought to functions and the limits of its power over the individual (civil liberty) – and a ‘liberal individualism’ – which talks about the dignity of each individual. Individualism belongs to the core of liberal morality, but it can be conceived both in a very individualistic way and in a communitarian way. In this way we can explain how there can be red tories and free market tories, neo-liberal, conservative republicans and communitarian republicans. They are forever in an unresolvable conflict with each other; the same is true for the Democratic Party or in Canada the Liberal Party and the Labour Party in the UK. In all of these cases, there is the lack of an adequate and deeper alternative anthropological vision about the individual: what we have described, in light of the Enlightenment, as the human subject in inter-subjectivity.
The intersubjective here also implies the social, the interpersonal, and thus also the structural (Smith, 2016). This is what popular libertarian movements completely miss. Consider, for example, the emergence of liberal-capitalist libertarianism and right-wing libertarianism. Here there is an attempt to preserve the notion of the free-flourishing person, and yet what is also preserved is a structurally antagonistic social-political, economic system. Without the social-systemic, structural fostering of the mediating subject (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2016) which runs against the colonization of the ego and the socially engendered closed, repressed subject that Freud once described, most every attempt to realize the Enlightenment notion of the free-flourishing person runs against its opposite. There is a much wider list of issues when it comes to the idea of right-wing libertarianism – not least the internal authoritarianism which undermines any positive notion of libertarianism. Finally, libertarian in this sense is used in the contradictory context of capitalism as the principle of social organization. And while we could dedicate an entire book to a critique of right-wing movements, there is significant room for a critique of certain left-wing movements. Consider, for instance, failed communists efforts, as Erich Fromm (1955) highlighted, which violated the notion of the free-flourishing individual in quite a different way than capitalism.
Thus, we might say: “Although subjectivity is plainly mediated by the existing sociohistorical structures, it also has the capacity to affect these very structures in turn, and therefore the self-identities that they engender” (Sherman, 2007, p.6). Just as I argued in my critique of the Zizek’s Lacanian theory of the subject (2013a), with emphasis on an interdisciplinary analysis of subject formation which includes several significant contemporary bodies of research: “subjectivity is active and mediating. And, ethically speaking, the notion that we are mediating subjects is basic to our self-constitution, both collectively and individually” (Sherman, 2007, p. 6). Thus, in addition to Zizek by way of Lacan, a number of other philosophers have sought to revivify the subject (Sherman, 2007, p. 3) – the issue, however, is that their project cannot bear the weight of their endeavours (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2013a). They more often than not “confuse genesis and validity” (Sherman, 2007, p. 6) and even, along political lines, end up reproducing the very bad social conditions they seek to overcome (Sherman, 2007, p. 6; Smith, 2013a). For these reasons, as I have alluded and as I will reiterate several times over, it is not Lacan that is closest to Adorno’s radical theory of the subject, it is an altogether more radical interdisciplinary approach which does the most justice to the “mediating subject” Adorno works toward (Sherman, 2007). (Smith, 2016)
This is a point of understanding that seems present in Bronner’s (2004) Reclaiming the Enlightenment, even if such discussion of the subject is not always explicit. He speaks, for example, of democracy, freedom and the rule of law in a way which operates within and seeks to further strengthen actual egalitarian relations. Here, we might seek to strengthen and affirm Bronner’s account by inserting the notion of the human subject in intersubjectivity – a notion formulated, as we have indicated, on the basis of an alternative anthropology as a vital part of the foundation to ground any renewed calls for a positive enlightenment project.
It is no coincidence, moreover, that contemporary social movements often put an emphasis on radical collective space and, even if only implicitly, a reclaiming of the self, of one’s subjectivity in the midst of that alternative social space (Smith, 2014). For this reason – and certainly in line with my own theoretical and empirical analysis of movements – I share Sherman’s (2007) position that it is a terrible mistake to “reduce the standpoint of embodied, intentional consciousness, which obliges us to recognize ourselves as free, efficacious agents in the world, to the sociohistorical standpoint” (p. 6). (Smith, 2016)
The most important point here is that such an alternative anthropology is not posited on the basis of abstract theory; in fact, it can be formulated along quite apparent empirical and experiential grounds. Progressive movements throughout the world (see Heathwood’s research series on contemporary social movements) evidence, in one way or another, prefigurative attempts at fostering the mediating – indeed, the free-flourishing – subject within more reconciled forms of mutually-recognitive collectivity (Gunn and Wilding, 2013). Occupy-style movements are one particularly illuminating example.
In closing: Bronner (2004) is right to emphasize enlightenment values and basic principles of governance and, in the process, attempt to pull critical discourse back to practical political proposes and ultimately to the level of practice. With that said, we are concerned that he may at times give too much of a place or authority to the state without analysing what consequences ‘participatory democracy’ as well as prefigurative grassroots movements should have on our view of the state. In the collective roundtable on social movements and progressive governments organized by Heathwood Institute, this relation was explored up to a certain limit, illuminating a number of paths forward (Gunn, Smith, Fuchs, et al, 2016). In each case, the consensus among the researchers involved was that a bottom-up approach provided a vital if not essential underpinning. Additionally, it would seem that a natural conclusion one could draw from our alternative anthropology is the political implication of the need for a bottom-up, actually democratic and egalitarian, self-governing politics that exists on the basis of horizontal leadership, with representatives to larger, regional, national and international bodies. It entails a new definition or conception of “leaders” and certainly, ultimately, a new conception of the state.
One could speculate that this new conception of the state would be something like a ‘non-state like state’, with the idea not to take away from what the state positively provides; rather, the goal is to democratize the state and make it normatively responsive to a participatory democratic system (Gunn, Smith, Fuchs, et al, 2016). We could perhaps break down this evolution historically: In the 16th and 17th century when the idea of the state ‘individualized’ and took on more of a separate institutional form, statesmen and philosophers struggled how to define and limit its powers (Chomsky, 2013). However, in not taking their views back to the anthropological roots of the free human subject, the state developed along truly problematic lines. As an advance over all the small earldoms (etc.) competing and battling with each other for territory and taxes – also throw in religious battles for good measure – it was assumed too much about the function and authority of the state, with its power ‘merely’ being limited. Although this was positive in some respects, it didn’t stop gruesome torturing and killing by the state and even, at one time, the hanging of children for stealing a piece of bread, and other horrific realities. From the time of Dicken’s (Polsky, 2015) and the influence of the industrial revolution – the dominance of economic liberalism emerged and continuously at the expense of personal freedom and equality, moving ever further away from the anthropological roots of the free-flourishing and mediating subject. Today, at the height of the neoliberal era, the notion of the free-flourishing individual seems at its greatest distance, and thus, even in the field of psychology, we’re witness tremendously detrimental effects on individual development (Smith, 2016).
There are so many things which Bronner accounts for, but perhaps he doesn’t take enough distance to all of this – the corrupted or damaged concept of the state and its equally problematic legacy, idealizing too much of its history. Likewise, the values of governance he does propose would hold up much better if they were grounded more explicitly in the sort of alternative framework we are working toward in this paper. Perhaps this would allow for him to take a bit more distance from such a strict line of defence. Additionally, it would be a bit harsh to blame the philosophes for a similar inaccuracy – but it nevertheless remains today, looking back on history, that where ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘the rule of law’ have taken us has not always been along actual emancipatory, democratic and egalitarian lines. It seems quite apparent to us that what is needed is the development of a very different view of the ‘state’ based on the free human subject. Admittedly, this is a radical demand and we offer no systematic frameworks for how an alternative state might look or operate. What we do offer is the most vital parts of the foundation, which suggests very clearly a progressive direction for the radical re-think of the role and ‘authority’ of the state on the basis of an alternative anthropological view.
7. An Alternative Foundation for Enlightenment Morality and Values: Phenomenological Ethics
Many people have highlighted the crisis of our times: the emptying of experience and of existential meaning; the growing sense of emptiness in consumerist life; the loss of human values; increasing violence and destruction; the blindness of world leaders; the impotence and complicity of global organizations. Many secretly keep hoping that there will be an answer to the crisis of our civilization. But the decline and disintegration continues on with millions of people huddling in refugee camps and millions more going hungry. In the oceans there is the kilometer’s long bubbling of deadly methane gases, rising from the deep. Plastic micro beads are increasingly competing with the fish populations. Energy crises are motivating even more aggressive geopolitical conflicts. Then there is extreme deforestation and growing examples of ever violent corporate land grabs. Is this what the future holds? The heavens are silent and there are few answers. Humanity seems unable to free itself from the destructive influence of corporate and political ideology and terrorism. The ‘grain of insanity’ that Adorno once referenced – the pathology of domination (Smith, 2016) – persists as systemic cycles of domination, exploitation and control unfold according to the violent logic these practices serve.
Collin Harris (2010) wrote, in reflecting on the radical legacy of Eric Fromm’s critical humanism:
For any system to survive, it must develop a means of channelling the human energies within society in accordance with the needs of the system, into cognitions and behaviours that ensure the continued functioning of society. If it becomes a matter of conscious choice whether or not to adhere to dominant social patterns, the system could be endangered. In its purest and most effective form, the character structure operates at the unconscious level, ensuring people “want to act as they have to act, and at the same time finding gratification in acting according to the requirements of the culture.” As Adorno pointed out, “it is part of the mechanism of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produces”.
It is in this context of doubt, survival, terror, denial and inhumanity that we want to critically retrieve the common human values that were liberated from the power of tradition, the landed gentry and the Church during the Enlightenment. Such a reclamation project may seem like a precarious undertaking. Many would not consider it worthwhile to recapture Enlightenment values at all. They would deny there is any normativity to life and that all ‘grand stories’ and all ‘universal values’ have been found wanting. Many post-modern writers tend to hold this view; a view which borders on, if not entirely results in, nihilism (Kellner, 2014a). When one view and set of values is considered as good or as bad as any other, there is no reason to follow any particular guidelines. After the ‘deconstruction’ of all basic ethical perspectives, there is nowhere left to go. That is the theory – in practice those holding such views tend to shy away from the crucial issues of our time and end up supporting the status quo. They move away from recognition of practical political proposals, away from engagement with progressive social movements in struggle to create a better world on a grassroots level, and ultimately away from engaging with people, citizens, about the many issues we face (critique) and the many alternative possibilities available to us (praxis). Instead, what we witness today is an intensifying of hypertheoretical and esoteric discourses. These theoretical movements also, in the end, generally end up theorizing flawed notions of subjectivity (Kellner, 2014; Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2016). At the same time alternative groups and protest movements struggle to find a new structural foundation for their actions. Many are oriented to the here and now and have little confidence in a new overarching or foundational perspective – in how to ensure the vital normativity of the alternative horizons they seek to project and prefigure. To the extent that they see little value in a unifying vision and direction, their actions remain piecemeal and limited.
If contemporary society is deprived of decency, justice, health, solidarity, democracy and egalitarianism, these enlightenment values can also help guide how we move forward (Bronner, 2004). They require significant critical retrieval, it is true. But as Bronner (1995, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2014) shows in a wonderfully concise and practically illustrative way, a reclamation of the Enlightenment is important for fundamental several reasons and we must not back away from the challenges such a project poses. If society today, broadly speaking, is suffering, trauma and ailment (Smith, 2016), critically retrieved enlightenment values and morality shows how an actual egalitarian, democratic and enlightened society would be based on the opposite: healthy subject development, healing and total well-being – individually, socially, and environmentally (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2016). “The sicknesses that pervades contemporary Western society” demands a “radically virtuous alternative of normative humanism”, writes Harris (2010). Such a humanism, we suggest, can gain much from enlightenment values considering that, once upon a time, radical humanism was a cornerstone of certain, more progressive strands of the Radical Enlightenment (Bronner, 2004; Israel, 2002).
The critical retrieval of Enlightenment values that we propose, which builds off the important efforts of other influential thinkers referenced earlier, does give rise to a number of challenging questions. What, for example, could an alternative foundation for humanistic values be based on? If there is such a foundation how could it not lead to another external authority; an ‘ought’ that would once again jeopardize human freedom? How can any new morality be harmonized with the ‘free flourishing of the human subject’? In the face of many conflicting viewpoints who determines what are ‘common human values’? These (and others) are some of the core questions that need answering.
We contend that the development of a different vision and praxis can be aided by the articulation of a different foundation. Here we employ the term ‘foundation’ in a non-foundationalist way. Over against modern rationalism, pragmatism, scientism, power structures and the immorality of the market, we will present a radically different philosophy of life, a different view of human existence, of social interaction, of human knowledge, of human history, and of the earth, the ecologically embeddedness of all of life. Put in academic terms, we need a different ‘critical social philosophy’, ‘epistemology, ‘anthropology’, ‘cosmology’, and ‘moral philosophy’ to bring about structural change. Many landless groups, small-scale farmers, local fishers, forest peoples, indigenous people, First Nations, western communities, and many others are living a radical different praxis within whatever political and environmental they face. Then, of course, there are the countless progressive social movements throughout the world, which prefiguratively show alternative possibilities are available.
In their social forums and declarations they have intuitively formulated the structural changes that are needed to develop a new global society (De Graaff, 2016). Our task is to aid that process by our critical reflections and foundational insights. Inspired by the early Frankfurt School and others, we define this task under the notion of ‘engaged social philosophy’. A key aspect of such an engaged social philosophy, which past thinkers seem to have struggled to answer, has to do with normativity and ethics. Here, we insert another primary theses which we have developed as a result of years of detailed research: it can be summarized under the heading of a ‘phenomenological ethics’. At this point in history, a phenomenological ethics can be no more than a tentative description of various signposts – what we may also describe, in light of the existential-phenomenological tradition, as normative ‘guiding principles’ for transformative direction and action. They can only point to a direction, like a road sign; it is however up to us to follow the signs.
Describing an ethics, even a phenomenological ethics, which is about right and wrong, is always a precarious undertaking. At the same time we know from experience which is the right direction to go. A key issue, however, is the blocking of this experience – the hardening and closing-down of the subject (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2016; Zuidervaart, 2007). We take this as one practical insight provided by Adorno’s negative dialectics (2002). The starting point in understanding how to break the Marcusean “vicious circle”, the pathology of contemporary society (Smith, 2016), is through an analysis of the “closed and hardened subject” and the need for “an open, sensitive and free-flourishing subject” (Smith, 2016). Theoretically, clinically and practically – we can affirm, substantiate and support this claim through an in-depth cross disciplinary research programme that spans psychology, cognitive science, early childhood development studies, education, cognitive behavioural therapy, neurophenomenology, and neurology, to name a few (Smith, 2016). Such a cross-disciplinary synthesis that helps inform a progressive and complex philosophy of the subject, reveals the deepest insight yet on the core blockage of empathy and, in turn, practical ethics. Marcuse (1966, 1969a, 1969b; Parton, 2015a), like Adorno (1992, 2002; Sherman, 2007), of course already knew this too well.
Indeed, as we shall argue, the intersubjectivity that separates our obtaining a general orientation with the phenomenal world and our lack of an ability to absolutely capture a particular phenomenon is not only an important epistemological point (one which both Adorno and Sartre share in common) – it is one that also carries practico-ethical implications (Smith, 2012, 2015e). Although, in critique of and building on Adorno, Jessica Benjamin (1977) may have unsuccessfully attempted to introduce a theory of intersubjectivity not yet considered in critical theory (Sherman, 2007, pp. 227-229), we argue that, in the end, in its final stages of development, any philosophical notion of the “mediating subject” presently available (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2016) – which we take to represent an overwhelmingly progressive retrieval of the subject – finally converges with clinical, scientific and practical research on embodied intersubjectivity and its varying issues (Di Paolo and De Jaegher, 2015). This underlines the frontier of psychology and of the science of understanding embodied cognition (Di Paolo and De Jaegher, 2015). Even studies concerning social cognition in relation to research on the brain indicates a very similar direction of thought (Reddy and Morris, 2004; Van Overwalle, 2008).
The problem, however, is that if critical theory catches up with the growing scientific and clinical research regarding the intersubjective aspect of experience, from a social philosophical perspective we still have the issue of the stunting of intersubjective relations (Smith, 2015e). Stated more practically, a core problem within the existing paradigm is that people today are closed to the experiences of reality and closed to one another. To be clear: it’s not that people are always completely or permanently closed, but generally significantly closed nonetheless. Perhaps the paradigm of instrumental reason has intensified this problem (Way, 2009). But what’s clear – or so we have argued – the very structure of political thought today (ideology and abstract reason) is perpetrated by a hardened, stunted subject. The (de)formation of the subject (Smith, 2016), moreover, is in essence a key operator of what we might describe as a dominant, violent epistemology (Titchiner, 2016) and cognitive paradigm (as referenced in section 3). Common examples can be cited in studies of violence from a diversity of academic fields (Beber, Roessler & Scacco, 2014; Clastres, 2010; Hirsch-Hoefler, Canetti, et al., 2014; Lambert, Clarke * Lambert, 2004; Potegal, Stemmler & Spielberger, 2010). A basic example from within critical theory can be found in Adorno’s critique of identity thought, which was exemplified in the horrific systematic elimination of the Jews, wherein the subject of the Jew was reduced to an object of hate in the name of a particular identity of hatred (Bernstein, 2001; Smith, 2012).
If the Jews in Europe had been exterminated in the name of “identity” – that is, if they were identified as “the Other” and systematically categorized through their yellow stars – then the epistemological question of identity thought (likewise instrumental reason and its positivistic logic) becomes one of the most urgent ethical questions of our time. (Smith, 2012)
Again, what we’re speaking of here is the reduction of individual human beings to the status of ‘mere objects’ – similar, in fact, to what began to emerge in the biological skepticism of the 19th century. The Nazi persecution of the Jew, the Israeli persecution of the Palestinian, the racist nationalist persecution of the immigrant – in any or all case, there is substantial reason to speculate that the very negation of the individual subject as a “mere object” (i.e., the negation of the Jew as a human being on behalf of “the object of the Jew as vermin”) is tantamount to a fundamental shift from the subject-subject paradigm to the subject-object parable and is directly significant of an inherently violating structure of thought (Smith, 2012, 2015a). Philosophically, following the tradition of Hegelian thought, we could call this a shift to contradictory recognition as opposed to mutual recognition (Gunn and Wilding, 2013).
The basic epistemic conditions that form the basis of this “coldness” can be described in how the ‘self’ relates to the Other in an instrumental way. In Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason we read how the Other, the individual reduced to the status of mere ‘object’, is manipulated to serve the self. As a result, I claim that the individual undergoes a series of disassociations or what I occasionally describe as ‘experiential stunting’. One example of disassociation or experiential stunting can be found in how the Nazi guard at Auschwitz almost compartmentalized his ‘self’ in two ways (Lifton, 1986). In the morning the guard could sit at home with his family, listening to Beethoven and playing affectionately with his children. Yet, only hours later, he could go from playing with his children to overseeing the death of hundreds of human beings and without necessarily experiencing the reality of the violence as such. In psychology (Buirski and Kottler, 2007; Gruenewald, 2003; Lichtenberg, and Kaplan, 2014; Shane et al., 1997). and cognitive science (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2005) we could call this a core blocking of empathy. The amount of research on offer is truly overwhelming (Smith, 2016). But the main point, philosophically, is nevertheless the pathological nature of this closed, hardened and instrumental subjectivity (Smith, 2016) – fostered by “brutal, total, standardizing society” (Adorno, 1992; Sherman, 2007) – and the need for alternative social conditions to work toward the notion of the free-flourishing subject (outlined in section 6). A phenomenological ethics can help us articulate this insofar that it is rooted. in a humanistic ethics that can undergird and support our actions.
The neoliberal view of people as rational, narrowly self-interested, labour-aversive individuals is a central part of their ideology (Clarke, 2013; Brown, 2015). Even when dressed up as the ideal person and the ideal society in the novels of Ayn Rand, it remains an ideology that is out of touch with the wide range of needs and interests that really motivate people (Clarke, 2013). It is often presented as prizing the individual; as freedom of choice; control over one’s own life; self-determination; pride in one’s own accomplishments; no dependency on a ‘nanny’ society. To counter the pervasive influence of this reductionistic and individualistic ideology we need to pose a radical counter vision. It is from out of this alternative life direction that we seek to fulfil our lives, whether it is with regard to our physical needs or any other need out of the whole range of concerns. Throughout we have presented a view of human existence that honours all the dimensions of life and that is in harmony with all other creatures. It is a view of the ecological embeddedness of all of life, including humans, in which all creatures are given their due and have their rightful place.
a) Selfishness versus altruism
Throughout history people have sought their meaning and security in one dimension of life after another (De Graaff, 2016; Smith, 2015a, 2015e). As a result, the multidimensional coherence of life is violated and lost (De Graaff, 2016; Smith, 2015a, 2015e). Such absolutization deeply affects what motivates us in life. In that context we have encountered two views of human motivation: human selfishness versus altruism. If we are committed to the capitalist absolutization of economic life, then, ultimately, all of life is for sale; then everything becomes an economic object, including all aspects of human life. Then we become like our idol, Homo economicus, in the sense of what basically moves and motivates us in life. Our bodies and our desires become objects for manipulation and profit. In the same way, a forest is no longer a forest but a resource to be exploited. This one-dimensional view of human motivation is often contrasted to Homo reciprocans, which emphasizes that humans are primarily motivated to reciprocate, to be cooperative, to seek the well-being of others, and to improve their environment. In keeping with this emphasis, many studies have appeared showing that human beings are equally motivated by altruism, empathy, care, selflessness, service, reciprocity and responsibility (De Graaff, 2016).
Rather than this contrast between selfishness and altruism, it would seem to be more helpful to recognize that people seek to satisfy the whole range of human needs, whether biological needs, needs for security, belonging, meaning, creativity, relationships, recreation, or fulfilment. Human motivation is multi-dimensional; there are as many motivations for human behaviour as there are dimensions to life. Nor do these motivations necessarily follow Maslow’s hierarchical order with biological and physical needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. Concerns about food, water, shelter, safety and belonging may vary with the level of prosperity. The more precarious a person’s existence the more concern there may be with just surviving. However, even in desperate situations many people have shown remarkable care and selflessness.
This kind of hierarchy of needs may be quite ethnocentric, that is, more geared to Western individualistic societies. In other, more community orientated societies, acceptance by the group and the well-being of the entire community may supersede individual needs. Consider, as one example, Pierre Clastres’ (1989) anthropological studies and the wealth of literature and research inspired by his work. In any case, present-day interests in a more elaborate index of well-being may come closer to a multi-dimensional view of what motivates people and what gives them satisfaction. Certainly the GDP of a country is a very inadequate, one-dimensional indication of a people’s quality of life and what they value. If people have a basis for their existence, they can also allow themselves to be altruistic, instead of self-centered. Given half a chance people like to care, share, be helpful, be of service, and risk their lives, even in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. When threatened and out of touch with themselves or in the grip of a destructive ideology, people can do the most unspeakable cruel, selfish, heartless and evil things. But given some basic security, people respond with care and solidarity.
An alternative way of life seeks to do justice to all the interrelated dimensions of human life. It is a way that beckons and invites us to let go of our ultimate anxiety and believe that life can be trusted. A multidimensional unified approach to every part of life is another way of describing a structural change; a change from a one-dimensional emphasis to an integral, many-sided emphasis that seeks to do justice to all aspects of life. The multidimensional unity of life and the many touchstones serves as a criterion for evaluating any alternative approach. Does a specific life direction follow healing directives for ultimate meaning, commitment, justice, fairness, equality, integrity, respect, tolerance, community, provisioning, expressiveness, creativity, and emotional, physical, sexual well-being for all or not?
b) Morality and ethics
When we look at modern ethical theories for clarification and support, we soon become disappointed. . Ethicists are often called upon when a society faces difficult or controversial issue. Unfortunately ethics is a nebulous area and ethicists are usually moral philosophers or theologians. What qualifies these academics to make ethical pronouncements about difficult situations? As an academic discipline ethics presents has its own problems, since it has no particular field of investigation. Except as a subdivision of philosophy (moral philosophy) there is no general discipline called ethics. In practice, ethics deals with the “moral” or normative nature of specific human activities. As a result, we only have specific kinds of ethics, like environmental ethics, military ethics, social ethics, business ethics, medical ethics, the ethics of technology, etc. Historically this has resulted in a strange split between “facts and values”, between one’s ‘factual’ daily actions and the ‘morality’ of one’s actions. In view of the history of this “split” it is not surprising that a philosopher or a theologian is asked to reflect on the ‘morality’ of certain medical practices, for example, or the ‘morality’ of a technological innovation, and so on. We can wonder how a theologian-ethicist who is not trained in medicine and is not a practicing doctor can comment and provide guidelines for medical procedures and research? Or how a philosopher-ethicist who is not an engineer can provide insight, for example, into the implications of new developments in nano technology?
On a personal level this split between one’s actions and its morality tends to give rise to such statements as “I am just a soldier, I just follow orders”; “I am just an engineer, I have no control over what people do with my invention”; “I just work here, I don’t set the policies of this company”; and so on. On a practical level, usually nothing is done about a problem until something goes wrong, and then the ethicists are called in and a commission is set up to provide new guidelines. But the problem starts much earlier. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, social workers, journalists, etc. are not sufficiently trained in the broad, ‘moral’ aspects of their daily work. Or, if they have that awareness, there is often little room to act upon their insights and experience, especially if the bottom line is profits or the fear of legal ramifications. It is not easy to disturb the status quo or to be a whistle blower.
As a subdivision of philosophy, ethics is usually considered an autonomous discipline that focuses on the analysis and the testing of moral value arguments. Ethics presupposes morality, that is, people’s moral behaviour, their sense of right and wrong, and what they ought or ought not to do. From that perspective ethics is an autonomous, objective discipline that analyses the reasons people give for their moral behaviour and that challenges inconsistencies in their arguments. Practiced in this way, it tends to be an abstract undertaking that is quite far removed from daily practice, even though they may touch on some very foundational questions. Those ethicists that are closely associated with a particular institute, like a medical school or a research lab, face the opposite problem. With the pressure to come up with practical and workable answers, they may lose the foundational perspective and become more pragmatic.
This dualistic approach to value questions hides the fact that each human activity and each dimension of life related to that activity carries its own normativity. There are no neutral, value free, objective activities and enterprises. It is in our very actions that the normativity of life reveals itself. Morality is not something that we can consider separate from our actual counselling practice, or our medical care, or our technical procedures, or our urban development, or our educational approach, or our fishing practices, or our business dealings, or our peace keeping, or our mining operations, or our academic writing, or any other human activity. Morality is not something we can consider after the fact, or as second thoughts. In every action the guidelines and direction we follow becomes apparent. In our present context moral philosophy and ethics are of little help.
A point that is worth considering are the different attempts to explain the normativity of life. Where does this normativity come from? For many this built-in normativity embedded in our experience involves a mystery. For others it is something that just is, the nature of things. Within an evolutionistic framework it is seen as the adaptations that help the human species survive and adapt to new situations. Within the sociological tradition morality is seen as social constructions that maintain positions of power and privilege and protect the in-group. There is no doubt that this normativity has survival value or helps to maintain the established order. There are many other explanations, probably as many as there are worldviews and they each have some validity. The question is whether such explanations, usually limited to one or more aspects of life, can do justice to the complexity, richness, interrelatedness and normativity of life that we seek to consider via the Enlightenment philosophes.
Within Christianity there is a tradition that believes that beside the special revelation contained in the Bible, there is also a ‘general revelation’, that God reveals himself in nature and history. God as Creator ordered and actively maintains the creation. His creation ordinances uphold the whole world and guide the unfolding of history. In this tradition these ordinances are seen as eternal, universal laws that hold for all of creation and all times. However this view of eternal laws has been found wanting and misused.
During the Enlightenment leading scholars not only started to oppose the political, economic, social and moral power of the Church and tradition, but, even more fundamentally, they rejected the foundation of the Church’s authority. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment project was that it made a radical break with a supernatural source of Revelation as the ultimate authority, power and norm for all of life. Even though many maintained a belief in God as the originator of the world that set things in motion, they held that it is up to humankind to discover the laws that govern life.
Generally, Enlightenment thinkers based their view on human freedom and ability to reason, or, to put it more thoroughly, the freedom to observe, explore, investigate, categorize, and experiment, both experientially and scientifically. Likewise, with regard to the many innovative technological and artistic developments and discoveries during the Middle Ages, they could now be liberated from the constraints of the Church and tradition. Although there were earlier liberating forces during the Renaissance and Reformation, the Enlightenment heralded a more radical shift from the ‘age of Myth’ (a relying on a supra-natural Authority that comes to us from outside this world) to the ‘age of Reason’.
The distinction between the physical and the meta-physical, between transcendence and immanence, between the sacred and the secular, has plagued and limited scholarship and practice for countless centuries. This age-old dualism or split, even in its secularized forms between body and mind, the natural sciences and the humanities, between our practices and the ethics of our actions, or today, between ecological concerns and economic growth, has thwarted insight into the interconnectedness and unity of life. By placing the free flourishing human subject and the liberation of society central, the Enlightenment potentially broke through these dualisms. However, the rejection of the authority of the Church and divine revelation presented a new problem. It created a vacuum. Many basic common human values could now be re-articulated and liberated from the constraints, interpretations and distortions of the Church. The internal contradictions within the Enlightenment vision soon led to new distortions and limited the impact of the newly articulated human values, as we have already suggested. In the end these ethical, political, legal, social, economic and scientific principles and individual freedoms lacked a deeper foundation.
There are other views of ‘myth’, the ‘sacred’, ‘transcendence’, and the ‘built-in normativity’ of life and its open-endedness, that do not appeal to an external authority. One such view comes from the many indigenous peoples and the other from philosophical reflections, which are in opposition to a reductionistic and mechanistic view (De Graaff, 2016). They call for the re-enchantment of life, emphasizing its open-endedness and mystery. For many other indigenous people it is the Creator that is behind the sacredness of all creatures, as well as the earth, water, and the forests. The Creator that is separate from and above all creatures and at the same time in all creatures (De Graaff, 2016). Within this integral perspective, their worldview plays a crucial role. Their beliefs validate and reinforce their practice and, vice versa, their practice informs and adjusts their beliefs to new situations. Experience is not restricted or distorted by their beliefs; rather they confirm and reinforce their practice. Their knowledge, practice, and worldview form a unified whole. People are part of the total community of beings; they have a kinship with all creatures. They belong to the land and seek to live in peaceful coexistence with all other beings. Traditional ecological knowledge contains an ethical and belief component, and in their worldview nature pulsates with life and spirit. As a result of this belief, the core of their environmental and social ethic is based on respect, humility, reciprocity, and communal care and obligation. Humans are part of the community of beings. There is a sacred, personal relationship between humans and all other beings. It is a living environment that is both ‘supernatural and natural’.
Their vision of life is deeply rooted in and gives expression to their way of life; they mutually reinforce each other. The two (vision and way of life) together can be described as an ‘ecological ethics’ or a ‘sacred ecology’. It is a view of the ecosystem that pulsates with life and spirit and incorporates all creatures including the people who belong to the land. Such integral views can be represented by myths and stories and danced or sung. It is the way traditional knowledge is celebrated and passed on to the next generation. The wisdom of this kind of worldview gives expression to universal themes (De Graaff, 2016).
It is too simplistic to see such visions of life as remnants of nature religions or an animistic, pantheistic, mythical worldview. The words ‘a transcendental-immanence’ already comes a little closer to describe the ‘mystery’ of life, that is, the ‘sacredness’ of every creature. There is a depth of meaning to everything and all actions and relations that continues to reveal itself.
Whether one shares these traditional worldviews is irrelevant at this point. The important thing is that they tried to capture something of the integral unity, complexity and on-going disclosure of all creatures and their inter-relationships. All subjects display a richness and a fullness that continues to unfold and reveal itself, and there is something profoundly – indeed, existentially – important to be learned here, especially when it comes to the need to critically retrieve the concept of “reason” and transform the philosophical foundations of western society.
Philosophers like van Peursen and Zuidervaart have highlighted the open-endedness of all phenomena, that nothing is closed off in itself, that all dimensions relate integrally to all other aspects, that nothing can be reduced to its analytical or lingual dimension and that all of life presents an ethical demand. In his last book entitled, Na Het Postmodernisme; Van metafysica tot filosfisch surrealisme, van Peursen (1994) described a third alternative between metaphysical philosophy and post-modern philosophy. He looked for an alternative between an empiricistic and positivistic view of reality and a supra-temporal metaphysical view. He described it as a deepening of the “naked facts”, a plus, or an intensifying of reality, which explains the term “surrealism” in the title. Elsewhere he called it a transcendence in immanence.
After post-modernism with its rejection of universals and grand narratives, how can we still do philosophy which abstracts and generalizes? Van Peursen’s answer, perhaps most fitting with the Radical Enlightenment tradition, is that philosophy must focus more closely on reality as it presents itself and challenges us. For him, reality is dynamic, provocative, disclosing, always in process, and so is our theorizing. Things are their meaning, they reveal and as such they are inseparably connected and open to our experience. Our ordinary daily experiences challenge us and evoke a response. In this encounter with reality, things and events disclose their real meaning. There is an ethical appeal that comes to us from the events and the world around us – an ethical appeal that is perhaps not so different in thrust than Adorno’s normative negativist ethics and theory of dialectics.
In his (1974) book about the Strategy of Culture, moreover, van Peursen ends with a discussion of an “ethics of interaction”. For him ethics is a total strategy that pulls the impersonal powers in nature and society within the sphere of human decision making. All know-how, all technology, all operational procedures, ultimately leads to the question of whether something is good or bad. Our entire existence is of an ethical nature and wants to give direction to our actions. The strategy of a culture ought to lead to human liberation. Such an ethics can only become apparent in concrete situations and decisions. It is an ethics of interaction that comes about in the interaction between our ethical sensitivity and the concrete problems. This is not some utopia that is blind to human powerlessness and moral failure. Rather, the goal of struggling together for alternative solutions is to alleviate suffering, to deal with guilt and to work through resistance. Conflicts and aggression may be rooted in our biological make-up. We cannot ignore them, but perhaps we can channel them through our moral awareness. Normativity is the true counter force of humankind. Immanence is opened up by transcendence. If the open dimension (the transcendent) of ethical decision making becomes visible in a culture, then humans regain their true appearance or stature.
This emphasis on normativity is about the unity and integrality of life, that there is no sacred realm in distinction to the profane. The ‘profaneness’ of life is utterly ‘sacred’. Such a view requires a “referring” or “pointing to” ontology like van Peursen’s deictic ontology (“verwijzend” in Dutch), a view beyond rationalism and classical ontology. In that context van Peursen quoted Dooyeweerd’s phrase that ‘meaning is the way things exist’ (“zin is de zijnswijze van all het geschapene”). In the interacting process between people and reality everything discloses meaning, meaning that makes an appeal, an appeal to foster life-enhancing ways. We could call it a total existential way of being that continually calls for choice, such is the nature of reality. This is a liberating and joyful way of being, because in spite of failures, life keeps calling us back and there can be restoration and reconciliation when we fail.
Van Peursen uses phrases like “the ethical appeal that comes to us from the situations we encounter each day and that call for decision” to describe the normativity of life. By comparison Zuidervaart uses words like “fidelity to societal principles” to indicate a similar state of affairs. These societal principles are embedded in a particular culture and are always already historically given. People hold these principles and are held by them in society. They are not eternal creational ordinances; instead they emerge during the course of human history. As he puts it: “By ‘societal principles’ I mean historically developed, continually contested, and widely shared expectations about how social institutions should be organized, how cultural practices should be carried out, and how interpersonal relations should be configured. Justice, truth and solidarity would be examples of such principles in contemporary Western societies.”
In keeping with this perspective, truth also becomes a very dynamic concept, something that comes close to “doing the truth”. (55) Truth, in whatever area, is what discloses life-enhancing activities and principles. As such, truth is multidimensional, it cannot be reduced to just propositional truth, even though that has its (limited) place as well. Truth occurs when people are being true in the various dimensions of their life. “It can be seen as a dynamic, multifaceted, and fragile calling in which everyone always has a stake and to which no one can avoid making a reply.” (56) Since there is always more to discover about what is life-enhancing and life-fulfilling for everyone, no one can possess the truth. There is no absolute, time-less truth, rather it is a dynamic on-going process of disclosure that requires the experience and insights of many people. At the same time, truth in the different areas of life is also something that impinges upon us, that evokes and provokes, that holds us in its grip and calls for a response.
Zuidervaart (2007) goes a step beyond van Peursen by giving more content to the “sense of values”, “ethical sensitivity” and “normativity”. By giving a few examples, like justice, solidarity, and resourcefulness, he provides us with a number of “general values”. However, he wants to make sure that these “principles” are not seen as absolutes and as unchanging and universal principles. Rather, by calling them “societal principles” he wants to emphasize both their compelling nature and validity and their historical and cultural embeddedness. As he puts it: “The principles already mentioned are not timeless absolutes but rather historical horizons. They are historically learned, achieved, contested, reformulated, and ignored, and their pursuit occurs amid social struggle” (Zuidervaart, 2007, p. 58). Or, as he puts it elsewhere: “Rather it (the articulation of societal principles) will emerge from the struggles of many groups and traditions to fashion and enact a ‘global ethic’” (p. 59). To summarize his view: “A social philosophy after Adorno requires the articulation of normative ‘universals’ that are not abstract – societal principles such as justice, resourcefulness and solidarity whose meaning neither floats in a modern heaven nor sinks into a postmodern morass but emerges historically ‘through clashes between societies and within them’“ (p. 60).
He could have mentioned other principles that have to do with physical well-being and wholeness; sensitive openness and expressiveness; ecological balance and sustainability; individual and communal life-space; commitment and mutual acceptance; or, from his own area, imaginative cogency and disclosure of what is life-enhancing (to name a few). To avoid misunderstanding, Zuidervaart understandably limited himself to those areas with which he is familiar, has been personally engaged in and has struggled with others to make a meaningful contribution. In any case, the argument presented emphasizes how such principles can only be known and realized in the actual societal struggle with many others and in the midst of conflicting opinions. In this way, Zuidervaart’s contribution to our radical reclamation project and social philosophical formulations is significant.
Additionally, it should be noted that Amy Allen (2016), in her book The End of Progress, also comes very close to Zuidervaart. Toward the end of her study, writing about the notion of “metanormative contextualism” which “is an example of a point of view that is beyond […] relativism and absolutism”, Allen comments in wonderfully striking fashion: “Embracing this as a view about moral epistemology or metanormative justification is perfectly consistent with endorsing first-order substantive normative principles such as mutual respect, egalitarian reciprocity, openness to the other, inclusiveness, and so forth”(p. 216). To conclude this section in our paper, allow us to quote Allen in length:
It is even compatible with regarding these principles as universal in the scope of their application, so long as we don’t understand these principles, from a metanormative perspective, as justified insofar as they are absolute values that are “fixed in eternity and hanging from the ceiling like herrings”. This is why even Adorno’s new categorical imperative is a historically indexed claim: it arises out of a particular historical situation, namely, the horror of Auschwitz, and it holds for us in light of that historical situation. Hence, Adorno follows up his critique of metaethical absolutism by saying: “We may not know what man is or the human or humanity – but what the inhuman is we know very well indeed. I would say that the place of moral philosophy today lies […] in the concrete denunciation of the inhuman” (PMP, 175). And when he says this, it is significant that he does not say that we know very well what the absolutely inhuman is. In other words, what we know very well is not some absolute – objective or morally realist – negativist ground, but rather a concrete, historically situated, and in that sense contingent experience of inhumanity and suffering. (Allen, 2016, pp. 216-217)
In coming extremely close to the sort of phenomenological ethics we seek to introduce, the main point, Allen suggests, is that “Adorno’s appeal here to the reality of suffering cannot be indicative of a naïve or straightforward realism or objectivism about moral truths or values” (Allen, 2016, p. 217). Moreover, what Adorno is appealing to is the “reality of suffering precisely because the moral impulse of solidarity with suffering is what has been both presupposed and suppressed within the Kantian” – and largely Enlightenment – “concept of morality that he takes to be predominant in modernity” (p. 217). Thus, concisely put, “the appeal to suffering or concrete inhumanity as a ground for our negatively frame moral judgements is an appeal not to a set of objective moral facts but rather to the suppressed moment within our own historically conditioned way of experiencing the normative world” (p. 217).
On this reading, Allen comes very close to Fabian Freyenhagen’s work, where he reconstructs and defends Adorno’s philosophy – arguing that it contains ‘a negativist ethics (an ethics based solely on a conception of the bad), which can be vindicated, once we have gained a proper understanding of what it is to account for normativity’ (2013, 2015a).
As we have elaborated both here and in previous works: there is an existential impulse toward domination, this impulse plays out initially in the (false) universalizing propensity of thought. This tendency toward what Adorno terms “hypostatization” – what we may also describe as the conceptual subsumption of phenomena – plays a significant role in shaping western thought, including the associated epistemologies of capitalism and the cognitive paradigm which energizes the logic of capital accumulation as well as seals the social universe according to (false) universal laws which appear inexorable (Kompridis, 2006, p. 129). In turn, despite criticism by many that Adorno’s social philosophy is incompatible with praxis or ends up becoming depoliticized, we argue along with Freyenhagen, Allen and others that Adorno offers many concepts vital for any possible emancipatory praxis. In past articles, this point was substantiated through an examination of his radical philosophy of the subject, recovery of experience, moral theory, and even earliest steps toward a seminal concept of truth.
However, in the present the primary focus is a phenomenological ethics, which, we argue, forms a significant part of the grounding of the normative ethics we are attempting to establish. Such a ‘lived’ ethics is not only rooted, as we have suggested, in the Enlightenment appeal to a more intimate subject-subject paradigm of experiential and conceptual relations, it is based on a particular sensibility – indeed, a new sensibility (to play on Marcuse) – that, as Richard Gunn (2015) reflects, involves “mutually recognitive emancipation” which is both “sensory and social”. A phenomenological ethics is indeed both personal and interpersonal, sensory and social. An expression of our intersubjective relation with one another (Smith, 2015e), we argue that it is the eventual outcome of a long tradition of thinkers (Gunn, 2015) synthesized. Not as the ultimate basis for an ethics of absolute principles, the phenomenological foundation we are indicating is compatible – if not altogether strengthens – Allen’s notion of “metanormative contextualism” while extending Adorno’s own negativist rationale. One may of course object to this idea, namely, that within Adorno’s negative dialectics resides certain key insights into the practice of a phenomenological ethics, considering that Adorno was generally critical of phenomenology. However, in understanding the precise targets of Adorno’s criticism and the way in which phenomenology may be critically retrieved, recent works by Foster (2008) and Sherman (2007) bring Adorno much closer to a post-Husserlian phenomenology than what many may be aware. Sherman, in particular, shows in brilliant fashion how and why Adorno and Sartrean existential-phenomenology represent two primary poles of emancipatory social analysis, while even later passages in Zuidervaart’s book, particularly those on recognition and Adorno’s theory of the ‘remembrance of nature’, indicate the presence – in the least the non-incompatibility – of what we may term as a critically theoretically informed phenomenology.
On that note, it is interesting to reflect on Fabian Freyenhagen’s analysis in his talk “The Good, the Bad, and the Normative” (2013) and in his book Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly (2015a), namely that: “Adorno gives us a rationale for why only a minimialist, negativist ethics is possible. If he’s right that our world is fundamentally mistaken ethically, then it is unsurprising that in this world we couldn’t build a full-blown moral theory which also tells us what kind of virtues and moral ideals we should aim for”. Moreover, we are in agreement with Freyenhagen’s reading, especially when he expands his analysis by suggesting that there are certain counter-images that are contained in various forms in our engagement with the world in our current sociohistorical-cultural circumstance (Freyenhagen, 2013). These counter-images don’t provide us with an absolute, complete conception of alternative egalitarian coordinates or conditions – or, in other words, a “determinate conception of the good” – but for Adorno they provide us with the promise that things can be and should be different (Freyenhagen, 2013). This notion, which we finally anchor in the experiential moment of experience (Sherman, 2007, p. 229, 276; Smith, 2015e), is ultimately an expression of a phenomenological ethics, not as something that must be sought for or theoretically anticipated, but as something which already exists, even if it gets blocked in the process of “subject (de)formation” (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2016). Expanded further, this line of analysis provides very important interventions when trying to understanding the emergence of contemporary movements and why they tend to take a certain form: a participatory, more or less horizontal, mutually recognitive (Gunn & Wilding, 2013) form of organization. Inherently in the very form, we contend, is the content of a phenomenological ethics being experimented with, which, prefiguratively speaking, evidences certain basic coordinates of an emancipatory horizon. We might otherwise call these, in normative terms, “phenomenological touchstones”: mutual respect, egalitarian reciprocity, openness to the other, inclusiveness, and so on.
Here we turn to elaborating on a notion which we have been developing for quite some time, and have so far only introduced in this paper: phenomenological ethics.
Returning to some of the challenging questions posed earlier, the first and most important answer is to reiterate that a phenomenological ethics is not founded in an external authority. Rather the ‘value’ is inherent to any subject, including humans. All creatures carry an inherent, integral subjectivity that ought not to be violated. From the simplest organisms to the most complex, each creature carries its own unique subjectivity in interaction with all others. As we indicated before in the section on knowledge and science, trees and forests tell us how they exist as integral subjects. By their very nature they tell us what is ‘a good forest’; how they function and flourish holistically. The intricate and complex interactions of forest management tell us how we might harvest (select) trees in an ecologically sustainable way. Clearcutting is not one of those ways. To use another example: when an enslaved 14 year old boy on a cocoa plantation says, ‘tell your people that if they eat this chocolate they are eating my flesh’, as he turns and shows the scars on his back, we know that his very being is being violated. He has been reduced to a mere disposable economic object. In countless ways millions of ‘free flourishing human subjects’ are being violated to a greater or lesser degree. Their inherent subjectivity tells us what is ‘right and wrong’ about their situation and way of living. This intimate subject-subject paradigm of relating that we have and will continue to argue toward, represents the basis of a radical alternative and holistic conception of enlightenment reason – that is, a critically reclaimed notion of reason that is not rooted in the subject-object parable, but is instead entwined with a phenomenological ethics. There is a wealth of research which has inspired such a formulation, not least Kompridis’ (2006) article Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future. As Sarah Amsler (2015) summarizes in her equally impressive book The Education of Radical Democracy:
The call today is for the formation of new, counter-capitalist and radically democratic styles of reasoning, knowledges and political sensibilities, languages of expression and arts of imagination which are foreclosure-resistant and possibility-enabling, and, further, for their practical articulation through new ‘ways of comprehending, organizing, and transforming reality’ and ourselves (Marcuse 1964, p. 219). According to Nikolas Kompridis, ‘the distinctive feature of the critical theoretical tradition [is] its insistence on the possibility of another kind of reason, another way of living in practice, which is not merely an abstraction or something impossibly utopian but an actual possibility that we can locate in existing, if marginalized, practices of reason’. For ‘if we are to overcome the negative effects of the dominant forms of reason we need to weaken our attachment to them to make room for neglected, devalued or suppressed forms of reason’ (Kompridis 2006, p. 237).
We attempt to further the call for a retrieved and positive notion of reason by formulating the grounds on which holistic reason may insist on another way of living. That is, in taking from and advancing the deepest insights of the Enlightenment philosophes – namely, their struggle to formulate an alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology – we identify the validity of this emancipatory, critical reason in a more reconciled form of relating with phenomena, ourselves and each other (De Graaff, 2016; Smith, 2015e; Titchiner, 2016). This reclamation project insists on a phenomenological ethics as the normative basis for such an alternative conception of reason that is principled on an alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology – indeed, on an alternative cognitive paradigm – as well as entwined with enlightenment values of civic practice. Inspired, furthermore, by insights provided by Adorno’s negative dialectics – particularly the ethical implications of his practical philosophy (Freyenhagen, 2015a) and attempts to recover experience (Foster, 2008) – the argument is fairly simple:
In supporting calls for the coming together of people, for revitalizing the closeness of experience between subject and subject, the emphasis is on a radical shift from “contradictory recognition” – i.e., the subject-object paradigm, systemic alienation, hierarchy, authoritarianism, and one-way circuits of power – toward the emancipatory horizon of “mutual recognition” – i.e., intimate subject-subject relations, horizontality, participatory democracy, and, to borrow from Carl Rogers, a repair of the structural deficit of empathy. Reason, seen as part of the integral whole of the human being, informs and is informed by all dimensions of the human being. Never severed from the emotional, bodily, aesthetic, and lingual and so on, reason is returned to a sort of “experiential coherence” which, following Zuidervaart (2007), becomes the extension of the practice of “mutual intersubjectivity of human beings with other creatures in the dimensions of life they share”.
In general, if one could set a few markers in terms of identifying key points of the theoretical and practical horizon, one of the first points to acknowledge would have to be a theory of the open, mediating, and efficacious subject – i.e., the free-flourishing subject  – who would no longer feel inclined to resort to totalized political frameworks and a hardened instrumental rationality. To those who might be quick to respond that I am putting the cart before the horse – that structural transformation must occur first, either through party or leader – I offer the following refutation: do we not already see such an account of emancipatory, grassroots, prefigurative politics and subjectivity throughout the world today? What is it, moreover, about Occupy-style politics or movements, which are so deeply progressive and emancipatory, if not the manner in which they already evidence a degree of mutual recognition. If the ultimate goal or rationale of such progressive democratic movements is seen as the emancipatory activity of mutual recognition, which commonising entails in the field of participatory public engagement, then already, to paraphrase Sherman, the type of “mediating subject” that Adorno wants to work toward is evidenced in action. The very ideal of Adorno’s liberated subject, “which continues to inspire innumerable acts of resistance,” testifies to the existence of such movements inasmuch as it also testifies to the potential horizon which sees, in essence, patterns of blind domination – that is, the “domination of nature” – potentially overcome. The method of the “mediating subject”, which I have argued in the past is evidenced generally in Occupy’s “mutually recognitive” politics, is furthermore a testament to understanding our knowing, our relating to the phenomenal world, as a matter of persistence, insofar that each individual, each phenomenon, is constantly revealing itself and no longer oppressed by “constitutive subjective” (again, however fragile or fleeting).
Jessica Benjamin is right to suggest, moreover, that we can begin by imaging: “that some form of development toward sociability would occur in the presence of other subjects who do not exercise coercion”. Thus, in recognizing the prefigurative spaces opening up all over the world, whether through small student occupations or larger factory or public occupations, an alternative form of reason as social practice can also be observed. This is perhaps, one of the many strengths of Amsler’s (2014) writing on participation and participatory reason in the context of education. But what gives this alternative, positive notion of reason its assurance of normativity is, again, a phenomenological (‘lived’) ethics that, in every sense, is what we take to be a significant part of the very spirit of the Enlightenment. Inasmuch that the Enlightenment philosophes sought a return to phenomena, to do justice to the particular, awareness of the ethical and moral implications of this shift – not only in cognition but along the lines of philosophy’s three main pillars (anthropology, epistemology and cosmology). This is, we argue, the real core legacy of the Radical Enlightenment. (Smith, 2015a)
Regarding the formulation and development of a phenomenological ethics, we return to the image of the experiential moments of experience that Sherman, in light of Adorno, describes as “mediating moments”. These experiences, necessarily the result of a shift to subject-subject relations, offer what we describe as touchstones or criteria by which actions are evaluates in terms of what is right or wrong – that is, if we allow ourselves to experience phenomena and other human beings in an open way. Another common image we have used previously in this paper and in past works is that of a road sign or signpost – instances or experiential moments that tell us which way to go. In terms of our fellow-humans, words like egalitarian, participatory, inclusive, equality, care, etc. are like so many touchstones that indicate how to honour the other person’s unique subjectivity. In the clinical practice of psychotherapy or in the practice of the natural sciences, these directive experiential moments of intersubjective relation are very much discernible. Observing how the science of sustainable resource management serves as a road sign in dealing with forests, ‘go this way if you want to maintain this forest’, or ‘that is the wrong direction’. These fundamental touchstones or signposts manifest themselves in our actual experience, and in the generation of general knowledge which can also be philosophically conceptualized, even in certain instances abstractly conceptualized (so long as empirically verifiable) and shared universally. However, it is often only when we are actively engaged in fishing, farming, building, studying trees, organizing movements, counselling, making music, writing a play, relating, or any other activity that these touchstones become apparent to us. It is only through intense involvement and openness to lived experience that we develop a sense of the nature and value of everything that is and the things we do and how we relate. To discern these touchstones, we do need eyes to see the other. In more ways than one, this is the ultimate consequence of the Radical Enlightenment’s earliest formulations of an alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology. Where reason and science also involved a new sensibility that was in no way removed from a new vision of morality and ethics that would affect the whole of society, the fullest realization of such a foundational alternative vision is a turn to intimate subject-subject relations. It is this shift which can be seen as the basis for a phenomenological ethics. In short, a phenomenological (‘lived’) ethics is inherent in the intersubjective relation we have with phenomena, ourselves and each other. As has been argued elsewhere, it is tantamount to a political philosophy rooted in mutual recognition of prefigurative grassroots praxis – a political philosophy not prescriptive of preconceived models, but which actively looks for ways to identify “whether a certain form of change is truthful to the notion of ‘social progress’” (Smith, 2014).
A phenomenological ethics represents a radical new direction that honours the very best of Enlightenment political philosophy, which, too, saw societal transformation not as a final absolute end, but as a constant process of struggle, renewal and development (Bronner, 2004). A phenomenological ethics, in this sense, is expressed in a positive notion of enlightenment reason as being non-absolutizing. Concepts, theories, identities, are not static. Moral and ethical direction, too, is not hypostatized but subject to constant reflection and engagement in relation to unfolding reality and the changes realized in the process of time, duration and development. In other words, it is not given us to live a perfect life. Rather it is the overall direction that counts, step by step, and our willingness to retrace our steps and change course when needed. What this requires is an open, fluid, multidimensional view of change (Smith, 2014) that is based on a critically retrieved notion of reason. It requires the notion of Enlightenment reason as normative, practicing, critical and emancipatory.
On a macro level it is as simple as when our agricultural practices lead to ecological disintegration and climate change, we need to retrace our steps and make a radical change in agricultural practices. We can substantiate this need through our research and our experiential – indeed, empirically – observations, which tells us something is wrong – the critical realities reveal that practice has gone terribly astray (Smith, 2015e). If our mining practices and the burning of fossil fuels lead to global warming, social injustice and crimes against humanity, we need to stop and come to our senses. If our oceans are acidifying and our fish stocks are depleting, we need a turn-about and make a new beginning. One can see in every aspect of the process that science and reason are at the heart of such a radical enlightenment social philosophy. The same is true on a micro-level. If local people don’t have a voice in what happens to their community, or if they can’t provide for themselves, or are dispossessed, or can’t use the food from their forests, or are deprived of clean water, we can know that something is drastically wrong and that there needs to be a structural change. The very enlightenment principle of democracy – let alone justice, human rights, and egalitarianism – has been betrayed. When a village cooperative becomes dictatorial and does not share equally, we know some fundamental directive for egalitarian relations has been violated. That does not mean that some situations can’t be complex and difficult to resolve, but the key directions are usually very clear. This is the point of a phenomenological ethics, the very same that Albert Camus once argued toward. It is up to us to implement these guidelines by trial and error, such as in the case of the many Occupy movements in recent years. A phenomenological ethics is not hard to discern, it is near all of us to do. It is both an invitation to living well and an ought if we want things to work out.
These built-in ‘touchstones’ which have a very concrete experiential and empirical dimension, cannot be possessed or controlled, because we can only come to know them in this culture and in this time in history. They are always relative to the situation. They cannot be formulated in fixed laws; if we tried they would only be meaningful to our time in history and our culture, and relative to the limits of our experience. At the same time, a phenomenological ethics surpasses the limits of relativism while also avoiding the pitfalls of hypostatization or becoming absolute first-principles of instrumental action. We cannot find our security in the rule of law and regulations, which soon become inadequate, outdated or distorted. They become rigid, formal rules that violate human freedom, response-ability and creativity. We might even describe these touchstones with words like justice, equality, solidarity, care, respect, clarity, ecological sustainability, physical well-being, sensitive openness, communal living space, meaning, free-flourishing subjectivity, and so on. However, these words are no more than cognitive descriptions of the directives. These directives can, of course, then also be substantiated through rigorous research and study within whatever relevant subject or discipline, as we exemplified for example in the growing science of sustainable forest management. But what is important is that the values of a phenomenological ethics – that is, a lived ethics rooted in the subject-subject paradigm – need to be followed, implemented and actualized. Human actions and relationships are always existential encounters, for we are always encountering the other. This is one of the greatest lessons of existential-phenomenology and the many strands of psychotherapy that it has inspired. As we described earlier, even logical distinguishing is an existential encounter, for cognition is about discerning the truth about the other. In other words: it should be very clear that the epistemological and cognitive implications of this radical alternative enlightenment philosophy are vast.
Doing justice is one example of a tentative description of a phenomenological ethics. It describes the basic direction for all governing and for establishing overarching rules. To do justice means to give everything its rightful place under the sun so that every creature can flourish (De Graaff, 2016). That means that true justice is based on eco justice and opened up to social justice. True justice is restorative, allowing all creatures to flourish, including all humans. In terms of establishing justice (governing), it means that it ought to be participatory, communal, inclusive – a doing justice to every person and every group. To do otherwise would mean to be unjust and to violate the very being of the other. True justice ought to involve self-governing, establishing communal rules in which everybody has a voice. These descriptions are no more than a signpost that needs to be followed and given form in every different and new situation. At times we may not know what is truly fair or how to do justice to all the complexities of a particular situation. Then it would be tempting to hide behind a rule or a formality, ‘the law is the law, if we start to make an exception there is no end to it’. Sometimes we do not know what is a fair way of doing things. The Law cannot give us ultimate security and safeguard our existence. Only by our active participation can we communally establish justice and deal fairly with different situations and all people.
Here, again, a radical conception of practicing reason may be inserted. As we see over and over again, the ‘rule of law’ is no guarantee that justice will be done. Only if we are open to these basic regularities or touchstones of life can we find harmony, safety and peace. As some of the examples of local farming and fishing communities show, developing new ways of self-governing need to come from a ‘bottom-up’ approach in a truly egalitarian way. New rules need to be established by communal participation and assent. Such new organizational structures and communal agreements will differ from place to place, depending on cultural traditions and local situations. All we know is that they need to be fair to everyone and involve the total community. There are many instructive examples from various local villages and cooperatives. In each if not all of these cases, there is a very clear ‘rational’ process of development – a radical form of practicing and complex reason.
This guideline too serves as a criterion for evaluating all alternative approaches: governing ourselves rightly in a way that does justice to all. At the same time this touchstone serves as a radical condemnation of all domination; empire; coercive power; dictatorship; oligarchy; the few lording it over the rest, enriching themselves and exploiting all others; or any miscarriage of justice for that matter. In this respect current governments may endorse the ‘rule of law’ but in many aspects of life and in many instances it does not administer justice for all. It has and still does repeatedly violate this guideline for doing (universal) justice by its commitment to neoliberal capitalist ideology. (For examples of descriptions of a number of touchstone or guidelines see De Graaff, 2016, chapters 6 and 10).
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