Saturday, December 17, 2016


294. Skeptical idealism

In an article on the 19th century Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, in the New York Review of Books of 24 November 2016, Gary Morson labelled him a ‘skeptical idealist’, ‘… oscillating between opposing impulses, inclined to romantic utopianism and ironic realism’.

Perhaps the label of ‘sceptical idealism’ also applies, at least to some extent, to what I have been writing in this blog. That emerges, to sum it up, in my ‘imperfection on the move’. The ‘imperfection’ refers to the realism, and the ‘on the move’ to the idealism. Admit that perfection will never be achieved, and yet try to improve what we have.

Like Herzen, I am wary of absolutes and universals. Most controversially, perhaps, I reject the ‘golden rule’, according to which ‘do (not) unto others what you (do not) want done upon yourself’. I think it is more humane, and more conducive to a flourishing life, to take into account differences between the other and oneself, concerning aims, means, competencies, and conditions. Do onto others what they want, not what you would want.

Like Herzen, I reject determinism, any idea of an inexorable march of history to some ideal world, and I take a more evolutionary view. The world evolves by the confluence of contingency, and not necessarily for the better. Here lies the irony of realism. Actions often yield unexpected and sometimes adverse effects. There lies both the excitement and the tragedy of life.    

That accords with the multiple causality that I adopt from Aristotle. There is agency and purpose, but also the availability or absence of means and competence, and, above all, conditions that may or may not enable a fruitful coincidence of causal factors.

For an illustration, I recall the case of the rise of the Dutch East India Company in the 16th and 17th century, discussed in item 100 of this blog. It arose from the confluence of weather and geography (in the location of the Netherlands on the North Sea, between the Baltic and the Iberian peninsula, where the competition in trade lay), a fluke of nature (the herring moving their spawning grounds from the Baltic to the North Sea due to the ‘small ice age’), and, yes, agency, in the form of entrepreneurship in trade and innovation (building ships, canals, dikes, and windmills).   

The problem with skepticism is that it can yield pessimism and inaction, submission to the inevitable quirks of contingency. Part of the art of life is to muster optimism, and the old virtues of faith, hope, courage, and moderation. Belief in the potential for the good, hope that it will be realized, courage to face the possibility that it might not, and moderation in claiming perfection when it does work out.