by Mark English
Past and present
If we ignore the past, not only do we forego the opportunity to understand our own social and cultural situation in more than a superficial way, but we disrespect ourselves. We are to future observers what past generations are to us, and, if we have no interest in the lives or achievements of our forebears, we are implicitly condoning a similarly dismissive attitude to our lives and achievements on the part of future generations.
Linguists analyse language both in terms of its structure and in terms of its history. Not only language but any cultural element needs to be seen in this double perspective if it is to be properly understood; that is, not just as it is at any given point in time, but also in terms of how it developed.
But increasingly, both in general and educational contexts (each reflecting the other and creating a negative feedback loop), the historical dimension is being neglected or replaced by crude historical myths and fictions. For most people today, the past is a great unknown expanse like the distant oceans on old maps, a blank canvas on which political actors are free to paint whatever they see fit. Inevitably the historical record is distorted beyond recognition as ideologues flesh out their chosen political myths with suitably aligned heroes and moral monsters.
Morality and Politics
Political differences are generally based on moral priorities being ranked differently. Moreover, issues which are high on a particular group’s or party’s agenda are issues upon which divergent opinions are not allowed: the party line must be adhered to on pain of excommunication.
Such attitudes are profoundly illiberal. They characterized Christian and Jewish and Muslim orthodoxies in the past and (in varying degrees) still do. Such attitudes have long been adopted also by the extreme Left, which has operated for more than a century now as a kind of secular religion or set of competing sects. Extreme right-wing nationalist movements like fascism operated in a similar way.
The fact that individual moral intuitions and priorities differ is acknowledged (how could it not be?) but in polarized political contexts, these intuitions tend to be seen as indicators of the moral and political status of the individuals in question. They are also seen, by extension, as markers of group membership. This is essentially a religious attitude. “He that is not with me,” says Matthew’s Jesus, “is against me.” Or, pluralizing to make it more relevant to politics: those who are not with us are against us. This attitude often goes slightly further and does away with even arm’s-length tolerance of alternative views. In such cases, those who are not against those who are not with us are against us.
It’s no great surprise that moral realism is currently flourishing in humanist and academic contexts today, with many self-described atheists (especially those with strong political commitments) coming to believe in an objective “moral law” or set of rights that just happens to correspond to (and thus, validate), the moral imperatives central to their own favored political ideology.
The Anti-Metaphysical Stance
My default position on matters metaphysical is strongly “anti” in the sense that given my assumptions about the natural world, I do not see either traditional metaphysics or theology as viable academic subjects. That a similarly robust anti-metaphysical stance has been promoted by many significant thinkers whose starting point was very different from my own (e.g. Christian fideists, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty) serves only to strengthen my convictions on the matter.
There are, I accept, questions of a metaphysical kind that can be asked and meaningfully discussed. But, in terms of scholarship and academic research, such discussion is only likely to be fruitful to the extent that it is informed by the sciences (broadly interpreted to include mathematics and historical disciplines).
Take the topic of time, for example. There seems little point in writing about it as metaphysically-oriented philosophers have done in the past, attempting to explicate its deep nature in an a priori fashion. Depending on the aspects of time in which you are interested, you obviously need to draw on various sciences or other disciplines (e.g. physics, psychology, linguistics, literature).
Epistemological questions, likewise, need (as I see it) to be seen in the context of particular research programs.
Liberalism versus Dogmatism
Morality, which used to be seen in metaphysical terms, is a practical business, not a theoretical one. You can theorize about it, of course, just as you can theorize about other aspects of human value systems and human behavior. Such theorizing is useful to the extent that it provides a descriptive account of these matters and a framework for discussion of normative questions. A large degree of agreement can be expected on the descriptive front. On the normative side, there is some scope for convergence and agreement but on personal priorities and many controversial questions definitive answers are just not possible.
The view I am putting stands opposed to sophisticated (e.g. Kantian) as well as less sophisticated forms of moral realism (such as those that underlie certain religious and secular orthodoxies). Mainstream Christian churches and Jewish communities have over the centuries come to accept the kind of tolerance for differing opinions and perspectives that has traditionally characterized the European liberal tradition. But the mainstream churches are in decline as, on the one hand, fundamentalist religious groups seem to thrive and, on the other, politics becomes more polarized and extreme.
All in all, the tradition of European liberalism seems to have played itself out. It worked (to the extent that it did) only because a unique set of social and cultural conditions in European and other Western countries allowed it to work.
These conditions no longer prevail. They included a sense of continuity with the past, an enlightened and science-friendly perspective, relatively homogeneous regional and national cultures, and an organic and historically significant network of interrelated communities and practices transcending regional and national boundaries.
Typically, today’s communities and networks lack the deep historical dimension which only cultural continuity provides. As such, they are free-floating and fragile and extremely vulnerable to demagoguery and dogmatism.