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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, February 17, 2014


Liberalism may have triumphed in the political sphere, but it was the illiberal philosophy of Heidegger that won the day at [the Davos debate between Heidegger and Cassirer] and went on to leave the deepest stamp on 20th-century culture. Who now shares Cassirer's faith in the humanizing power of art or the liberating power of science?  Who now believes that the truth will make us free? Even optimists limit their hopes to economics and politics, disclaiming any broader vision of human redemption.  Francis Fukuyama's end of history is not the glorious consummation of Hegel or Marx, but a vista of endless banality. Contemporary liberals are faced, whether they like it or not, with the unpromising task of erecting a philosophy of political hope on a foundation of cultural despair.-- Edward Skidelsky, EDWARD CASSIRER, p. 222.

Skidelsky's profoundly pessimistic verdict in the final chapter of his book hinges on his conviction that the dominion of the technical sciences has effected a permanent "alienation of reason," one that can no longer countenance reason as a faculty beneficial to human beings or their culture.  When I first starting writing about the book here, I noted that Skidelsky had distanced himself from Cassirer's Goethean stance:

In his first draft of his book Skidelsky advocated Cassirer's goal of finding the unity of all human endeavors into terms of their value as "symbolic constructions."  However, in the finished version of the book, Skidelsky confesses that he changed his mind: that he somewhat devalued Cassirer because the philosopher "did not see what Heidegger and many others saw so clearly: that the secular idols of humanity and progress were dead."

I would not deny that most discussions of culture today, whether from the "left" or the "right," are consumed with utilitarian "economics and politics."  I'm not as certain that these utilitarians are alienated from reason in the sense Skidelsky defines alienation.  To them, reason and utilitarian ends are identical, and "redemption" is simply a matter for those with a taste for religious concepts.

That said, Francis Fukuyama isn't a particularly well chosen exemplar of the utilitarian attitude.  It's true that his seminal work, 1992's THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN, does not delve deeply into such matters as "the humanizing power of art" or "the liberating power of science."  Nevertheless, END OF HISTORY, written in the full bloom of 1990s optimism, does demonstrate a conviction in the idea that the reason typified by liberal democracy can indeed "redeem" society, even if Fukuyama doesn't advocate Hegel's more ambitious visions.

Further, Fukuyama certainly does not claim that the triumph of liberal democracy will inevitably lead to any "vista of endless banality."  I surmise that Skidelsky may be thinking of those sections of Fukuyama's book in which he takes the other side of the liberal-democracy thought-experiment.  In these sections Fukuyama speculates that a truly "isothymic" society, one in tune with the ideals of liberal democracy, *might* result in a culture devoted to what C.S. Lewis called "men without chests;" i.e, human beings who lack the deeper passions of *thymos* and are indeed concerned with nothing but means and ends.  But at no time does Fukuyama claim that this is an inevitable development, and I for one find it heartening that he considers the possibility of such a downside, as most modern utilitarians will not.

It's true that Fukuyama is not as ambitious as Hegel about considering all aspects of human culture, but then, Fukuyama is not a philosopher like Hegel or Cassirer.  He's a political and economics theorist, so it's understandable that he should frame his arguments strictly in those terms, even though I've argued that his Hegel/Kojeve-influenced mediations can have meaningful application to literary studies. 

In a much more recent essay-- one written over 20 years since the aforesaid 1990s optimism-- Fukuyama admits that he sees the need of "an ideology of the future that could provide a realistic path toward a world with healthy middle-class societies and robust democracies," and that at most he can only suggest a few potential aspects of such an ideology.  It's true that nowhere in the essay will one find a Goethean belief in "the humanizing power of art," but "the liberating power of science" does put in an appearance:

The ideology would need to somehow redesign the public sector, freeing it from its dependence on existing stakeholders and using new, technology-empowered approaches to delivering services. It would have to argue forthrightly for more redistribution and present a realistic route to ending interest groups’ domination of politics.

Is this a "vista of endless banality?"  I would say not, and the fact that Skidelsky propounds this demonstrably false argument shows that he's oversold his own vision of the extent to which the current world must erect its hopes upon "a foundation of cultural despair."  Fukuyama may not be as visionary as Hegel-- indeed, some of his later books are less ambitious, perhaps because END OF HISTORY was in some arenas hijacked by American right-wing political groups, and led some commentators to falsely claim that Fukuyama was about nothing but "triumphalism." 

Nevertheless, while I don't entirely credence Skidelsky's "foundation of cultural despair," I will reiterate that it is rooted in the real polarizations of culture, as I expatiated at the end of my first essay of this new year:

...[Skidelsky] offers a useful warning about how extremists can deliberately misrepresent the arguments of others-- especially of those offering a synthesis between extremes-- and with that warning in mind, one can view just how long the road ahead will be.

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