More on Political Time in John Rawls

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with Magritte painting, not just the link!

Image is of René Magritte’s painting Time Transfixed (1938)


After writing the post for 18th July, I thought about another way time enters in A Theory of Justice. This is very tied up with Utilitarianism in ethics, and less directly with rational behaviour in economics and more formalised aspects of the social sciences. I need to give an overview of what Rawls is doing with ethics, economics and social science before I return to time. As this makes the post quite long, I will state my conclusion here. Rawls appeals to a pure rationalism outside time as the basis of designing a just society, but must appeal to understandings of rational action developed through repetition over time. This conforms the ineradicability of time in any substantive political theory, and leaves Rawls’ theory in an unstable condition his brand of rationalism cannot welcome.

Rawls on Ethics

Rawls’ political theory is tied up with ethical theory, and rests on a rejection of Utilitarianism, that is the ethical theory according to which goodness is the maximisation of the welfare, happiness, utility of the greatest number. Rawls opposes this from the point of view of Kantian (not necessarily the same as what Kant himself which is the subject of great debate) moral theory which seeks universal rules arising from the status of humans as rational and autonomous individuals. Kantian ethics rests on respect for the autonomy and rationality of human persons and Utilitarian ethics rests on maximising the welfare of humans. Rawls’ argument is not a complete dismissal of Utilitarian ethics, he tries to incorporate it by subordinating it. He argues that Kantian ethics is justified by Utilitarian calculations, and goes it to some detail on this allowing for at least two different forms of Utilitarianism: aggregating welfare of all individuals, calculating the average welfare of all individuals. Rawls does not so much argue that Utilitarianism is wrong as that Kantianism leads to the same results with much greater economy of effort, without having to measure and calculate the welfare consequences of any principle on large groups of people. Kantianism has two main advantages: it simplifies effort, it provides a guiding principle to fill the gap when Utilitarianism cannot decide between two outcomes. This may however be a self-undermining argument. What Rawls is arguing could be expressed as saying that Kantianism provides ‘rules of thumb’ (short, simple rational principles) for guiding rationality which are confirmed by Utilitarian calculations. The trouble with that for Rawls, is that ‘rule of thumb’ is a phrase I’ve borrowed from economists (when addressing a general audience, I cannot claim any technical competence in economics) and just refers to the way that individuals economise on effort when deciding what to buy, or prioritise in some way, by referring to a simple rule guiding choice. Such rules may not look very rational, but certainly economise on effort in making choices, avoiding extremely time and energy consuming searchers for the exactly relevant information for every situation in which we make a choice. The trouble with justifying Kantianism on Utilitarian grounds is that does mean accepting Utilitarianism, and turning Kantianism into an intellectual energy conservation device within Utilitarianism.

Rawls on Social Rationality

What Rawls says about Utilitarianism fits in with the use of economics in a general view of social rationality. Social rationality comes into the Original Position (see post of 18th July) which is a very intellectualist form of rationality, isolated minds designing a society. This is backed up with Utilitarianism, as Rawls confirms the intellectualist argument with an argument about how Utilitarian methods of calculating aggregate and average welfare tend to lead to the same conclusions as the Kantian intellectualist argument. In doing this, Rawls appeals to notions of choice over time. Rational choice is what people choose over time. This is fundamental to economics and to generalised theories of choice across social science in game theory. Go to this search result in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for a relevant series of entries, for further explanation. The important important point for present purposes is that it takes repetition and therefore time for this to be measured, and for behaviour to become more rational. Sections 27 and 28 of A Theory of Justice is the key part of the book on this issue. Rawls does not just append Utilitarian calculations to the Kantian reasoning, his view of the persons in the Original Position is developed with reference to avoiding problems of social rationality. The Original Position excludes people with extreme risk taking tendencies while also stipulating that they should reason on the basis of facts. Rawls argues for the superiority of ‘contractualism’, principles of justice drawn up as the basis of society, partly by arguing that this is superior to Utilitarian calculations lacking principles beyond individual satisfaction and partly by arguing that Utilitarian calculations will support Kantianism when suitably modified. Time and repetition has to come into the calculations of social rationality, as it is repeated situations which enable people to have ‘rules of thumb’ or anything like that.

Equilibrium, Change and Time

The process of balancing and adjusting empirical Utilitarian considerations and theoretical Kantian considerations, is important to Rawls and he labels it ‘reflective equilibrium’. The ‘equilibrium’ is an implicit appeal to the way many economists are seeking to define an equilibrium position were all prices are perfect prices. Rawls refers to a version of this, when he refers to ‘Pareto perfection’, an economic situation in which nothing can be changed without reducing someone’s welfare. Evidently Rawls’ version of justice should give us something like this, if only as an ideal. One reaction some economists have to the goal of equilibrium is that is may distort our understanding of economic reality, because the process in which prices are determined is a constant process in which subjective preferences and information held by different people interact constantly changing prices. On this account, equilibrium refers to a frozen state where information is not changing and subjective preferences are not evolving. Simply equilibrium excludes time from economics. For our purposes, reflective equilibrium, like the Original Position, excludes time from political theory. However, Rawls does not exclude time, because he does appeal to the kind of rationality individuals develop over time through repetition, as with the example of drawing differently coloured balls from two urns in section 28, where rational estimates of the proportions of differently coloured balls requires repeated drawing of balls over time. The consequence is that the ‘reflective equilibrium’ is dependent on a coming together of atemporal rationalism and temporally conditioned rationality. Is this equilibrium or contradiction? In either case, political theory must incorporate time as constitutive of rational actions including social design, We should be suspicious of projects to develop principles of justice on temporal situations like the ‘Original Position’ which claim to be free of historical conditioning.

Political Time in Hobbes

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog. Includes picture of 17th Century clock, not just the link!

Clock in illustration is a late 17th Century lantern clock by Joseph Windmills of London.

In recent work on Hobbes something that struck me as very interesting, but which I will have to return to later is the place of time. No references, though I’ve got them in my notes, just some indications of what there is in De Homine/De Cive and Leviathan which I hope to return to later.

In the Leviathan description on the state of nature as war, Hobbes refers to the lack of any means of measuring time as part of the desolation of natural existence.

The covenant which sets up the sovereign (monarch, aristocratic or democratic assembly) refers to time in a way which normal contracts do not. One thing which marks out a covenant as a covenant is that is binds the covenanter for the future, whereas a normal contract refers to a present state of affairs.

The covenant not only binds for the future, it requires that the covenanting person make the first act of the covenant. Presumably the reason for that is to make sure that the subjects of the sovereign obey the sovereign without waiting for the sovereign to establish peace and all the benefits of government. The result is a political time in which subjects obey the sovereign and then the sovereign protects them, and that is how we leave the unmeasured time of the state of nature.

Though Hobbes rather strangely marks out the covenant as unique amongst contracts in binding for the future, he must think that contracts do bind contracting parties for the future, Perhaps what he thinks is that the covenant allows contracts to exist over time by establishing the stable governmental framework which allows there to be contracts. Contracts, and the benefits which flow from them, rely on some expectation that the future will be predictable so that parties can get expected benefits.

The state of nature includes constant fear of death, so a constant non-expectation of the future. We can expect a future, and think and plan towards the future, because there is government and civil law. That is the condition that allowed Hobbes to produce beautiful clocks like the one pictured above.

Hobbes Against Aristotle’s Republicanism

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

I’ve been looking at Hobbes’ direct and indirect criticisms of Aristotle in De Cive and Leviathan. For Hobbes, Aristotle belongs to a class of antique figures whose attachment to notions of law outside the commands of the sovereign of a state provide a justification for rebellion against sovereignty, leading to collapse into a natural state of war. Five anarchic villains are mentioned by Hobbes: Plato, Arisototle, Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch. The inclusion of Plato would surprise some, but the problem for Hobbes is that the sovereign in Plato’s political thought serves law. For Hobbes, living under law is necessary for the benefits of civilisation to exist, and law can only have real existence as the laws of a sovereign which that sovereign enforces. No higher laws can be used to challenge the sovereign.

This should be distinguished from arguments about democracy and liberty, which should further be distinguished from each other. Hobbes argues that in a democracy, the assembled people are sovereign and there is no higher law. He also suggests that such an assembly is likely to be less tolerant of criticism than a monarchy, since any single voice challenging sovereignty is much more worrying for the sovereign when the sovereign is all citizens assembled trying to reach agreement.

Hobbes’ criticisms of antique thinkers flows from the necessities of establishing his system of political thought, but also from the way that his contemporaries made reference to ancient thinkers and republics. This continued to be a major theme of republican and democratic movements up to the late 18th Century, and two great revolutions of that time: the American and the French.

I identify Aristotle’s thought as republican, along with those other ancient thinkers, because Hobbes does and because of their continuing contribution, though mostly Aristotle’s contribution now, to ideas of a stare based on the participation of citizens in decision making, and the assumption going beyond minimal definitions of democracy, that democracy flourishes where citizens are politically informed, concerned and active.

Hobbes’ criticisms of Aristotle are quite systematic and go beyond the obvious political differences.

According to Hobbes, there is liberty where there is the possibility for physically unconstrained action. He rejects Aristotle’s view of different levels of voluntary and involuntary actions, according to a a variety of constraining circumstances by pointing to the possibility of unconstrained physical actions in all these circumstances. In particular he rejects Aristotle’s famous claim that throwing goods off a ship during a storm is a largely involuntary action because it is done to preserve life. This has a political point, which is that physical liberty exists however many laws the sovereign passes constraining actions, so we should not criticise any government for constraining liberty.

Hobbes criticises any idea that a political community can be based on voluntary agreements, contracts and customs. A polis, political community, only exists where a sovereign can enforce obedience to laws. Hobbes believes that Aristotle regarded a polis as a purely voluntary arrangement between free citizens unconstrained by any sovereign.

Hobbes implicitly rejects Aristotle’s account of the importance of friendship in a polity. For Aristotle, friendship is necessary to a happy life and while friendship can involve self-interest it can also rest on shared virtues and desire for the good. Friendship connects citizens into a polity and is the correct attitude of the ruler to citizens. Hobbes defines friendship as mutual self-interest only. Even if we think this is too strong, we could produce the more moderate statement that most friendship includes some shared self-interest. This would be enough to undermine any claim that a polis can be unified by virtuous friendship, or that the ruler could be god ruler by regarding everyone in the polis as friends. What Hobbes is moving towards is the idea that a community is unified by commerce and economic activity, which does not exclude virtue but certainly requires self-interest, as Hume and Smith will discuss in the following century.

Democracy does not guarantee more liberty despite Aristotle’s claim that democracy is based on liberty. A point Hobbs supports with reference to the Ancient Athenian practice of exiling unpopular personalities purely on the basis of a vote, not because they were convicted of a crime.

Enlightenment and Aesthetic Judgement

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, includes picture of Hume Mausoleum!

Picture shows David Hume’s Mausoleum in Edinburgh, designed by Robert Adam.

The Enlightenment has aesthetic judgement at its centre.

The time of the Enlightenment is time of the first widely read works in philosophical aesthetics since Aristotle, beginning with Edmund Burke (A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1757) and David Hume (various essays and sections from his two biggest philosophical works: A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739 and the Enquiries,1748-51). Their work on aesthetics cannot be separated from their other work. Most notably political thought in Burke’s case, and a very wide range of philosophical thought in Hume’s case along with history and economics.

Their notions of aesthetic taste are tied up with notions of knowledge, ethical sympathy, civil society, the workings of the mind and so on. In some ways we can get at what is really new in what they’re doing if we think of how the discussion of aesthetic taste for Burke and Hume is the discussion of how the mind both perceives objects and has ideas about what ideas are in other minds, because the taste refers to our reaction of our objects and our sense of how other people might react. Questions of taste in Hume and Burke raise questions of the complexity of the mind: how it can enjoy pain, the relation between natural pleasure and learned pleasure which is an introduction to understanding the relation between humans as natural animals and humans as formed by history, institutions and culture. Adam Smith also contributed to the discussion of taste, and the issues I’ve just mentioned enter into Smith’s view of political economy.

If we move away from the Scottish (Hume, Smith are just the two most famous figures) and Anglo-Irish (Burke) elements of Enlightenment, to Italy, then the leading figure is Giambattista Vico, in his New Science (1725-1744), which puts the study of mythology and Homer at the centre of the study of the ancient world, and which looks at human history through the link between law and language. Early human history is the most ‘poetic’ for Vico, but the ‘poetic’ is always present in the links between law and language, which appeals to the ancient discipline of rhetoric. Vico looks at human history and the knowledge of human history through visual images, rhetoric, mythology and poetry.

As I noted in a recent post, ‘What Happened to the Novel of Political Theory, two of the great figures of French Enlightenment wrote novels, as a way of expressing and exploring their ideas. The other major country for a survey of Enlightenment is Germany, dominated by Kant, Kant wrote three ‘critiques’ to explain his philosophy, and the Third Critique, Critique of the Power of Judgement, is concerned in its first half with aesthetic judgement, which Kant defines as subjective reflective judgement, and as the place where judgements of knowledge and judgements of ethics are harmonised through judgements of beauty. Judgements of the sublime are said to harmonise the empirical and the transcendental, and to harmonise nature with law governed communities.

The above is the statement of well known facts, but the significance of these facts is persistently obscured by the way that ‘Enlightenment’ is contrasted with ‘Romanticism’. Romanticism, the interest in aesthetic subjectivity is the continuation of Enlightenment and the way that Enlightenment puts aesthetic judgement at the centre. It’s important to see the Enlightenment as something that has aesthetic feeling and judgements of taste at its centre, not at the margins, and that Romanticism is not a decisive break with Enlightenment or its opposite. a short definition of Enlightenment could be the cultivation of taste and the exploration of subjective judgement, that would be no more misleading than other short definitions and less misleading than any which emphasise pure rationality, science and so on.

First Thoughts on Reading Clausewitz

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog (with picture of Clausewtiz!)

I’ve got through the first book of Carl von Clausewitz’ On War (uncompleted at the time of his death in 1831) and started the second book. There are some obvious dangers in commenting on a book before finishing the reading of it, but there are some advantages as well at getting thoughts down on the early parts of a book before that perspective is affected by reading the later parts.

Reading a book itself involves a tension between grasping the perspective of the parts and grasping the perspective of the whole. There are always conflicts and there is always something artificial about a unified reading, and there is always something undeveloped about the reading of a part on its own. Clausewitz was very aware of how war itself must be grasped through this kind of contradictory unity. He emphasises that tactics and strategy are understood as the opposite of each other, and that no clear dividing line can be drawn between them.

He suggests that the achievement of the Commander in Chief is to grasp the different aspects of war and the tensions between them. Clausewitz says that the parts of war are not complicated in themselves but the interactions between them are, so that it takes exceptional intellect to handle them well and exceptional moral courage to stick to that vision in the ebb and flow of battle and campaign. That is why the good Commander in Chief is a genius.

The discussion of the character of war as a whole, and of the successful Commander in Chief, is very much in the language of German Idealist philosophy (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel). I’m not sure at present about his level of awarness of this work, but it is widely accepted that Clausewitz took an interest in Fichte. Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (1807, 1808) is a major text in German Idealist political thought and in German nationalism, in reaction to the Bonapartist transformation of Germany into occupied territories or satellite ‘allies’. Fichte and Clausewitz also had a shared interest in Machiavelli, though a perhaps one sided interest in Machiavelli as the theorist of power politics. More on this in a later post, I hope.

Fichte talks about command and war in terms of critique and judgement, very reminiscent of Kant’s account of aesthetic judgement. I couldn’t say right now how far the comparison could be taken but I’m sure it would be worth working out. Clausetitz keeps emphasising polarities and unities of an unstable kind. War as the conflict of two parties is itself such a unity. Within war there is also the polarity/unity of defence and attack, routine and surprise. Clausewitz gives importance to routine, the learned and repeated parts of military life: from how to march to the normal tactical reactions officers in a particular army have to the events of a battle. Routine itself exists in unified polarity with friction, the way that command may be dissipated by the material and psychological difficulties of moving masses of individual soldiers according to a general plan. Routine minimises friction but leaves an army vulnerable to surprise in the battle.

Clausewitz also seems close to German Idealist philosophy in his view that war emerges in a more and more complete way over history. Early war is just sieges, then more movement enters, then war appears as a complex unity under Frederick the Great (King Fredrick II of Prussia) and an even more complex unity under Naplolean Bonaparte who was able to destroy German armies which still followed Frederick the Great’s tactics). Bonaparte is the shadowing hero or anti-hero of On War, the enemy who must be admired and imitated. There might be a parallel with the role of Hannibal (the Carthaginian general who invaded Italy before his eventual defeat) in the history of the Roman Republic, the most important account coming centuries later in Livy’s History of Rome. Clausewitz’ emphasis on the historical emergence of war means he has no reason to discuss Hannibal, his Roman antagonist Scipio Africanus, or any other great general of antiquity or any great general before Frederick the Great, or texts such as Thucydides Peloponnesian War. Maybe there are good reasons for this, but I don’t think Clausewtiz’ account of the teleological emergence of war is a good reason. Evidently Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were not purely engaged in siege warfare.

Clausewitz’ most famous phrase is that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. I have deliberately left this to the end of the post to avoid looking at Clausewtiz through clichés. The idea that war is the continuation of politics seems to be understood at the level of cliché as a commitment to pure power politics. The point in Clausewitz is that war depends on political will, that political will suffuses the army as political will is more than a formal decision by government but also refers to the capacity of government to mobilise popular feeling, including amongst soldiers. In some sense this is a democratic idea, war cannot succeed unless it has popular support whatever the nature of the government. It leaves a big role for the charismatic leader, but as I suggested in an earlier post on Weber and Charisma (check archive), the idea of a charismatic leader is not an essentially anti-democratic or illiberal idea. Clausewitz’ political thinking, like that of the great Prussian generals Scharnhosrt and Gneisenau, mixes liberal and conservative thinking. The development of the Prussian and German army into a bulwark of traditionalist, conservative, nationalist, authoritarian thinking should not lead us to ignore the reformist role of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, who were allied with the great liberal political thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt in reforming the Prussian state after the losses to Bonaparte. Clausewitz’ famous definition of war should not just be seen as saying that war is something the state normally resorts to in politics. It also suggests that military victory rests on political legitimacy and popular support. Finally it also suggests that we might learn something about the state, by looking at how its military side works. The military aspect of the state has seemed like it most essential aspect along with enforcing laws, for most political thinkers, that suggests a need to look at military organisation as part of political history, military theory as part of political theory.

Blaise Pascal and Hobbes on Justice and Force

Primary version (with picture of Pascal) available at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Blaise Pascal (1623-1661, in the picture above) was a man of many achievements in science, mathematics, philosophy, religious thought, and as a French prose stylist; his thoughts on politics are perhaps underrated. His precise contribution to political thought is complex, for example he used the phrase ‘general will’ when talking about the will of God, and this usage was taken up politically by Rousseau in the following century. It’s beyond the scope of this post to deal properly with all that. I would like to point point out though that Alexis de Tocqueville claimed to read Pascal constantly (along with Rousseau and Montesquieu), and that Nietzsche gave him a high place in philosophy.

Pascal died 10 years after Hobbes published Leviathan. He was still working on his philosophical-religious masterpiece, which survives as a series of thoughts usually known in English by its French title, Pensées. References to this text are complication by the existence of different ways of arranging the material. I won’t go into that, I will just point out that I am using the Brunschwig edition and linking to an online version of an English translation of that edition.

It is Part V where Pascal is most concerned with politics, sovereignty, law and justice. Like Hobbes he regards civil war as the greatest disaster. Unlike Hobbes, he brings to the fore the ways in which the civil laws and state institutions necessary to prevent civil war must differ from natural justice. Like Hobbes, Pascal emphasises that law differs from customs but sharpens the tension between state made law and the traditions of custom. Like Hobbes, Pascal thinks justice rests on force to uphold it, but unlike Hobbes he believes that in this justice loses its claim to be pure justice. Like Hobbes, Pascal thinks a personal sovereign is the best means of upholding ‘justice’ and that the position of the sovereign comes from chances rather than nature of divine appointment’; what Pascal also suggests is something contrary to justice in the power of one individual over all citizens, Justice upheld by the sovereign is force to prevent complete chaos and unrestrained force

Hobbes and the Artificial Man as Sovereign

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Hobbes!

This is amended from a previous version, before I remembered to check De Homine which corresponds to Leviathan Part I Of Man. Of course the last section of De Homine ‘On Artificial Man’ corresponds with the Leviathan discussion, which is at the end of Part I. The hazards of blogging about thoughts in midstream. Anyway there are interesting differences in the two presentations, and of De Cive no where has an equivalent of the leviathan monster. I will deal with those differences in the post date July 10 2009. Actually I have only had to very slightly amend the text below, not much hangs on my forgetting about the last part of De Homine, fortunately.

Currently I studying the development of the political thought of Thomas Hobbes from De Cive (1641)to Leviathan (1651). There is a lot of continuity, but one variation is with regard to the notion of an Artificial man in Leviathan, that artificial man is the leviathan, the monstrous thing necessary to prevent the return of a violent and chaotic state of nature. The artificial man is the thing we all construct, were ‘we’ is the members of a commonwealth and personates us. That is, it stands in for us so that we are the authors of its acts. At one level this is argument for autocracy, and that’s how Hobbes tends to be presented in brief explanations, and he is often taken as a negative example of the defender of unlimited state powers. But, Hobbes makes an enormous concession to democracy but saying that the power of the artificial man comes from the multitude (Leviathan XVI ‘Of Person, Authors, and Things Personated’). In De Cive, Hobbes has already said that the power of the monarchy (or aristocracy) comes from the people (De Cive VIII ‘Of the Three Kinds of Government’, 11). In both books the multitude becomes a people when it is represented by a sovereign. In both cases, the single sovereign acts according to the will of the people. What Hobbes is saying is that it must be assumed that the sovereign acts according to the will of the people. The explanation of this in the later text requires fictional artificial persons who are actors. The move from the popular origin of sovereignty to the leviathan is the move into the fictional and artificial in law, which explains how we covenant our will to a king.

Macaulay’s History of England: A Great Liberal Essay

Primary version of this post, with picture of Macaulay, Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Recently I’ve been reading The History of England from the Accession of James the Second by Thomas Babington (Lord) Macaulay (pictured above), which was incomplete at Macaulay’s death in 1859. Macaulay was a Whig (roughly speaking an aristocratic liberal) politician committed to gradual but significant measures on electoral reform and civil rights, a colonial administrator in India who left about as good a legacy as it is possible for such a person to leave, a poet and a historian.

Macaualay is the person most associated with the now despised genre of ‘Whig History’, that is historical writing which assumes that England is and has been a model of freedom throughout its history, that England has kept becoming more free and that historical figures can be divided between good advocates of freedom and bad advocates of tyranny). This kind of writing was attacked in the 1930s in Britain and when I hear historians on British radio they still find it necessary in some cases to attack Whig history. These people are surely guilty of the same oversimplification of which they accuse Macaulay and surely it’s shameful for professional historians to only mention great predecessors in order to attack them. The counter reaction to Macaulay is surely now so old and well established that there is nothing to be gain by assaulting his reputation and everything to be gain by drawing attention to the greatness of a work which is inevitably limited by the assumptions of the time.

There is one way in which people may now know of Macaulay now. Every time the morality and legality of hunting animals is discussed in Britain, some ‘serious’ journalist will dredge up the same quotation from Macaulay, that: ‘The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators’. The journalists who quote this have probably got it from whatever book of quotations they use to seem cultured than the reading of Macaulay. The quotation does show Macaulay’s style and capacity for ironic commentary. He is referring to the strict Protestants who dominated England in the Seventeenth Century under Oliver Cromwell. Macaulay’s had a great deal more respect for the Puritans and Crowmell than this quotation taken in isolation suggests.

Macaulays’ book is more like an essay on the relation between ideals of liberty (for my thoughts on different aspects of liberty, see my 1st July post on ‘The Western and the Tragedy of Natural Liberty’) and events of British history than a research monograph as now understood. That was how history was written then, and for centuries before. Macaulay illustrates his ideas about liberty with considerable bias about personalities and in the use of dramatic stories. The right approach is to appreciate what Macaulay achieved in writing a historical drama in a classical prose style, which emphasises well constructed sentences, particularly sentences of very balanced rhythm which emphasise a contrast of some kind.

Macaulay was very eager to believe that there was liberty under the law and representative constitutional government in England going back to Anglo-Saxon times (before 1066) and that later movements of reform returned to that original spirit which was never completely eliminated but constrained by autocratic kings. This leans on myths about freedom and constitutional government under Anglo-Saxon kings going back to Alfred the Great (848-899), and a fantasy of the restoration of a past state. These myths were very widespread in England from the 17th to 19th Centuries, the myth of the Norman Yoke in which the Norman French Duke of Normandy stole English liberties when he invaded England and became King William I in 1066. It’s a myth that inspired constitutional and democratic movements and should be understood as an important way in which an understanding of the past influenced political actors. The detail of Macaulay’s account takes us beyond the myth, to appreciate the economic and social changes in England the constitutional innovations that accompanied social evolution.

The book covers a lot of material before the reign of James II, so the title of the books is misleading. However, there is a reason for it, Macaulay takes the resistance to James and his overthrow in the Glorious Revolution (see post of July 2nd) as the vital moment in English history. As that is the moment which established that laws are made by Parliament, that government is responsible to Parliament and that Parliament raises taxes, its not an outrageous claim to make. Macaulay is notoriously unfavourable to James II and favourable to his successor William III. Nevertheless, the book is not just a series of pantomime heroes and villains. Macaulay criticises extremists on both sides on every conflict he examines; and expresses admiration for those who sought compromise and sought to serve the state rather than party interest. Generally Macaulay produces literary-historical portraits of the actors which look at a mixture of good and bad points. Though Macaulay was a Whig, he is willing to give credit to Tories (aristocratic conservative party) for resisting abuses of state power and criticise Whigs for abusing power or going to the extremes. His ‘Whig’ history is really about how Tories and Whigs both advanced liberty through their struggles and interactions with each other. It’s an essay on how party spirit may lead people to undermine the political processes of compromise necessary to the spirit and institutions of liberty; and then how the experience of peaceful politics can enable liberty to survive and advance in times of crisis.

No one should read Macaulay now for a scholarly investigation of English history using the most recent evidence and methods. It’s certainly not a substitute for reading recent historical work, but I doubt that anyone is making such a mistake. It’s a great, and beautifully constructed essay, combining political thought, historical knowledge and literary style on how liberty emerges in history. Sometimes Macaulay repeats and reinforces historical myths, but these myths have their own force and historical reality in English history and deserve to be studied.

Nietzsche Prophet of Karl Popper: Art and Science

Primary version of this post, with Klee painting! is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Friedrich Nietzsche offered a comparison between science and art in his 1878 book, Human, All Too Human, where he seems at moments to suggest that science is replacing art as a critical and creative force. It’s a matter of debate if that is the overall message in Human, All Too Human and certainly a matter of debate if that is the message of later texts. For present purposes, the important thing is that in 1878, Nietzsche suggests that science is a matter of creation and innovation. It’s always dangerous to suggest an idea has no precedents, but I can’t think of a precise precedent for the idea that science emerges from a process of creative interpretations rather than a reading of what is in nature through observation and the systematic comparison of observations. The comparison between art and science goes back to the German Idealist and Romantic thought of the 1790s, but in the sense of a revealing of the truth of nature, a worthy topic of discussion itself. Nietzsche looks to me like a very early occasion for the idea that the scientist uses scientific methods, but that these test ideas produced by imagination, and that imagination is necessary in testing those ideas and producing better ones later. Nietzsche does not put his position in those terms, but a picture builds up in which scientific theories appear from the creative mind and the illusions of our metaphysical assumptions. The methods of science are productive so long as they are not used to produce a ‘Positivist’, metaphysics, that is a final set of unchallengeable truths. Nietzsche does not exclude such a situation, but thinks it would be the end of science as science is a progressive inquiry and elimination of bad assumptions, but needs ungrounded assumptions in order to take a new step.

The history of the philosophy is often effectively taken as starting with Karl Popper (1902-1994). I don’t think that anyone has suggested that Popper’s philosophy emerged without predecessors: immediate and historical. However, for many purposes the teaching and discussion of philosophy of science and methodology of natural and social sciences is taken to begin with Popper as the most pragmatic starting point, or at the very least he appears soon, maybe after a discussion of the Logical Positivism with which he had some connections. What is the exciting thing in Popper which makes him a new beginning, and often the definitive starting point for what is meant by philosophy of science, or methodology. The obvious argument in Popper is that of ‘falisficationism’ (or refutability or fallibilism), the idea that science consists of a succession of theories which are open to empirical falsification and which have been continuously falsified in the history of science. Falsifiability includes the idea that science is open to any idea, and that such ideas are generated through imagination rather than observation.

Both Popper and Nietzsche see science as an enterprise of constant invention and constant fallibility. I don’t suggest that Popper took these ideas from Nietzsche, though someone somewhere may find evidence of a direct influence sometime. maybe it has already happened but I haven’t seen any evidence of it. What is the case is that Nietzsche’s comparatively unsystematic looking philosophy does anticipate ideas in Popper’s rational and systematic approach to defining the methods of science.

The US Civil War Was About Slavery

Primary version of this post is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Abe Lincoln!

The view is being repeated too much that the United States Civil War was nothing to do with slavery. It’s wrong to think that the Civil War started because President Abraham Lincoln (pictured above) wanted to immediately emancipate slaves. Undoubtedly a lot of people do have the vague idea that was how the Civil War started. That does not make it right to say the Civil War was only about the right of states to secede from the Union, as the Confederacy attempted to do, and had nothing to do with slavery, and that Lincoln had no concern with emancipating slaves. The leaders of the Confederacy put the right to maintain slavery at the centre of their reasons for leaving the Union. See the ‘Cornerstone Speech’ of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Stephens refers to Thomas Jefferson’s increasing belief during his life that slavery was wrong and that God would punish the United States for the institution and replies:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

The idea that the secession of the Confederacy and the Civil War were not about slavery is clearly shown to be nonsense by that passage.

Lincoln was a life long abolitionist. No one has seriously denied this, what some apologists for the Confederacy emphasise is that Lincoln had no immediate intention of emancipating all slaves before the Civil War. That is because Lincoln thought it would be wrong an imprudent to force the southern states to implement abolition, and is a completely different issue from the principle of abolitionism. Apologists for the Confederacy (often known as Neo-Confederates) put themselves in the perverse position of accusing Lincoln of respecting state rights too much (with regard to slavery) and not respecting them enough (with regard to the right to secede). The Neo-Confederates have never argued that Lincoln should have passed a federal measure to abolish slavery in all states, so they cannot reasonably criticise him for doing something they say he should not have done.

The other thing the Neo-Confederates emphasise about Lincoln’s attitude to race is that he became more radical over time and that he it’s not clear that he was ever completely committed to the view that the whites, blacks, and all human races are completely equal. We don’t know what conclusions Lincoln would have drawn about race had he lived much after the Civil War, but that would be because the Confederate fanatic John Wilkes Booth assassinated him. We do know that shortly before that assassination, Lincoln had called for voting rights for the ‘most intelligent’ African-Americans and it maybe that the conspiratorial circle round Booth was only planning to kidnap Lincoln before that speech pushed them towards murder. Lincoln’s attitudes to race developed during his life, beginning with the idea that slavery was wrong but that black Africans were inferior to whites and probably could not live on equal terms with whites and that emancipation from slavery would be a slow process, progressing to the idea that slavery should be ended immediately and that African-Americans should be given the chance to fight for the Union (about 200 000 took that opportunity to take up arms against the Confederate salve holding republic), and finally that African-Americans should be given equal political and civil rights though that idea was expressed in qualified way.

Lincoln’s attitudes to slavery on the eve of the Civil War are indicated by this letter to Alexander Stephens (with whom he had very cordial personal relations)

My dear Sir

Your obliging answer to my short note is just received, and for which please accept my thanks. I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me.

Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would,directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.

The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.

Yours very truly


At that time, as the letter and all public evidence of the time indicates, Lincoln thought that slavery was wrong and should not be allowed to spread out of the southern states into the new western territories. This was a major issue of the time as the United States opened up the Frontier and settled the west. A few years before the Civil Warm, pro-slave southern whites launched an incursion into Kansas to use violence to enforce slavery in the new state. This shows the centrality of maintaining and extending slavery for the southern white leadership. They were not satisfied that Lincoln was willing to allow slavery in the southern states, but not beyond, they recognised this as the death sentence for slavery, if a slower one than immediate Union-wide abolitionism.

Lincoln though that maintaining the Union and abolishing slavery were both deeply moral and necessary calls. He though continuity of institutions, respect for the constitution as it existed, laws as they existed and the maintenance of the union precluded forcing the south to abolish slavery . This view is expressed in a letter to the radical Abolitionist journalist Horace Greeley who complained that Lincoln had not made abolition a war aim

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it

Critics of Lincoln usually leave out the phrase after the semicolon in the second sentence, because they prefer not to draw attention to Lincoln’s willingness to free all slaves. Even some people are not so critical of Lincoln have been manipulated by this selective quotation. This letter has to be understood in the context of the following points

  1. 1. Slavery was already abolished in the northern states.

  2. 2.Lincoln was completely and resolutely against slavery being allowed to spread outside the existing southern states.

  3. 3. Both Lincoln and the Confederate leaders thought this would slowly strangle the existence of slavery as slavery restricted to the agricultural and relatively backward south.

The Neo-Confederates cannot deny that Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation later in the Civil War. One response to this is to talk as if Lincoln was not already an abolitionist and as if the Proclamation was merely born of military and diplomatic necessity, that is keeping France and Britain which had already abolished slavery away from recognition of, or even alliance with, the Confederacy. The fact is was Lincoln was already an abolitionist, the hero of the radical abolitionists most of the time, though his compromises sometimes disappointed them. As for the military-diplomatic causes, the Neo-Confederates keep quiet about all the African-Americans who fought for Union and Father Abraham (as Lincoln was known to Union soldiers) and that was a major consideration in the Proclamation. The Neo-Confederates accuse Lincoln of acting for ‘political’ reasons. What other reasons do political leaders have for their actions? How could they deliver ideal objectives without following the logic of political forces and alliances? Surely the Confederate leaders acted in this way, and the radical abolitionist leaders, and the founders of the American Republic, and all political leaders ever. It is manifestly empty to accuse Lincoln of being a politician, but then the Neo-Confederate arguments are empty, and that really is the best they can do.