This Wednesday reprint was first published on September 18, 2012. I made some edits to the original — Dave
Socrates said, “To do is to be.”
Sartre said, “To be is to do.”
Frank Sinatra said, “Do-be-do-be-do!”
— a famous joke
Mushari didn't understand that what Kilgore Trout had in common with pornography wasn't sex but fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world
— Kurt Vonnegut, from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant said this about the Human Condition—
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
I've always assumed this quote means what it says—humans are inherently flawed, and any human arrangement is bound to carry those flaws. I used it when I discussed the four-year anniversary of the financial meltdown because it is clearly apropos in that context. I also used this Isaiah Berlin quote, which might be viewed as the antithesis of my view of the Human Condition. The quote is describing a kind of utopia.
Men would no longer be victims of nature or of their own largely irrational societies: reason would triumph; universal harmonious cooperation, true history, would at last begin.
For if this was not so, do the ideas of progress, of history, have any meaning? Is there not a movement, however tortuous, from ignorance to knowledge, from mythical thought and childish fantasies to perception of reality face to face, to knowledge of true goals, true values as well as truths of fact? Can history be a mere purposeless succession of events, caused by a mixture of material factors and the play of random selection, a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing?
The question on the table is this: if the utopian vision Berlin briefly describes is a fantasy, do the ideas of progress, of history, have any meaning?
As regular readers know, and as I document every day, the bulk of the evidence, pre-historical, historical and contemporary, forces us to conclude that Progress is an illusion. History is indeed a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
And if, as a result of human actions, events in the next two centuries spell the end of the short-lived reign of humankind on Earth, does the idea of Progress have any meaning? Obviously not. See my recent post Let's Talk About Time And Decline. But of course the notion that Homo sapiens is not progressing toward some glorious future is unthinkable, as Berlin points out.
This was unthinkable. The day would dawn when men and women would take their lives in their own hands and not be self-seeking beings or the playthings of blind forces that they did not understand. It was, at the very least, not impossible to conceive that such an earthly paradise could be; and if conceivable we could, at any rate, try to march towards it.
That has been at the center of ethical thought from the Greeks to the Christian visionaries of the Middle Ages, from the Renaissance to progressive thought in the last century; and indeed, is believed by many to this day.
Yes, that we marching toward such a utopia is still believed by many people to this day. In fact, it is the default and optimistic view of virtually every human being on this planet. On this blog, I have urged humans to "take their lives in their own hands and to shun self-seeking," but it is quite clear in the early 21st century that they can not do so. Humans are what they are.
After I found this Isaiah Berlin quote, I decided to investigate further. Bear with me as I go through this.
One of Berlin's last books was called The Crooked Timber of Humanity. My investigations led to a 2011 posting by John Quiggin called Back To Berlin on the website crookedtimber.org. I'll get back to that post in a moment, but the interesting part occurs in the first comment by George Scialabba.
When I first heard of Crooked Timber, but before I had read it, I disliked it for its name. I’d always rejected Berlin’s anti-utopianism, which I assumed was also Kant’s, as expressed in that notorious phrase that Berlin was always quoting.
But on pages 232-4 of A Zone of Engagement, Perry Anderson argues persuasively that Berlin got Kant wrong. “Berlin has virtually made of this [phrase "from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing is ever made"] a saw. Here, we are given to understand, is a signal expression of that rejection of all perfectionist utopias which defines a humane pluralism. But what was the actual force of the text from which the sentence is taken?”
[Here is] Kant’s message in The Idea for a Universal History, Anderson counters—
... is not the diversity of values, the imperfectibility of institutions, or the contingency of history,” as Berlin’s frequent invocation of the phrase seems to imply. It is, rather, that “social advance has at length reached the point where the task for humanity can be the realization of a civil society under the rule of law, guaranteeing freedom for all." … The collective destiny of humanity, working through the deficiencies of its individual members, reveals what Kant calls ‘the hidden plan of nature to bring into existence an internally and externally perfected political constitution.’ The naturalism and finalism of this vision are at the antipodes of Berlin’s outlook.
So far from Kant insisting on the irremediable crookedness of humanity in general, he uses the self-same term — krumm — to describe the kind of timber humanity need not become in a well-ordered civic union, where something straight — gerade — is just what can indeed be made. ‘Only in such an enclosure as civil unification offers can our inclinations achieve their best effects; as trees in a wood which seek to deprive each other of air and sunlight are forced to strive upwards and so achieve a beautiful straight growth; while those that spread their branches at will in isolated freedom grow stunted, tilted and crooked.’ The imagery of the bent and the straight, in other words, tells the opposite story from its proverbialization.
Kant, it appears, was really a liberal utopian, or a utopian liberal. So now I like him again. And the name “Crooked Timber” too. (I’ve always liked the actual Crooked Timber, of course, at least since I gave in and began to read it.)
If Perry Anderson is right, and I have no reason to believe he is not, Immanuel Kant was a liberal utopian. Or a utopian liberal. Quoting Kant, social advance has at length reached the point where the task of humanity can be the realization of a civil society under the rule of law, guaranteeing freedom for all. Kant certainly did not mean that humans and all their works are inherently flawed, as Berlin and I thought.
A quick look around here in the United States in 2013 should convince you that social advance has not reached the point where we have "realized a civil society under the rule of law." What applies in the United States is the law of the jungle, especially if you are a too-big-to-fail banker. And how can a civil society under the rule of law exist if a small percentage of the people own nearly all of the wealth? And can enforce their desire to keep it that way?
Due to the ample and unambiguous evidence available, I am just about as far away from being a liberal utopian (or utopian liberal) as a person can possibly be. I have explained this view in my critiques of Progress and economics, my ridicule of technology as a form of salvation, and my descriptions of the abject failure and corruption which pervades governance in the United States. But crookedtimber.org is a hopeful, liberal blog. And now here is Quiggin's original post.
So, I finally stumbled across Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Chapter 1 of which ‘The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West’ ends as follows—
... a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. Yet if it were adopted, it might yet prevent mutual destruction, and, in the end, preserve the world.
Immanuel Kant, a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ And for that reason, no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.
Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic to what Berlin is saying here. Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left.
But, we still need a feasible version of utopia to oppose to the appeal of irrationalist tribalism and the naked self-interest of the top 1 per cent. And, whatever Berlin may have intended by it, “prevent people from doing each other too much harm” should not mean leaving the rich to enjoy the fruits of a system constructed in their own interests, and letting the devil take the hindmost.
A social democratic and feasible utopia should give all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.
It’s hard to spell out what that means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights).
The failure of the market liberal model to deliver on its promises, evident in the global financial crisis, along with the current struggle over austerity provides an opportunity to recover some of the ground lost in the last thirty years while, hopefully preserving the gains.
Note his use of the auxiliary verb should. I never use this form. I prefer the forms to do and to be. The big corporations do run the mainstream media. The Congress is corrupt, and so on. What should be is irrelevant. The people are protesting, not the people should be protesting (see below).
The failure of the market liberal model, according to Quiggin, provides an opportunity to recover some of the ground lost in the last thirty years.
I note, without irony, that almost every single thing which has occurred since the financial crisis four years ago conclusively demonstrates that no such positive opportunity exists. Witness the current sham presidential election. [I wrote this essay during the farce. Events afterwards demonstrate that the election was Much Ado About Nothing.]
I also note that this week marks the one-year anniversary of the failed Occupy Wall Street movement, which went out with a whimper, not a bang, without accomplishing anything concrete, as last winter began. I might also point out that this small, incoherent, ineffectual movement was the only positive sign that American society is not damaged beyond all repair which I've seen in the four years since Lehman Brothers went into bankruptcy. Feasible utopias do not exist.
And I would raise the stakes. I would further claim that any form of human governance, including the market liberal model, is bound to blow up sooner or later, and thus devolve into the kind of farce we have today in the United States. This is especially so in circumstances in which great wealth, and great political and military power are concentrated, as they are in America. Great power and wealth are drugs so potent that humans can not resist them, especially those who are drawn to them to begin with. America is not an exception to this rule. Lord Acton said power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. How right he was!
And let us raise the stakes even further. I found an essay called The Crooked Timber of Isaiah Berlin.
There is much to commend Berlin's view of a liberal pluralism as at least as descriptively accurate as a kind of philosophical realism that still hangs on to an undefined yet persistent idea of "human nature", to which our politics should be responsive.
The author of this post, Geoffrey Kruse-Safford, doesn't know me from Adam, but I am just the kind of philosophical realist he is referring to.
I do indeed write about "human nature," and in many postings on DOTE I have taken some pains to describe it. I am also an empiricist. For example, it appears—this is an observation of how the world works, not some vague feeling about the world—that the urge to have more offspring and increase their material comfort, given the means and opportunity to do so, is built right into our species Homo sapiens. It appears that that's who we are. If you don't believe this, take note of what's being done about anthropogenic climate change—nothing! And why not? Because doing so goes against the grain. We would have to reduce the size of our populations and economies to mitigate global warming.
I would add that our politics is not "responsive" to our Human Nature. Our politics is a manifestation of that nature.
[Berlin's] largeness of moral vision - accepting difference, even incommensurability, as not denoting either some kind of ontological primitivism or moral viciousness - serves at the very least this function: It can keep us from believing, for even a moment, that we and we alone have stumbled upon the final theory, and are therefore obliged to impose it upon the world.
Unlike [Richard] Rorty's pessismistic, small-scale anti-realism - which is little more than acquiescence to an intolerable status quo because, well, things have always sucked, we just don't have the perspective to understand this, so suck it up and deal - Berlin at least has the virtue of understanding that human beings do, indeed, stake their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor for things and that this, too, is a positive moral stance.
I have indeed discovered—I didn't stumble upon it in any sense—a "good enough" approximation of the "final theory" of how human beings work. My view predicts that human will do nothing about global warming, although it is very likely that humans will attempt to geo-engineer the climate when things get bad enough. My view predicts that great social inequality will always emerge (or re-emerge) in complex human societies, even if greater equality is temporarily achieved.
My "theory" of Human Nature does not imply "a positive moral stance," although that is something we can wish for. Moreover, I am not "therefore obliged to impose it upon the world." Only some wacko idealist would try to do that. I merely describe my views on this blog. Again, I never say should, as in you should do this, or you should do that. Liberals like that word. Conservatives like that word. Leftist activists like Chris Hedges or Noam Chomsky or Karl Marx like that word. I prefer the verbs to do and to be.
In the end, if the next two centuries are humanity's last on this Earth, then we simply don't have time for the kind of bullshit which seeks the best, "feasible" liberal utopian vision by which we should govern ourselves.
If there was ever a time for human beings to get truly serious about taking a long, hard look at who they are and what they do, this is it. There will be no second chances.