Thursday, September 22, 2011


"Every assertion contains some truth, for unless the person making the assertion is 'anti-human,' he has detected something that is the case---however one-sided, fragmentary and partial his perception of it may be. Hence, according to Hegel, what is called for is not a legal verdict that decides between conflicting assertions; what is called for is a formula, or concept, that reconciles the assertions by expressing what is true in both without also asserting what is false and one-sided in each." W.T. Jones on Hegel in A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Why do you think America has been having cultural wars?  What's at stake here?  Is this about controlling or owning the American narrative?"

Today's question is so large and complex that a proper answer would require a multi-volume critique of America dating back to at least the Civil Rights Movement but most likely to the founding of the republic. Therefore, because some of my answers this month have ran a bit long, I think it best to keep this post brief, limiting it to basically one central idea I'm comfortable with and certain about---an essentially Kantian and Hegelian idea that is, believe it or not, compatible with both the spirit of Buddhism and Taoism.

Here is that idea:
The opposite of a truth is not always a falsehood. Rather, the opposite of a truth may often be another compelling and equally justified but different truth. In both law and philosophy we refer to these as antinomies, the latter being "a contradiction between two statements, both apparently obtained by correct reasoning." What is at stake here? I would answer: the conflict of interpretations (or narratives about what America is and should be), which is as old as the human species itself. And I'm afraid we cannot turn to nature for the adjudication of ethical questions without committing the Naturalistic Fallacy, pointed out by G.E. Moore, of deriving ethical conclusions from non-ethical premises or of defining ethical notions in non-ethical terms. 

A Seattle Times reporter once told me, "If I don't have a conflict, I don't have a story." Our media thrives on just that (hysteria-drenched headlines), and daily caricatures both sides of the so-called Culture War with all too easy and convenient labels and language for sharply distinguishing between progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, the left and right, etc. Media interpretations tend to be disjunctive, cast in an either/or formulation. But there can be no question, at least to me, that there are on both sides of our present cultural, political, and ideological Divide ideas, narratives, and interpretations that are silly and empirically unverifiable and also ideas that are antinomies: opposing visions that each contain propositions that appear indubitable. America has been a place of opportunity and a country that until recently systematically oppressed its non-white racial minorities; it does have a history of "exceptionalism" and a dark history of imperialism. Indeed, American history can be defined by its disagreements. (At a dinner in April, 2008 at the University of Michigan, I made the comment that it seemed to me that Americans simply don't like each other these days, whereupon writer Nicholas Delbanco, whose life has been spent in both England and America, immediately replied, "Americans have never liked each other." Sadly, I have to agree with his more bluntly honest revision of my observation.)

In the social and political world perhaps the only way to escape antinomies is by the creation of societies like Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Iran or Mao's China, where the conflict of interpretations is adjudicated by force, i.e., the side that wins the argument in the marketplace of ideas is the one in control of the police. Supporters of the opposing view are simply suppressed or extinguished. But if we believe in democracy, and if we accept the thesis that as long as human beings exist on this planet they will have a tendency to interpret in different ways the mysterious and ambiguous universe in which we find ourselves, then it is inevitable that an on-going Culture War involving values and moral visions will be our very human----perhaps all too human---way of life. Certainly every year of my life has been lived in a country, indeed a world, torn by the endless, at times fatiguing but also profoundly human conflict of interpretations over what is and ought to be. And I suppose I have to say I prefer that messy, nerve-wracking condition of perpetual disagreement to the kind of "unity" in ways of seeing that every form of fascism seems to favor.

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