Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization

Featured image is Novgorod Marketplace, by Appolinary Vasnetsov.

Few phrases capture F. A. Hayek’s vision of emergent order more concisely than “The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization,” the second chapter of The Constitution of LibertyFree societies, in this vision, are perpetual discovery processes. One may wonder, however, how we evaluate what it is that these processes discover. Inspired by Hayek, James Buchanan appeared to believe that the evaluation itself emerges from the very same process. Hayek is harder to pin down on this question, but in The Constitution of Liberty appears to be a simple rule consequentialist.

Hayek and Buchanan’s view of social becoming as a discovery process is immensely valuable, but the frameworks by which they defend or evaluate this process leave much to be desired.

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Acceptance as Accepting Responsibility

Featured image is In Love, by Marcus Stone.

Last year, while struggling to come to terms with some ugliness close to home, I wrote about acceptance.

Of its opposite, rejection, I said this:

Rejection is to deny either the existence or the legitimacy of what is rejected. The idealist rejects the argument of the economist that the optimal number of murders, rapes, thefts, and traffic accidents is greater than zero. He denies the existence of fundamentally ineradicable problems.

And on acceptance:

Let us say that we are human beings who strive for order, but also for justice, for generosity, but also for prudence. Acceptance means recognizing that there are fundamental gaps in what we can accomplish in this striving, and that those gaps are often enormous—but having a heart that is at peace, nevertheless.

Recently I came across a discussion by Charles Taylor of Dostoyevsky on this very topic, in the former’s terrific book Sources of the Self. I find I’m unable to get it out of my head.

Dostoyevsky’s vision of rejection is something that people who have the highest moral sensibilities are the most vulnerable to, precisely because they are most sensitive to the ugliness in the world.

Rejecting the world seals one’s sense of its loathsomeness and of one’s own, insofar as one is part of it. And from this can only come acts of hate and destruction. Moreover, these radiate out from one in a chain, a kind of negative apostolic succession, as one inspires others through this loathing to loathe in their turn.

He continues:

Dostoyevsky’s rejectors arc “schismatics” (raskolniki), cut off from the world and hence grace. They cannot but wreak destruction. The noblest wreak it only on themselves. The most base destroy others. Although powered by the noblest sense of the injustice of things, this schism is ultimately also the fruit of pride, Dostoyevsky holds. We separate because we don’t want to see ourselves as part of the evil; we want to raise ourselves above it, away from the blame for it. The outward projection of the terrorist is the most violent manifestation of this common motive.

But acceptance is the only way to heal from the wounds inflicted by an ugly world:

What will transform us is an ability to love the world and ourselves, to see it as good in spite of the wrong. But this will only come to us if we can accept being part of it, and that means accepting responsibility. Just as ‘no one is to blame’ is the slogan of the materialist revolutionaries, so ‘we are all to blame’ is of Dostoyevsky’s healing figures. Loving the world and ourselves is in a sense a miracle, in face of all the evil and degradation that it and we contain. But the miracle comes on us if we accept being part of it. Involved in this is our acceptance of love from others. We become capable of love through being loved; and over against the perverse apostolic succession is a grace-dispensing one[.]

Acceptance means accepting responsibility.

The idea that greater transparency will make the world a better place is pretty popular these days. And yet it seems that massively expanded access to information has largely turned public discourse more vitriolic, and less forgiving.

Rather than shining a light on the darkness, it seems to me instead that we have closed ourselves off, afraid of allowing the darkness in. Yet there is already darkness within, and to close ourselves off is to leave ourselves alone with it.

To be exposed to so much of the ugliness of the world would be challenging in any time. But I think our current situation makes us particularly vulnerable. We are ideologically inclined to let “failure set the agenda,” and we lack a shared framework to justify wholeheartedly loving the world.

Growing up is a process of moving from earnest naiveté to accepting responsibility for being a part of the world. Few of us get to the wholehearted loving of the world, ugliness and all, that Dostoyevsky’s most saintly characters manage to achieve. And all of us feel the pull of rejection when we are faced by the world’s ugliness.

But each of us is capable of accepting the world, with its wonders and its horrors.

Roles of Authority

Why are people in authority allowed to do things that the average person is not? What exactly is authority, apart from the use of organized force to pursue some agenda?

We have trouble forming a clear picture of concepts like these because we are trapped by inwardness. The modern turn toward the inner life as the center of human experience has been, as Charles Taylor puts it, a real epistemic gain. But it exacted a price, often in the form of impoverished theory.

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The Courage to See, the Courage to Kill

Featured image’s source is NASA.

The struggle between enlightenment and spirit, detached reason and emotionally embedded life, is one of the characteristic conflicts of modernity. It has played out in arguments and in art, in politics and policy. Charles Taylor has traced the contours of this and related conflicts with remarkable skill and subtlety.

The 1954 science fiction story “The Cold Equations” is a useful example. A middling midcentury parable that is long on exposition and short on plot, it sets up a stark scenario in which fellow feeling and detached reason are at odds, but the latter must necessarily triumph.

Author Tom Godwin describes a future in which resource constraints on the frontier of space allow for almost no margin of error. They give ships just enough fuel for the exact amount of mass they are carrying. So any stowaway must be tossed out into the void immediately, or there won’t be enough fuel to decelerate, and everyone aboard will die.

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The Hermeneutic Situation

Featured image is Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater, by Hishikawa Moronobu.

Imagine the first American to see kabuki theater.

Did it seem completely unintelligible to him?

Or did that American mistake it for something like the performing arts he already knew? A play, or an opera, or even a dance. Did he miss what made it idiosyncratic?

What the American already knows, what he’s capable of understanding as, constitutes what Martin Heidegger calls his hermeneutic situation. It is not knowledge in the sense that we know arithmetic, but something we have that is prior to understanding and provides the necessary conditions for intelligibility.

Imagine in time this American began to see what sets kabuki apart from other performing arts; what is particular to it. He did not just add one more type of performing art to a mental list; his understanding of the performing arts he already knew about is changed by his having understood kabuki. In seeing how they are different from kabuki, he can see their particularity more clearly, and seeing what they have in common is similarly transformative.

This process is what Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to as a fusion of horizons, which in reality constitutes a transformation of both. It is akin to when an English speaker is learning Spanish, and reaches the moment in which they stop trying to mentally translate English sentences word by word.

Once you can formulate what you’re trying to say in Spanish from the start, you’ve broadened your horizons in a meaningful way. Your hermeneutic situation has been transformed; you have not merely added Spanish to English because your understanding of the latter is changed. Things you took for granted about language construction you are now capable of seeing as one possibility among others.

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