ontology and political commitment (+)

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Thu Jun 29 22:16:34 MDT 1995


Thanks for the challenging post Leo. I have a number of comments but I am
going to have to make them in installments. To begin I want to take issue
with one of your central contentions. There are some aspects of your
argument with which I agree and I will get to them, but because I am not
sure of the implications of the disagreement that I have, I want to start there.

You say that Marx "replicates the tautological tradition within modern
political theory of establishing the just state upon a concept of human
nature in which it is already implicit". And  "Classical political theories
based on ideas of human nature, therefore, take the form of elaborate and
grand tautologies -- for all the ornament, the vision of the state they
espouse was implicit in their notion of human nature." I think that you are
right to argue that the best theories of politics are also compatible with
arguments about human nature, but I am not sure I agree with the inference
that, in some sense, having a theory of human nature and wishing to see it
realised through political action makes one a proto-authoritarian.

The key for me in avoiding authoritarianism is not to look for a theory of
human nature that somehow can by itself preclude it (I suspect that such a
theory doesn't exist), but to recognise that the discussion of human nature
and decisions concerning methods of governance have to be decided according
to different processes, involving qualitatively differing procedures.
Science (truth-seeking in general) does not bow before the expression of
democratic wishes, nor does democracy have to respond to any particular
version of the truth. Keeping them separate seems to me to also be
consistent with the idea that theories of human nature and of politics do
not enjoy a one-to-one correspondence. A given theory of human nature is
likely compatible with a number of ways of running the state, just as any
given theory of the state can likely be justified using a number of theories
of human nature. Philosophy does not equal politics.

The argument that one automatically entails the other seems to me to fall
dangerously close to both determinism and reductionism. At what point is the
outcome decided? When political actors espousing a certain conception of
human nature acquire political power? At the same time, it is true that any
understanding of politics entails some view of human nature, whether it is
explicitly articulated or not. But to argue that theories of politics
require some theory of human nature does not imply a relationship of
necessity in terms of the actual content of these theories. Some will be
incompatible: a belief in a natural hierarchy, a chain of being, seems to me
to be incompatible with Marx's vision of communism, as I understand it. But
simply because it excludes some theories of human nature does not
necessarily establish that a given theory of the state is therefore only
compatible with a single theory of human nature.

For me to be convinced that Marx replicates a tautology common to much of
political theory I would first have to see more clearly that this tautology
exists.

[More to follow]

Howie Chodos



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