“For the many activists and intellectuals on the Right, who identify with the ambiguously defined “Western civilization,” a nostalgic and selective association with Western civilization’s philosophical grandeur can be extremely appealing.”
In a piece for Merion West several months ago, I discussed the various uses and misuses of philosophy. In this piece from this past September, I hinted that some ways are better than others when it comes to employing philosophical concepts and argumentation. Heated arguments about what philosophy is (and what philosophers should do) go back as far as the trial and execution of Socrates for corrupting the youth of Athens. This often assumes a very political dimension. For instance, the political left has often had a love-hate relationship with philosophy. In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx famously chastised the philosophers and theorists for merely trying to interpret the world, when the point was to change it. This, of course, did not keep the erudite Prussian radical from devoting the rest of his life to writing dense theoretical works trying to interpret the world in all its dialectical complexities. These tensions carry on until today, with Current Affairs recently producing a scathing article lacerating Slavoj Žižek for—among other sins—obscurantism. At the same time, Youtube channels such as Philosophy Tube and books like Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left by philosophy professor Ben Burgis are generating much discussion.
One of the more interesting phenomena is that this ambivalence towards philosophy is not shared by the political right (and especially the far-right), which has frequently tried to gloss up its intellectual credentials by appealing to philosophical tropes and icons. Ben Shapiro was christened the “cool kid’s philosopher“ by the New York Times and recently published a work of theory trying to live up to that honorific (spoiler: the book has serious problems. I review it here). Dave Rubin has had a large number of Objectivist and nationalist philosophers on The Rubin Report. The far-right is no different than these commentators when it comes to a desire to invoke philosophical tropes. Much has been made of the far and alt-right’s interest in philosophical luminaries like Nietzsche. Some of the major figures of the far-right—including Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux—have gone a step further and attempted to give their own readings of the history and uses of philosophy. Southern, famous for hawking conspiracy theories about the evils of Islam and the “great replacement,” has written a book about how “tenured hippies” have undermined the great Western intellectual tradition going back to the Greeks. In her words, we have traded Plato for bell hooks. Molyneux, who recently declared himself the “most influential modern philosopher” has even written a book called Essential Philosophy: How To Know What on Earth Is Going On.
Why is the Far-Right Interested in Philosophy
Now none of this is to say that these invocations of philosophy are especially rigorous or thoughtful. Generalizing broadly, the standards tend to get lower the more reactionary the figure in question. Sometimes they are actually very confusing. To give just one example, take Molyneux’s book. In Essential Philosophy, he offers a few definitions of the subject. In the space of a short book, he calls philosophy “the study of truth,” the “methodology that helps you determine the difference between subjective experiences and facts” then goes on to say, “the heart of philosophy…is morality.” He also claims, “the purpose of philosophy is to get you to change your moral habits.” He asserts that the, “very essence of philosophy is to differentiate between various states, to point to the best preferred.” He says, “philosophy is the rational hypothesis of empirical action,” and he calls philosophy the, “largest circle of mental disciplines.” He suggests that, “all philosophy is founded on hostility to authority,” as well as that, “the practice of philosophy is the creation of arguments.” And he also writes, “philosophy is like exercise.” The same confusions pertain when he tries to define ethics. He defines ethics as “the study of virtue,” when listing it with the four other branches of philosophy (he lists metaphysics, epistemology, politics, and ethics but seems to miss logic and aesthetics). He calls it a theory of “universal preferable behavior,” as well as a “discipline” which needs to be taught. He considers it also to be a “a moral framework” within which there are “specific ethical theories” which must be based on “moral arguments,” which are “rational.” He describes ethics as a “system” and as a “theory,” as well as, “generally dealing with deeds, not words.” He says that ethics is “generally deal[ing] with actions, not thoughts” and that it is “generally statements or preferred actions that are binding on others,” as well as a set of “rational ethical propositions,” and as a “relationship rather than a commandment.” How and whether all these definitions of philosophy as a whole and ethics in particular are simultaneously tenable is a question I will leave to more patient readers. Certainly Molyneux is not providing many answers.
But pointing out these serious intellectual deficiencies does little to explain why the far-right is interested in philosophy in the first place? Why not simply ignore it—or pull a Steven Crowder and insist that wasting money on a philosophical education is a bad life choice? I think there are a variety of answers to this question, and I will try to present them below.
By glossing up otherwise questionable arguments with appeals to a venerated discipline and its icons, the far-right can posture as both intellectual credible and even somewhat dissident.
The first and most obvious is that the far-right (despite its consistent trashing of cultural elites and intellectuals by figures like Tucker Carlson) desperately wants some form of intellectual credibility. This is why they will trash-talk education one minute and then insist on their academic credentials the next. It is also why Molyneux—in the same book where he describes “academics and sophists (often the same thing)” as highjacking philosophy—also goes out of his way to insist that he received an “Ivy League” education and was awarded top marks on his Master’s thesis. A great deal of the animosity directed towards elites generally belies the far-right’s anxiety that their intelligence and ideas are not respected. This is where appeals to philosophy can be exceptionally attractive. By glossing up otherwise questionable arguments with appeals to a venerated discipline and its icons, the far-right can posture as both intellectual credible and even somewhat dissident. To their followers, their ideas may not seem empty but, in fact, dangerous. Like Socrates or Nietzsche before them, the philosophers of the far-right are challenging an academic stranglehold on ideas exercised by sophists too afraid to get into a real argument. And notably these paragons of Socratic dignity seem to get flustered when they actually get what they ask for from professionals.
The second reason I think the far-right finds its skewed vision of philosophy appealing is more complex. This relates back to what Fredric Jameson might call their post-modern tendency to nostalgically construct a pastiche-like identity from cherry picked features of the past. For the many activists and intellectuals on the Right, who identify with the ambiguously defined “Western civilization,” a nostalgic and selective association with Western civilization’s philosophical grandeur can be extremely appealing. It enables them to situate themselves in an auspicious tradition including Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and many others. In turn, this orientation allows these commentators and writers to speak with a certain degree of self-ascribed authority, given that they can present themselves as heirs to this tradition who have to defend it against the unworthy and the foreign. It also enables them to frame a philosophical enemy: an enemy in the form of cultural Marxism (or even post-modern neo-Marxism) whose goal it is to undermine Western thinking and replace it with various forms of egalitarian sophism. This is very fitting for the far-right, a fundamentally resentment-driven movement that needs to define itself through opposition. The far-right, after all, often needs to frame itself through the lens of opposition since it struggles to make its points constructively, as evidenced by the frequent ambiguities and incoherence in their claims—Molyneux’s book being a prime example.
Limits to the Far-Right’s Reading of Philosophy
Of course, this nostalgic reading of Western philosophy misses a great deal, including where even some of the Golden Calves erected by the far-right contributed to the undermining of their more sacred ideals. To give one example, many of the far-right thinkers claim to be rationalists or empiricists, while also disdaining the collapse of “reason and logic” into nihilism and cynicism. This misses that for many philosophical commentators, the turn to Cartesian skepticism and Lockean empirical nominalism were foundational in the transition away from the big picture ambitions of the Greek and Christian philosophers. These early modern thinkers insisted that reason was fundamentally limited in its ability to understand the world with full objectivity; this is a project that would later be radicalized in the hands of figures like Immanuel Kant, who argued we can never know things in themselves but only how they appeared to us as phenomena (interestingly enough, Kant also did more than most to advertise making reason a priority in socio-political life).
This obfuscates the debt radical schools of thought from Marxism down to deconstruction owe to earlier theoretical and philosophical arguments. Indeed, even Socrates himself was something of a radical, undermining the religious and political authorities of the day and imploring the youth to think critically for themselves.
Now, of course, one could push against this in defense of the fundamentally reasonable vision of modern philosophy, as, for instance, Jürgen Habermas has in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. My point is that the far-right often ignores these historical and philosophical complexities in favor of a radically simplified narrative that everything was all right and that philosophy committed to “Big T Truth” until some progressive radicals came and mucked everything up. This obfuscates the debt radical schools of thought from Marxism down to deconstruction owe to earlier theoretical and philosophical arguments. Indeed, even Socrates himself was something of a radical, undermining the religious and political authorities of the day and imploring the youth to think critically for themselves.
But, ultimately, the far-right’s appeal to philosophy is not about philosophical ideas or the history of Western thought. To some extent, it is about presenting the far-right as smarter, as evidenced by the numerous SJW fail videos and memes generated in the dark places of the Internet. However, most importantly, it is about bastardizing the canon by skewing it in a politically correct manner, twisting the real history to give credence to a contemporary narrative. Like so much on the far-right, it is philosophy on the cheap— designed to rationalize positions which are intellectually untenable and morally reprehensible.
Conclusion: What Should Philosophical Analysis Become?
In this concluding section, I want to sketch some thoughts about what a genuine Left interpretation of philosophy might look like. Contra the far-right narrative that progressive thinking is all about the cynical trashing of Western thought, I would argue that a progressive approach to philosophy actually tries to redeem what is best in the tradition, while incorporating a variety of other voices into the narrative. The modernist project has always been about emancipating human beings from the strictures of traditionalist reasoning (and a naturalistic teleology), which insists we have a fundamental purpose set be external powers that we are bound to live up to. By contrast, the moderns insisted that there was no such external power we could know—and that the function of philosophy is, therefore, not to know our purpose as ascribed by another but to construct it for ourselves. In the form of critique through the Marxist tradition and onwards, philosophy has rigorously exposed the ways that traditionalist reason has been instantiated as authority structures, which are falsely naturalized as inevitable and desirable. This is, of course, the narrative put forward by the far-right today. In its most reactionary form, uncritical ideology insists that the world as it exists today cannot be realistically changed and can merely be accepted and retroactively justified. But because we exist in a historical world where change is, indeed, inevitable, the paradox of such a reactionary view is that it will be forced to transform the world to try and keep it and its calcified hierarchies the same. The only way it can reconcile this paradox is through the application of force and fiat—in some cases literally trying to build and arm a wall to keep the changes brought about by neoliberalism and traditionalism’s own contradictory logics out. By contrast, a critical philosophy insists that we recognize all forms of authority as fundamentally contingent and subject to critique and reconceptualization. It rejects the tyranny of ahistorical naturalistic rationalizations and insists that because the world exists in time, its contours are never firmly set. The seemingly frozen relations, which are naturalized by defenders of the status quo, can be conceptually broken open through the proper application of critical philosophy, which can service the generation of novel political and economic possibilities.
Today, the most important task for such a critical philosophy is to think past the limitations of neoliberal society and its post-modern culture. Ironically, this means rejecting the cynical socio-political withdrawal associated with the Left by its critics and recognizing that the reactionary ascendency of post-modern conservatism is inherently unstable, representing the material overdetermination of an unequal system that is increasingly unable to reconcile its competing tendencies. The most obvious example is the incompatible reactionary demand that capital be allowed to commodify all spheres of life (in line with the logic of neoliberalism), while still maintaining homogeneous and meaningful cultures that provide sufficient existential direction to citizens and pacifies their democratic potential. Trumpism, its offshoots, and its various far-right defenders are a symptomatically inadequate reaction to this tension, which can only try to manage these difficulties through the application of force and executive fiat. A critical philosophy, instead, points us to the future, where recognizing the false necessity of the status quo is the first step towards developing a more emancipatory and equal social form. This is in service of fulfilling the ambition of the modernist project to overcome the limitations of naturalized authority and power. At the same time, it must overcome the limitations of modernism itself in incorporating those voices it excluded. The potential is, therefore, realized through the generation of new kinds of democratic and egalitarian politics.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at email@example.com or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof