Guest post: Seeking understanding as well as change

Originally a comment by Tim Harris on 408 times on Fox News.

I confess to finding, Nullius, little to grow exercised about in the link you provide to ‘Critical Theory’. It speaks of The Frankfurt School, Kant, and of a liberal thinker like Habermas. It also refers to Karl Marx’s polemical assertion in ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ that ‘The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ I would say two things: first, thought about political and social structures has, pace Marx, never been a view taken studiously from the outside, as though thinkers about these matters were dispassionately studying, say, an ant colony. Read Plato, read Aristotle, Confucius, Lao-tse, Kautilya, Sir Thomas Moore, Locke, Hume, Burke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu (who had such an influence on the founding fathers of the USA), Karl Popper… Political thought is not a natural science, to be compared with physics or chemistry, and it never has been. This is not to say that techniques derived from the sciences and from mathematics (statistical analysis, say) are not useful in what are called the political & social sciences – Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’ comes to mind, as does Mark Moffett’s ‘The Human Swarm’, in which some interesting and enlightening comparisons are made between animal (including insect) societies and human societies. Nor to say that political thinkers such as the ones you appear to dislike renounce objectivity. The fact is that when one is talking about politics or social structures one is necessarily implicated in them, which is not to say that all works of political thought are or should be mere calls to arms, nor to say that their calls for change or calls for maintaining the status quo are not grounded in an understanding of reality.

The second matter is that one can learn from works of political thought with which one profoundly disagrees. I disagree with Marx, while appreciating many of his insights, just as I disagree with Hegel, against whom Marx wrote, again while appreciating, and being stimulated by, some of his insights. I have also read works by that nasty old Nazi, Carl Schmitt, in which I find, though I loathe Schmitt’s politics, many things of interest (as did that very good liberal historian Reinhart Kosselleck); and so with Michael Oakeshott and other conservative thinkers whose work I have read with interest.

And a third thing is this: it seems to me to be a complete exaggeration to assert that thinkers like Marx, Horkheimer, Adorno et al were not seeking understanding as well as change. Had their calls for change not been grounded in some sort of understanding of what their societies and what the politics of their time were like, nobody would have listened to them and we should not bother to read them still now.

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