Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Heritage and Character of American Social Theory by Geoffrey Hawthorn

[The author is an English snob, many of his subordinations are unnecessary and awkward, meanings opaque and arguments incomplete. I have taken liberties to ‘clean up’ some parts of  the text. All the comments in brackets are my own. Still, it's an interesting hypothesis. Social theory on both sides of the Atlantic are a bust. To me its an argument for democracy: ‘start cooking, recipe to follow.']


 It has often been said that the prevailing assumptions of Americans have been those of John Locke; it has also been said that Locke’s direct effect on the promoters of the new republic is exaggerated, the point has a certain force. The paradox is resolved, however, by the fact that the conditions under which this kind of thinking came to pervade America were quite different from those under which it was first proposed in England. The intentions of the Americans in using Locke and other Whig theorists to the extent that they did were quite different than the theorists’ own.

Like the younger Mill in the 19th century, Locker in the Two Treatises on Government was taking for granted the dense and complex structure of constraint and obligation that existed in his own society.  He was merely, or you could say, subversively insisting that such a structure did not give any  man the right to dispose of any other, that on the contrary, each man, whatever his station, was epistemologically free to decide for himself the limits under which he would live. He was arguing against the restoration of an absolute monarchy, and against the absolutely hierarchical and immutable paternalism of Robert Filmer. But as de Tocqueville implied in the 1830s, Americans had been able to take such intentions a-historically. There was no native feudalism, no patriarchy, no Filmer to defend  it [at least not after the Tories were driven to Canada.]

The American Revolution was not a revolution against the kind of order that was being criticized and attacked in Europe. It was a revolution to secure what had already begun in an historical vacuum [ a ‘howling wilderness inhabited by savages’ as they saw it.] The radical rhetoric of the European Enlightenment was there deployed for what were literally conservative ends.

This had three profound effects. Speaking generally [ the author here omits some obvious qualifications], There was nothing in the new country to correspond to the European estates and there was no established Church. There were merely individuals, with or without property, and government. Of course, there was slavery, and in the attempt by Southerners later in the 19th century to maintain it the slaves were compared to a traditional European estate but they were more usually conceived as just an extension of the property of individuals. The prevailing religious mode was a pluralistic sectarianism in which the most prominent, the New England Puritans, were entirely at one with the Calvinism implicit in Locke himself.* This history meant and has continued to mean that Americans have no firm grasp of what from England to China has always been taken for granted, the notion of what sociologists would now call ‘social structure, enduring complexes of institutions; institutions that do not merely serve to constrain individuals, but by virtue of the individual’s membership in them from birth to death serve in good part to constitute and defined  him or her as a person. The language of institutions pervades American thinking as it does in other societies; but there, the meaning has always been more restricted.

The second effect of the conservative consolidation of Lockean liberalism in America was an inducement to conformity.  This has continued to be both practical and ideological. Practically, no man could dare to consider himself or could bear to consider others as in any way above or below any other. Ideologically, after the abolition of the property franchise there could be no grounds for any man claiming by virtue of any characteristic whatsoever that he was privileged with exceptional insight, or that he was by virtue of experience or affiliation or by right qualified to direct others. The radically egalitarian spirit of Protestantism, which had done so much to affect philosophical and political thinking in England and Germany, in America met no opposing institutions or ideologies by which it had to be tempered or on which it had to compromise. In the name of liberty and equality there thus developed there a most persistent pressure to conform.** A pressure that on occasion has amounted almost to a panic about those who do not and produced popular persecutions in the name of the ideals they appear to deny. This has made Americans characteristically vulnerable and anxious. Unable to flee into any institution and thereby pass to it responsibility for his beliefs and actions, a man is exposed to the pressure of popular opinion and so forced to examined himself as an individual, alone, to a degree that he is not in any more highly structured society.

The third effect of the uniquely unhistorical [?] consolidation of a liberal  society in America has been to produce a very special sense of time. The characteristic European sense of the arrangement of events had derived from the Christian view that in one way or another improvement, even perfection, lay in the future. The notion of progress dates in its secular form from the Enlightenment, but the hope that lies beneath it is an ancient one. It was such a hope that informed not only the puritans in the New England settlements but also many other sects that spread across the country and came to constitute the distinctive character of American faith, the character that so impressed Max Weber when he came to America in 1904. Yet in the break from England and the establishment of the new republic, in part inspired by these sects, America seemed already to have reached perfection. The past has been consolidated in a future whose integrity lay in remaining as much like the present as possible. This, in Holfadter’s phrase, has been the ‘nub of the intimate American quarrel with history’: how can a people progress if they have started near perfection?’ A simple answer but an answer that many Americans have implicitly given, is that although society itself may have no distance to progress, there have been and continue to be virtually infinite possibilities of material improvement and technical advance within it. If such  a progress was not necessary to the society, no more was it inimical to it. Indeed, it could be held to be a natural concomitant and consequence of its liberty. This firm faith in one of the residual principles of European progressive thought has, however, generated one of the most persistent of al dilemmas in American society, the dilemma of how to reconcile the effects of spectacular material accumulation and technical advance with the established ideal of a perfect society  [generated] in  a state of markedly primitive innocence. It was a dilemma in the 1840s, it became a matter of absorbing concern in the years before 1914, and it reappeared in the 1960s. All the while it has driven primitive populism in the South and west against the trusts and banks and politicians of the east.

In the United States liberalism was only ever a critical principle in arguments against the European. It was established with the new republic  but criticisms of its own progress have always been in its own terms. Not only was patriarchy in any form exactly what the country has set itself against, but also, because of the absence of any nostalgia for the virtues of its reputed solidarity and mutual obligations, socialism, which in Europe has always  drawn strongly upon such nostalgia, has at best seemed irrelevant and at worst an insidious stalking horse for the kinds of collective restraint and institutional domination evident, to liberals, in patriarchy itself. This is the paradox of American intellectualism.


In Europe to be an intellectual was to criticize not merely the ways in which various groups  sought to achieve their ends but also, and much more importantly, to criticize the ends themselves. In America, the ends had been given, given in both the ideological sense and also, much more forcefully, in the very constitution of the society itself. To mount an argument against them has been to mount an argument against America and thus, to mount an argument that immediately disqualifies itself from serious consideration as a relevant argument at all. Only the means have been at issue in America, the means of recalling the society to its original and unquestionable inspiration, original in the historical sense and unquestionable in the sense that to question it is to question not merely one view, and one group  in society but the very society itself. American intellectuals are deprived of part of the normal apparatus of modern European thought, the assumption that one may locate one’s critical principles in some more or less imaginary future state, a state yet to be realized but never-the-less conceivable by virtue of the inexorable passage of the past into the future that since the Enlightenment all Europeans have been able to take for granted.

In Europe The once-vaunted promise of salvation in the next world was translated, with much confusion and dispute [bloody wars and revolutions], it is true, but without great intellectual difficulty [Ha!], into the promise of salvation in this. In America since 1776 such translation has been impossible. With the old sectarian faith, the colonialists could still hope. Without it, the citizens of the new republic could not [ though they have developed a remarkable faith in ‘the power of positive thinking’, which has, of course, its own attending evils and is essentially anti-intellectual]. Secularization had an ironical twist to it. Moreover, even such criticisms as they have made, American intellectuals have been persistently crippled by the dogmatic and fearful egalitarianism of their native liberalism. Although European intellectuals have been troubled by just this sort of attack, as were the  ecclesiastics before them,  even when defending what they have taken to be the side of the oppressed and the uninformed,  they have been able to exploit the deference that the latter have always grudgingly if mistakenly given to their ‘spiritual betters’ .French intellectuals get a free pass for all sorts of nonsense, and the sheen they receive often travels well across the Atlantic. The peculiar difficulty of the American intellectual is that his status  has always been in question [ outside the halls of academia: ‘pointy-headed intellectuals’ etc.]. His own criticisms come from within the native liberal establishment., and it is from within that establishment where he is mostly challenged [ otherwise his theories ignored or misrepresented].

No-one has ever shown that anti-intellectual sentiments are more common in America than elsewhere. It is simply that they have been more often expressed [often in ingenious ways], for they have always been more legitimate. The intellectuals themselves, aware of and often defending this legitimacy, have thus often been driven into agonize impotence [ going so far as to chain themselves to doorways and blocking bulldozers in some cases or just becoming drunks]. Where they have not been undermined by others, they have furnished the grounds for their own immolation.

This is the heritage and character of American Social thought, often vigorous and critical and even radical, but in its very radicalism literally conservative.


*https://backwoodspresbyterian.wordpress.com/2008/10/28/john-calvin-vs-john-locke-on-natural-law-or-reason/

** the subject and the predicate here are both true but I’m nor sure how easily one follows the other at this point in his discussion i.e. pressure to conform is produced by unopposed notions of liberty and equality. Prosaically  it might have something to do with ‘keeping up with the Jones’’. If everyone is putatively equal and free then the ‘natural’ or customary stratifications of patriarchal society are re-produced in the results of material conquest: conspicuous  consumption, hence ‘a rat race’ which has an analog in ideology.

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