Excerpt #22 — Steven Smith on Neo-Kantian Liberals & Their Neo-Hegelian Communitarian Critics

In some ways, this is a follow-up to an earlier post comparing Lilla and Fukuyama.

To recap: only now, in my third graduate degree at a major research institution, have I come across what is often known as the “social justice left”, and have found it maddening to interact with, very different from the liberal left (social justice movements are illiberal) with which I largely identify (with some communitarian sympathies). It turns out that the graduates of institutions that push this agenda are militant and intolerant, and carry this agenda with them into their workplaces.

It is, thus, imperative to make sense out of what it is, rather than fear it, or react to it. How to make sense out of it, its roots, its character, its principles? I began with Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, which I’ll probably review here sometime relatively soon. I then moved on to Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, which I enjoyed more. I am only pages away from finishing Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity (Appiah also wrote The Ethics of Identity, which I own, but have not yet read), and when I am done with that, I will immediately begin Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation for Failure, largely on the merits of Haidt’s many lectures I came across on YouTube where he sanely covers the issues involved in this movement. 

One of the tasks I set for myself, in order to come to terms with some of the issues brought up by one course in particular that I took, was to cover a particular transition of Marxist language into social justice contexts. The social justice folks seemed to use it differently than what I remembered reading in Marx.

Thus, I set out first to understand the transition from the classical liberal tradition to Hegel’s response. Secondly, I tasked myself to see how Marx emerged from the post-Hegelian tradition. Thirdly, I purposed to ascertain how and whether the Marxist-sounding language used by many of the authors syllabused (it’s a good neologism, and you heard it here first, folks) in the class I took –Marxist-sounding language used to support the social justice tradition– was aligned with Marx himself and the Marxist tradition; it seemed like it was not. 

I am starting with Steven B. Smith’s Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism: Rights in ContextIn the opening chapter, he makes some seemingly-insightful comments on how the tension between neo-Kantian individualists (on the one hand) and communitarians (on the other) is a “reinvention of the wheel”, and that Hegel’s critique of the liberal tradition can avoid the weaknesses of these two positions while absorbing their insights and praising the accomplishments of liberalism. When he speaks of neo-Kantians, he has in mind figures like John Rawls

Continue reading

Fukuyama and Lilla on the Older Left vs. the Fractiousness of the Politics of Identity

Identity politics has been a hot-button issue lately, galvanizing people across the political spectrum, and the high-visibility responses it has generated have mostly been from the alt-right; I have seen very few good short articles that have been produced from moderates or those on the left.

Here, I cite from two authors regarding the fractiousness of current identity politics, one of whom is on the political left (Lilla) the other of whom seems to share that broad identity, even though he was once associated with Neoconservatism for a short time (Fukuyama).

The citations seemed to overlap; here they are.

Continue reading

On Oceans (and Ascetics) and Mechanisms (and Revolutionaries)

For Yuri; an afterthought to how Dostoyevsky may have replied to Gerard’s objections to the focus on tending to the heart, and his championing of economic development and rationalization of the social world as the primary route leading to the reduction of the world’s problems and, seemingly, the improvement of human nature — in which moral and ascetical practices, such as tending to one’s heart, are seen as superfluous at best. What follows below is not an argument against this (who would begrudge development?), simply an attempt at being an amanuensis of sorts.  Continue reading

Some Rambling Thoughts on Chinese Shadow Puppet Plays, as Well as a Vonnegut Quote and its Context — Oh, and Simone Weil

The Harvard Ed Portal near me hosts several events, and yesterday’s was “Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band” (there is a YouTube clip of the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band here (that family has been doing this for eleven generations!), and an NPR clip of Wu Man here; there is also a disc they were selling at this event titled “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”, available as a disc and for streaming, YouTube trailer here — more on this disc later, and its accompanying school lesson-plan material, which prompted this post). The event was, in several ways, both eye-opening and beautiful (alien in its tones and stories and some of the conventions of singing; familiar in its musical similarity to Blues and the visual similarity of the puppets to certain Late Antique Anglo-Saxon and Celtic knotwork illuminated manuscript conventions; moving all around).

I loved the show, the performers seemed like wonderful people, and they were very gracious in fielding our questions. I was sad to hear that there were fewer than thirty people left in China who knew this trade — the performers told me that they were 12 when they made their first puppet (out of cow skin, via a rigorous process), and 20 when they could manipulate the flat figures, which each have three poles to move the many parts, with one hand only (to see what I’m talking about, expand this post by clicking “continue reading” below, then look at the image on the header of the expanded post). The younger generations want to leave the villages, want lucrative careers, just want to watch cartoons — though they flock to the performances when they’re held. Thankfully, the Chinese government recognizes the cultural value of this profession, and supports the mission of these puppeteers (similar to how Irish Gaelic survives in the state-sponsored Gaeltachtaí).

On my way out the door, however, I was dismayed to find that an American product was being pushed at the door that, despite its best intentions, was not only smugly imperialist in its self-assured nihilism but insulting to the richness of the Chinese tradition, and its clear apprehension that value is real, and insulting to the Western European tradition, which has also traditionally recognized that what is worth pursuing is worth pursuing because of its inherent worthiness. Continue reading

Update

I have greatly expanded and updated the excerpt post from Simone Weil.