Jurgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action “Intermediate Reflections”

Habermas’ systematic theorizing plucks various theories and concepts from a from the fields of sociology, critical theory and analytic philosophy in his two volume work The Theory of Communicative Action. This work’s third chapter is where he breaks down the action and the communicative parts with the help of sociologist Max Weber and philosophers like J.L. Austin.

First, action. Weber defined action in opposition to other forms of behavior in that the actor has a conscious meaning behind what they are doing. Weber creates a typology of action based on the rationality behind it, from most rational to least rational he describes it as: purposive-rational (which includes means, ends, values and consequences), value-rational, affective, and traditional (habits which include only means and not the other three components of rationality). Habermas finds that Weber’s theory is insufficient when it comes to explaining social action, which involves the coordination of multiple actors working together. To supplement the first typology, Habermas finds a second typology implicit in Weber’s work, where an action is either instrumental or, if it tries to reach success against another person, strategic. To this he adds a form of action which is not oriented towards success, but towards reaching an understanding. That is Communicative Action.

But what is an action that works on understanding rather than success? For this Habermas infuses Austin’s speech act theory into Max Weber’s action theory. In Austin, speech acts are composed of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary aspects. The locutarionary are statements and propositions, whereas the illocutionary deals with actions using words. These are actions such as promises, vows, notifying, commanding or legally binding proclomations. The perlocutionary aspects are the affects the speaker intends to evoke within the hearer. For Habermas, the distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary acts is important. The illocutionary deals with the level of meaning and so its success are defined by hearer understanding the speaker. Habermas gives the example from the statement “S asserted to H that he gave notice to his firm.” The illocutionary act of this speech is successful if H understands this assertion and accepts it to be true. But for the perlocutionary aspect, another statement is needed: “Through informing H that he had given notice to his firm, S gave H a fright (as he intended to)” The act of giving the fright in this context is the perlocutionary success, although in other contexts it might have failed; H might have been on the contrary relieved about this case.

The illocutionary stays on the level of speech while the percloutionary depends on things external to the speech themselves, it uses speech as an instrument towards another goal. The illocutionary act’s success depends on having an open intention but for the most part perlocutionary acts have their motives hidden, or at least not within the context of the speech act itself (you can inform a person by giving the information; you cannot frighten them by saying “I frighten you”). Illocutionary, dealing with meaning, is primary in speech and the perlocutionary aspect is external to it because understanding is the teleology of language. And Habermas takes very seriously the idea that Communicative Action should be free of any hidden strategy of instrumental goal: “It is certainly true that in communicative action unintended consequences may appear at any time; but as soon as there is a danger that these will be attributed to the speaker as intended results, the latter finds it necessary to offer explanations and denials, and if need be, apologies, in order to dispel the false impression that these side effects are perlocutionary effects. Otherwise, he has to expect that the other participants will feel deceived and adopt a strategic attitude in turn, steering away from action oriented to reaching understanding.

Infused with these two concepts, the idea of Communicative Action depends on social groups of people reaching an understanding based on statements. The speaker makes a claim, and the listener accepts the claim. In most illocutionary statements like making promises or requests, accepting the speaker’s claim creates conditions for future action. By making a promise, and by the listener accepting the meaning of that promise, the speaker and listener create an interpersonal bond. This bond can be created by warrancy of other normative forces, such as the case of making a request or command.

How is a speech act considered invalid in Communicative Action? Habermas gives the example of a professor asking a participant in the seminar to bring him a glass of water. The participant refuses, and this refusal can be on one of three grounds. It can be based on normative grounds- “you have no right to treat me as one of your employees”- questioning the subjective truthfulness of the speaker- “You really only want to put me in a bad light in front of the other seminar participants”- or questioning the existential presuppositions of the statement- “The next tap water is so far away that I couldn’t get back before the end of the session.” In the context of communicative action speech acts can be rejected under each of those three aspects: the rightness of the speech act, the truthfulness of the speaker’s subjective experience (sincerity), the truthfulness of the statement or its presuppositions. To these three refusals Habermas links three major forms of speech acts.

The first is constative speech acts, or assertions. These are propositions about the world, which Habermas links to the objective world. Next are normative claims- or regulatives- judgements of what is right and wrong: this is the social world. Finally there is dramaturgical, or expressiveness of the subject, the internal world. Each of these speech acts have different criteria for reaching understanding or judging a statement; for assertives, it is empirical observations or theorizing and the truth of the statement; for the regulative, it is discussion of the rightness of an act based on a norm (or even the questioning of a norm) and the criteria is rightness; the dramaturgical is judged on the truthfulness and criticized in terms of self deception, with the form of argumentation being therapeutic dialogue or discussions on values. Habermas ends with the following typology:

Type of knowledge: Technically and strategically useful knowledge
Form of argumentation: Theoretical discourse
Model of transmitted knowledge: Technologies, strategies

Type of knowledge: Empircal-theoretical knowledge
Form of argumentation: Theoretical discourse
Model of transmitted knowledge: Theories

Type of knowledge: Moral-practical knowledge
Form of argumentation: Practical discourse
Model of transmitted knowledge: Legal and moral representations

Type of knowledge: Aesthetic practical knowledge
Form of argumentation: Therapeutic and aesthetic critique
Model of transmitted knowledge: Works of art

Communicative action finally acknowledges one more aspect of speech act: tacit knowledge. For communication happens within a wider horizon of cultural understanding and background knowledge of speaker and listener. That is not to say that statements are merely relative, but any understanding would be incomplete without planting itself in this horizon.

“It is only with the turn back to the context forming horizon of the lifeworld, from within which participants in communication come to an understanding with one another about something, that our field of vision changes in such a way that we can see the points of connection for social theory within the theory of communicative action: the concept of society has to be linked to a concept of the lifeworld that is complementary to the concept of communicative action. Then communicative action becomes interesting primarily as a principle of sociation: Communicative action provides the medium for the reproduction of lifeworlds.” With the idea of speech act and lifeworld, Habermas plants the seeds for his future theories.

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club, meeting Saturday February 4th in Jong-gak, Seoul. Come join us on our meetup or facebook group.

Habermas: Public Sphere and Knowledge and Human Interests

Simon Susen’s Critical Notes on Habermas’s Theory of Public Sphere

In his book the Social Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas does a socio-historical analysis of how the public sphere changed from the 18th century and beyond. Put into the perspective of Habermas’ life work, he is intrigued by this change because he sees great potential in the public sphere, particularly for the sake of deliberative process in a democracy. Though it should be noted, he wasn’t quite at this point yet in his thought. This work is significant not so much for the accuracy of its historical analysis, but for the tools Habermas uses, his overall approach to understanding the public sphere and why it should demand our attention. Both Habermas and Susen are greatly concerned with the normative function of the private and public distinction.

As is often the starting point with the public/private dichotomy, we are meant to go back to the two spheres of society in ancient Greece; the polis and oikos. Polis referred to the public sphere, a space where free citizens engaged in open interactions. Oikos, in contrast, meant the private sphere, which was a hidden sphere of interactions in the domestic realm (p. 38/39). Key to understanding the distinction between the two is not to understand their relationship as a polarity, but as a reciprocity. These two realms were mutually dependent on one another, particular the power structures of both. Why we might bother looking at this dichotomy at all is that, for the sake of socio-historical analysis, it allows us to explore the unique ideological and material contingencies that arise given the reciprocity between the two in any given society at any particular time.

In his text, Habermas is interested in the factors that led to the transformation of the relations between the public and private in the modern era. His answer, which we will not focus on, was that given the rise of mercantile capitalism in the 16th century along with evident changes in institutional forms of political power within and between European countries at the time, a whole new form of public sphere emerged in early modern Europe (p.40).

Susen wanting to look at Habermas’ theory critically asks what does the conceptual separation between the two spheres actually represent? For this he denotes three different meanings often attached to the concept: society versus individual, visibility versus concealment and openness versus closure. The first of these is a central concept to sociological thought. The social sciences of course emphasize, “the society” and tend to study the individual in terms of the social and not the reverse (p.41). The second of the three, visibility and concealment asks what parts of social life are visible and which parts are hidden. The more intriguing political question asks, which parts of society ought to be visible and which parts ought to be concealed. Here numerous ideological institutional frameworks come forth. Susen uses the example of liberalism, which has maintained a deep suspicion toward an interventionist state and is critical of any form of authoritarian attempt to control people’s lives, a topic which we have discussed a great deal about in previous meetings. The third meaning, which often accompanies the private/public dichotomy, is that of openness and closure. Questions we might ask are: is the state simply a part of the public sphere and thus open and accessible; is the family an integral part of the private sphere and therefore closed and sealed to the public? Undoubtedly all possibilities are needed as the state requires some closure and the household, openness. All of this said, Susen concludes that the public/private distinction is a useful one, but a rather controversial one particularly for social and political analysis.

Habermas is interested in the public sphere in this dichotomy. His public sphere is a specific kind, he writes, “[t]he bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as a sphere of private people who come together as a public” (p.43). Such a definition implies an immediate connection, for Habermas, between the two parts of the dichotomy we have described above. Individuals are autonomous with one another, not in isolation, but in relation with one another. Susen calls this the “socialized expression of individuals” (ibid). Sociologically, the interest in the public sphere is how it works as mode of societal integration. Habermas takes this a step further and tries to capture how these modes, themselves, might change. Lost in the English translation of the title, Habermas’ is not invested in the structural transformation of the public sphere, but in the transformation of structures in the public spheres and how this happens. Here Susen clarifies Habermas normative sensitivities—within the (bourgeois) public sphere there is emancipatory potential. The existence of the public sphere depends on the promotion for civic engagement and communicative processes (p.45). If subjects are capable of speech and action, they too can reflect and criticize. Habermas here denotes three specific forms of critique that appear in a bourgeois public sphere: a critique of the absolutist state, a critique of democratic states and a self-reflective critique of the public sphere itself. It is this capacity for critique, which we will discuss again shortly, that Habermas finds most attractive about the public sphere. The public sphere, in short, is a collective realm where individuals, through their cognitive capacities and abilities, take on the role of critical and responsible actors; this is indicative of society’s coordinative capacity to transform itself into an emancipatory project shaped by the normative force of communicative rationality (p.47). One wonders if Habermas can conceive of any other form of liberation, be that it may, individual or one which works differently from the version of the public sphere he envisions.

The current structural transformation of the public sphere is tainted with an element of social disintegration. Four reasons are given to why Habermas see it as such, though his final point about the development of the culture industry and the tendency toward constant commodification is arguably the most significant. Here he sees that the potential for the communicative element that arises from the public sphere is being colonized by the functionalist rationality of the state and the economy (p.51).

Susen points to a number of issues in Habermas’ work. First of all, Habermas completely relies on a notion of the “bourgeois” public sphere, entirely ignoring any other forms of public sphere that could contribute to the critical engagement with the world he so demands. Secondly, by focusing on both these bourgeois and critical elements, Habermas is clearly overestimating the potential for the emancipatory in public life and therefore he underestimates the influences of its repressive elements. The third, more recent critique of Habermas’ theory is that it is gender blind, but in so being gender blind, inevitably gives into the dominant patriarchal view of society (p.53). This introduces a broader series of attacks from all marginalized groups. Fourthly it is entirely stuck in the western philosophical tradition, which conceives of a rationalistic conception of the public. This privileges rational approaches to non-rational forms of engagement with the world (p.54). Fifthly, Habermas promotes a universalistic conception of public interest, though he obviously focuses on the bourgeois public sphere. We might ask, what might other public spheres look like? Counterpublics?

Habermas’ analysis, more that the fruits of this analysis, are worthy of our attention. More for the trajectory of his own work, the concept of the public sphere is useful as it provides a forum for deliberative processes aimed at the democratic construction of society (p. 56). As Susen notes, without a doubt, “the development of social life in the modern era is shaped by both the normative opportunities and the normative limitations of public discourses” (ibid). Understanding the dichotomy and reciprocity between the public and private spheres is fundamental for understanding the construction of modern liberal societies and the construction of new societies.

Habermas’ Knowledge and Human Interests

To a great extent this text of Habermas’ is firmly seated in the tradition of the Frankfurt school, a tradition which, as we have most recently seen with Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, circulates around the question of criticality. The particular direction of this critical level of reflection in this text is made clear in his preface:

“I am undertaking a historically oriented attempt to reconstruct the prehistory of modern positivism with the systematic intention of analyzing the connections between knowledge and human interests. In following the process of the dissolution of epistemology, which has left the philosophy of science in its place, one makes one’s way over abandoned stages of reflection. Retreading this path from a perspective that looks back toward the point of departure may help to recover the forgotten experience of reflection. That we disavow reflection is positivism” (vii, emphasis added).

Though we will not discuss his socio-historical analysis of this positivism he speaks of, as is the case with Habermas, what he offers in this analysis is a powerful means of thinking about the relationship between knowledge and the human condition. In this text, Habermas is convinced that we are becoming increasingly reliant on the importance of the natural and behavioral sciences (and their means to knowledge i.e. positivism). Before we continue further, we must come to an understanding of the meanings and justifications of these sciences. We must come to know how they generate knowledge. How, in fact, does human interest generate knowledge? Habermas denotes 3 schemes or domains of knowledge and their corresponding human interests. Briefly the forms of knowledge are: instrumental/analytical, practical/hermeneutical and critical/emancipatory. Instrumental knowledge comes from technical interests of people and its correlating methods are positivistic. Its equivalent epistemological direction would be, “Knowing that”. This form of knowledge refers to the way individuals control and manipulate their environment. Practical knowledge comes from practical human interests, and attempt to “Know how”. The methods are hermeneutic and interpretive. Here it identifies human social interaction and the notion of communicative action (which we will look at next week). Critical knowledge leads to emancipatory interests. The direction of emancipatory interests are “knowing why”. The method of this last form of knowledge is where Habermas often seats himself, that is, the critical social sciences and critical theory in particular. This domain identifies self-knowledge and/or self-reflection. Here the point is to gain knowledge through reflection which in turn leads to a transformation of consciousness. Feminist theory, critiques of ideology and psychoanalysis are examples of this, as is Habermas’ own work.

In the final chapter of his text, Habermas is interested in seeing how some of these critical theories hold out. Here he is particularly interested in Freud’s psychoanalysis and Freud’s own adaptation of psychoanalysis as applied to the broader society, or “civilization” in Freud’s words.

We return again then to the tension between the state and the individual, that is, to a society and the individuals who comprise it. Why is there society, or “civilization” and why is it necessary? What would a psychoanalytic theory of society look like? The history of civilization, for Freud, is a history that shows the various paths people have chosen to “bind their unsatisfied wishes under the varying conditions of fulfillment and denial by reality” (p.276). Like Marx, Freud contends that “civilization” is the means in which human beings elevate themselves above the conditions of an animal existence and it serves two primary purposes. First, it serves as a retainer for all the knowledge and capacities of people in their self-assertion and control of nature. Secondly, it serves as a way to regulate and adjust the relations of people to one another and distribute wealth (p.277). The institutional framework that derives from the creation of civilization/society is conceived very differently in Marx and Freud however. For Marx institutions derive their force by creating a system of rewards and obligations which, rooted in force, is distorted according to the given class structure. Freud’s conception of the institutional framework however is in connection with the repression of instinctual impulses. For Freud, every individual is therefore essentially an enemy of civilization (ibid). If civilization rests on the compulsion to work, yet individuals who participate in it necessarily renounce or are coaxed to renounce their instinctual impulses, what binds individuals together in a civilization? How does it work? It does so through compulsory norms, which redirects, transforms and suppresses linguistically interpreted needs (p.279). As Habermas writes, collective fantasies are what compensate for the renunciations that have been imposed upon individual by civilization. All of these fantasies are in the public sphere at the level of communication itself. Freud sees all religious views and traditions, all ideals and political systems, all styles and art forms as examples of the “mental assets of civilization”, our “illusions” (Ibid). These illusions change through technical progress.

Is society, then, this superstructure, a pathological phenomenon? It would seem not necessarily so. An illusion is not a delusion. In fact they represent human wishes and are therefore not necessarily unrealizable or in contradiction to reality (p.280). Here Freud makes another sharp distinction between society and the individual offering a space for a kind of emancipation. If we recall that such illusions can change with the development of technology, the individual sees the institutional framework of his or her society as an immovable reality (p.280). But for humans as a whole, the boundaries of reality are in fact movable. There is then a direct correlation between the level of socially necessary repression and the extent of the power of technical control over nature. It would appear then, that technology is the means for which the power structure, which maintains repression, can be loosened. In Habermas’ words then, the illusions of society harbor a utopia. It’s there within reach. In this conception of society, “technical progress opens up the objective possibility of reducing socially necessary repression below the level of institutionally demanded repression” (p.280). At this point the utopian content is freed from the illusions, the ideological components of culture that repress us and legitimize the authority of a given institutional framework. Freed, they can be converted into distinct critiques of the power structures, which have now through technical progress, become historically obsolete. What we have here is a space and a place for class struggle, but one that is only feasible at a particular junction of time. Notably, this juncture is crucially linked to technical development.

Obvious similarities can be seen between this conception of society and Marxs’.

Marx implied in his work that the human species could constitute itself through a process of productive activity and the performance of social labor. Critically he wrote of another process, a self-formative one, which was pushed forward by a critical-revolutionary activity by the classes. This latter process started from a reflection of one’s experiences. But, Marx did not provide an account of the status of science. As he remained lodged into a materialist concept of man with nature he was restricted to the domain of the instrumental described above. In short this instrumental knowledge, knowledge at the level of the productive was not suited for any reconstruction of power or, for Marx, ideology. Key to this would be critical knowledge. For Habermas, Freud’s metapsychology allowed for the conceptualization of how institutional frameworks work and the functioning of illusions to a degree, which Marx could not have reached. For Marx humans raised themselves above animal intelligence when they transformed their behaviors into instrumental action, so his focus is a system of social labor. Instrumental action is purely goal-oriented behavior. Freud on the other hand saw that humans elevated themselves beyond animal existence when they transcended animal society and transformed their instinct-governed behaviors into communicative action, a topic which we will continue with in our next meeting. Of course for Freud his focal point was not social labor, but the family. Habermas’ attraction to Freud, though in may not have been explicit in his work, is his sensitivity to dialogue. For Freud, pathologies of individual consciousness or social institutions resided in the medium of human language and the capacity for communicative action, the ability to mutually deliberate and argue. The interest of this form of reason, this form of action and its epistemological framework is inclined “toward a progressive, critical-revolutionary, but tentative realization of the major illusions of humanity, in which repressed motives, have been elaborated into fantasies of hope” (p.288).



Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

“A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress.” Freedoms which were important in developed earlier industrial society lose their rationale in the later stages: if a society can satisfy the needs and wants of individuals through their organization, there is no longer any need for freedom in thinking beyond the system. This system is accepted uncritically, and in the end it makes no difference whether satisfaction is accomplished in an authoritarian or nonauthoritarian manner. Of course the earlier freedoms of enterprise were not without fault either, since the individual freedom more often than not was reduced to find work or starve. The original aim, Marcuse explains, of advanced industrial society was to reach for freedom from necessity, although the opposite ends up being true: instead there is the system’s own economic and political requirements that become the new imposed necessity, a “manipulation of needs by vested interest.” Insofar as the apparatus of control has such control, no real opposition to it can emerge. It becomes totalitarian.

Political power therefore relies on the power of technical organization and control of the machines. “This productivity mobilizes society as a whole, above and beyond particular individual or group interest.” This trend can however be reversed, because in technology lies the potential for new freedoms. For that to happen society can no longer rely on traditional definitions of freedoms, because the newer definitions need to correspond to the new capabilities brought by new technology. In order to realize these new forms, one has to set these definitions against the current social trends, which will appear as negative- the critical side of reason that instrumental rationality ignores. For example, economic freedom would mean freedom from compulsion by economic relations; political freedom a freedom from political forces one has no control over; intellectual freedom a freedom from “public opinion” and its makers. These ideas, Marcuse admits, sound utopian, but that precisely shows the strength of the institutions that go against them.

Society has always used overt forms of coercion, but what advanced industrial society does is to use technological control and instrumental reason “appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests- to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible.”

Marcuse thinks even the Freudian notion of introjection- the transposing by the Ego of external ideas into the inner structure of subjectivity- does not adequately describe what is at play. Having an “inner” implies a separate part of the self away from public opinion. Mass production has, in Marcuse’s eyes, taken away the possibility for such an extra dimension outside of the appartus. By whittling down the other dimension and smoothing over any contradiction or dissent, “thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior in which ideas, aspirations, and objectives that, by their content, transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe. They are redefined by the rationality of the given system and of its quantitative extension.”

One dimensional thinking does away with any contradictions, and the negativity required for critical thinking or the transcendence to look at society’s problems or contradictions. Marcuse links this kind of thinking to operationalism in science, where concepts are reduced to a set of operations. What cannot be explained in operations gets eliminated. In psychology this trend is expressed in behaviorism, where only observable behavior is accepted as true. In philosophy the trend towards logical postivism, and dismissing anything that cannot be explained through radical empiricism as “ghosts” and “metaphysics.” Marcuse argues this way of doing philosophy impoverishes the critical and dialectical aspects of philosophy and reduces it to mere description.

Politics and mass media also replicate one dimensional thought by having a “universe of discourse is populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hypnotic definitions or dictations.” Words are seen as self evident- self evidently in line with the current system- and forms of more universal concepts are dismissed, defined to the most minute and small situation that it ends up being self-referential and without consequence. So “free” in the West are institutions that operate in the Free World, the rest being “anarchism, communism or propaganda;” meanwhile in the East, free are defined as the institutions working within the Communist Party, the rest relegated to “capitalistic, revisionist, or leftist sectarianism.” “This style is of an overwhelming concreteness. The “thing identified with its function” is more real than the thing distinguished from its function, and the linguistic expression of this identification (in the functional noun, and in the many forms of syntactical abridgment) creates a basic vocabulary and syntax which stand in the way of differentiation, separation, and distinction. This language, which constantly imposes images, militates against the development and expression of concepts. “

As mentioned earlier, Marcuse is hesitantly optimistic about the possibility of changing this trend. The function of criticism takes on a new urgency as it tries to form a counterpoint to the overwhelming monotony and banality of one dimensional thinking.

“Nothing indicates that it will be a good end. The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concessions to the underdog, and their armed forces sufficiently trained and equipped to take care of emergency situations. However, the spectre is there again, inside and outside the frontiers of the advanced societies. The facile historical parallel with the barbarians threatening the empire of civilization prejudges the issue; the second period of barbarism may well be the continued empire of civilization itself. But the chance is that, in this period, the historical extremes may meet again: the most advanced consciousness of humanity, and its most exploited force. It is nothing but a chance. The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal.”

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club, meeting Saturday February 4th in Jong-gak, Seoul. Come join us on our meetupor facebook group.

Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Nozick’s On the Randian Arguement

Hayek Road to Serfdom (1944)

Hayek’s work returns us to our earlier discussion of Nozick, particular the idea of distributive justice or how to go about properly allocating the resources of a particular society. In many ways we can see Nozick’s indebtedness to Hayek as both of them are clearly focused on the individual and invested in the idea of a minimally involved state. The reading we did of Nozick focused on distributive justice more abstractly than Hayek goes about it in this text. Generally, distributive justice says that a proper allocation of resources where no incidental inequalities arise is considered just. Nozick tries to work towards this through his entitlement theory, which focuses on creating principles of justice based on the initial acquisition of goods, the transfer of these goods and the rectification of improper acquisition or transfer. Hayek on the other hand, is focused on the very nature of this state. He writes this text in England, privileged in the sense, as he says himself, that he has lived and worked in Austria, and now sees what he saw develop in Nazi Germany, 20 years prior, now happening in England. This in a nutshell is his “Road to Serfdom”, a road he sees it his duty to point out and understand how it was laid out before us in the first place. Having published this book in the final year of WWII and being clearly traumatized by the dangers of both Fascism and Socialism, Hayek brings our attention to the inevitable social justice that will arise should we truly march down one of these roads. Returning us to the notion of distributive justice, the pattern he sees here with both Fascism and Socialism is the particular way in which a given state that maintains these ideologies, distributes goods. The pattern here, his fear is a consistent reliance and intensification of “central planning”. In this sense his book reads as an all out critique of social justice, particularly a centrally engineered social justice, which he believes will inevitably lead to injustice.

For Hayek anyone who means anything in society today (i.e. England at the time), anyone whose views can have an immediate and direct influence on the developments of society are becoming increasingly invested in socialist ideas (p.5). Indeed, this is likely a direct critique of the powerhouse at the time, Keynes, who wrote the book on what governments should do following a depression (heavy government spending, intense central planning, etc). The problem here correlates with Hayek’s strong conviction that Socialism leads to tyrannical rule a la Hitler. Indeed Nazism, for Hayek was the outcome of socialist trends (p.4). Therefore we must come to a realization that we too, may head down this road. In order to divert us from such a road and to better know our enemy, he feels we must urgently come to a better understanding of how the National Socialists came to power in Germany (p. 5). As is common of Hayek’s thought, he writes that we must identify the institutions that have caused the wickedness of the Germans, as opposed to merely describing the Germans as wicked (8).

Hayek’s central argument is that we have come to this road because we have lost track of what “liberalism” truly refers to. Hayek notes a general shift in the activities of government, particularly since the market crash of 1929 and the great depression Europe faced in the ensuing years. During this time governments were scrambling to figure out what was up or down. This led to the government (Parliament specifically, in the quote he uses) to “find itself increasingly engaged in legalization which has for its conscious aim the regulation of the day-to-day of the community”, in fact, intervening in matters which were otherwise previously far outside its scope of influence (p.12, from footnote). We might quickly note how similar such an analysis is to a Foucauldian analysis. Undoubtedly Hayek has is eyes and ears turned to understanding the development of institutional systems and their increasingly intensive forms of rationalization and the use of that rationalization on the very people of society. That said, Hayek’s point is not simply that we have turned against a laissez-faire style society, but that in doing so, we have completely changed the direction of the evolution of our ideas and social order (p.13). Hayek then is therefore not only scared for the direction we are heading (Socialism-Fascism), he is also yearning for the old style and quite possibly the form in which this old-style liberalism may have taken if it were to have gone on as it was.

As governments continue to install various rules, regulations and limits to our economic affairs and the kinds of economic affairs we can have, it to places constraints on our personal freedoms. For Hayek there is a direct correlation between the two, long professed by the fathers of Liberal philosophy (Smith, Locke, Mill, etc). He writes, “[w]e have progressively abandoned the freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past” (p.13). Indeed, quoting de Tocqueville and Lord Acton, socialism means slavery. Thus not just “liberalism” is lost, but “individualism”, a concept which Hayek feels has become increasingly twisted and debased to egotism and mere selfishness (p.14). What is lost here is the recognition of an individual’s views and the notion that this individual should be able to develop his or her own “gifts and bents (p.14). Hayek believes the development of commerce, the end of true serfdoms, of kingdoms, gave rise to people being able to shape their own life as they saw fit, unhindered and this in turn dramatically influenced the speed at which science and technology developed (p.16). Political freedom went hand in hand with economic freedom, which came from the outcome of the free growth of economic activity (now that no despotic political powers controlled people) (p.15). The only thing that stifled this incredible advancement (Holland and England, being the hotbeds) was the idea that a great majority was right and proper, this in effect barring the individual innovator to innovate. In sum, the overall principle of liberalism is to make as much use as possible the “spontaneous forces of society” and “resort as little as possible to coercion”. Through minimum political coercion, people can attend to their desires and so benefit the greater advancement of society in doing so (p.18).

But unfortunately such a liberal project was never able to fully realize itself, at least in the way Hayek would have hoped. Hayek, to some extent, sees that part of this disintegration, was inevitable and somehow inherent to liberalism. As he writes, because of his success man, unhindered and now both economically and politically free became increasingly unwilling to tolerate evils that came up (p.19). With this, the basic ideas of liberalism slowly slipped away and people started to become focused on creating new demands, a new world order, abandoning the individualist tradition.

In the second chapter, we come to a better understanding of what Hayek means by this new order, which is forming. Here he analyzes socialism as the displacer of liberalism. For the French in the beginning, according to Hayek, socialism was meant as way to “terminate the revolution” and deliberately reorganize society along hierarchical lines. Only later did socialism ally itself with the notion of freedom, which he deems “democratic socialism”. But indeed this is something of an impossible concept as de Tocqueville writes: “Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialiasm makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraints and servitude” (de Tocqueville (1848), as quoted on p. 25). In any event, with the rise in socialism came a subtle change in the meaning of the word “freedom”. Originally, freedom meant freedom from coercision, from the arbitrary power of other people, a release from the necessity of obedience (26). In a word, with this kind of freedom came the introduction of independent and individual choice. Come socialism and the new freedom that was promised was a “freedom of necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us” (p.26). To be truly free was to be released from the restraints of the economic system. In other words, as Hayek writes, this freedom, was just another name for power or wealth (ibid). Of course as we all know the original intent of such a socialistic outlook was to decrease the range of disparities of different people, an equal distribution of wealth. Having this word, “freedom”, in common with the liberals was a great boost for the socialist endeavor, even though the meaning was in fact different. Taking us to the next step, Fascism, Hayek claims that people are deluding themselves when they say they are not correlated. In the final pages of this chapter he gives his proofs to this correlation, noting a combination of democracy and socialism as it is realized and proclaimed in Hitlerism (p.30). For Hayek, democratic socialism is a great utopia, and, it is entirely unachievable (p.32).

In chapter fifteen, Hayek fears the dangers to a peaceful nation, should it artificially create a sense of economic solidarity, an economic planning on a national scale (p.226). But more interestingly here he considers international relations and ponders whether or not a supra-national government is possible. As he imagines it, if economic realtions between individuals shift into economic relations between nations, friction is inevitable.

To prove this, Hayek gives into slightly to a socialist attitude. This is to say, certain socialist claims are readily acceptable at the national level (i.e. we are willing to help those whose habits and views are fundamentally similar to us, even if this means making sacrifices). But the application of such an attitude at the supra-national level, specifically economic enforcement of such democratic ideals, lacks a moral bases (p. 228). Bringing up the ideals of distributive justice, he finds it highly unlikely that the Norwegian fisherman consent to slowing down his fishing haul, so that his Portuguese counterpart have a better chance at success. Nor the entire Spanish iron industry have precedence over its competitor in South Wales. Indeed he even points to what might happen in the future to the English, where “the main lines of the future economic development of Great Britain might be determined by a non-British majority” (p.228-9)

A pattern should well be seen, Hayek considers these dangers because he believes we are witnessing a loss of liberalism in Europe. A democratic procedure applied at the multi-national scale that centrally directs economic acitivity could only work by brute force, “an imposition by a small group on all the rest” (p.229). Hayek goes as far to say in a footnote that the plans for such a “World Parlimaent” are absurd (p.230). Any kind of attempt at distributive justice on by an international authority would be no more than a struggle between the working classes of different countries (p.241). Harkening back on our discussion of Nozick and Rawls, any kind of planning at this level would require us to “fix and order of priorities of the different claims” (p.232). The application of this would be immoral. Economic planning should not be reduced to merely a technical task.

To be clear Hayek is not totally throwing aside some of the ideals he seems so against. He believes we should assist the poor, for example, but our assistance should be in a way that we help these individuals “in their own efforts to build up their lives and to raise their standard of living” (p. 234). This will contribute to economic prosperity, which goes hand in hand with political prosperity. If we are set on an international authority, and indeed it is not entirely a bad idea, it can tremendously contribute to these two forms of prosperity if it keeps order and peace (acting as a night watchman); and, creates the conditions where people can develop their own life (ibid). The powers of authority must therefore be of the negative kind (p. 238). Hayek finds the realization of this ideal in the “federation”

Nozick’s On the Randian Argument

Nozick’s piece is a critique of Ayn Rand’s starting points for philosophy. Part of the reasons Nozick engages in such a critique in the first place, is because he is invested in the overarching themes of her philosophy. He opens up this work with the question: “What are the moral foundations of capitalism” (p.249)? Right to the point, it would seem that Ayn Rand’s outright philosophy and, mostly, literature, is a long nuanced demonstration of such a philosophy, though Nozick sees no convincing philosophical proof by Rand that convinces him that capitalism is morally justifiable. Nozick believes such a proof is a necessity, because it would push us further towards understanding the fundamental issues about morality, and, such a philosophy “is an attempt to provide a non-utilitarian non-social-contract natural rights ethics” (ibid). It is especially the latter of these two issues that Nozick that catches his eye, as we have discussed in our previous meeting with Nozick. Like Rand he shares the conviction that a moral foundation stemming from laissez-faire capitalism is both appropriate and possible (ibid), yet Rand simply doesn’t pull it off in any satisfactory way.

If the argument has never been made, Nozick intent in this work, very analytical in a sense, is to attempt to fill in the blanks of how such an argument can begin. To get here, Nozick pulls off an exegesis of Rand’s philosophical argument, though it is rather technical. Instead of diving into to the details of Nozick’s Rand, we might simply introduce the four stages he believes are central to Rand’s argument and consider a few preliminary remarks of each.    To lay them out in order to get us started (as introduced on p.250):


I. To the conclusion that only living beings have values with a point

II. From I, to the conclusion that life itself is a value to a living being which has it

III. From II, to the conclusion that life, as a rational person, is a value to the person whose life it is. (that man qua man is a value for him)

IV. From III, to some principle about interpersonal behavior and rights and purposes.


Nozick finds himself first and foremost curious about how the person above comes to make decisions and come to alternatives. Rand relies heavily on the concept of “value”. Nozick writes that “only a living being can have values, with some point to them. Values have a purpose only for living things” (p. 250). We might imagine a being-robot, an entity that is immortal and indestructible. It moves and acts, but it cannot be affected by anything (a key component for Rand). This entity would not be able to value anything, because it has nothing to gain or lose, nothing is for or against it. Nothing about its welfare is under threat. Our values therefore come from how things affect us (p.251). What if something does not affect us, but we are aware of it? Another thought experiment: we send off food and supplies to an island people. We do not know them in any capacity, nor can we have any communication with them, they cannot affect us in anyway. How can we value our actions or the activities of the others if they do not affect us in anyway? Nozick leaves this question open put questions if we can center an ethics on particular self-centered goals and values.

The second stage of Nozick’s Rand, tells us that life itself and the prolongation and maintenance of it is a value, in and of itself. His critique here is rather direct, he writes, “[o]ne cannot reach the conclusion that life itself is a value merely by conjoining together many sentences containing the word ’value’ and ‘life’ or ‘alive’ and hoping that, by some process of association and mixture, this new connection will arise” (p.252). We cannot come to the conclusion that life itself is a value, if we suppose death could be a value too. Rand has to substantiate this loose connection between “life” and “value” in order for her philosophy to be taken seriously. He further argues if we are to suppose that being vulnerable, destructible, in other words a living being, is a necessary condition for achieving and having values, wouldn’t this human condition of fragility itself be a value (p. 253)? Nozick sees not developed argument that life itself is the greatest value and thus to build an ethics with this is rather tenuous.

If we have somehow been able to ignore the numerous issues above and have made our way to the third stage, that to each individual person, her life, as a person, is a value for her. Man qua man. The qualifier, being, rational man. We are looking for what makes one living being special. What makes man special? Is it that Man has this particular P; that Man has P and nothing else has P (p. 255)? Can we construct moral conclusions based on this? Would discoveries on other planets show us that our fundamental moral conclusions don’t, indeed, can’t follow. Point being, if P is not fixed, we cannot assign it as a part of man’s “essence”. If we decide on a moral theory from this starting point yet if we welcome the fact that future discoveries could plausibly lead us to discovering man is not the only one with this P, this rationality, this essence, then we have a dubious theory (p.256). Nozick is not denying that within ethics there are fundamental features of being human which distinguishes us from other forms of being, but “nothing morally fundamental depends on the fact that these properties are distinguishing ones” (p.256).

Given the above we have made our way to the fourth stage, which shifts our self-centered focus to the social. Rand’s basic social principle is that a living human being is an end in itself, not the means to an ends or the welfare of others (p.258). From this, it lives for its own sake, without sacrifice of itself or others and the achievement of happiness is its highest moral purpose (ibid). But indeed, self-sacrifice evident in human nature, even in Rand’s own Atlas Shrugged. Why might this happen? It is not because knowing one has fulfilled one’s values which makes them happy that we have done them or that we will feel guilty if we don’t (both examples which he gives further details of in the text), its because there must be other moral reasons for saving someone’s lives over your won (p.262). More generally can the above really be a starting point for understanding this kind of philosophy at the social level? This is to say, what if we legitimately have different goals? As Nozick writes, Rand falls into the “optimistic tradition”, a vision of a morally harmonious universe where there are no conflicts of interest, purpose, duties or goals (p.260). Rand’s general approach of how this is meant to be done is that “I, in following my interests, should limit myself so as not to interfere forcibly in your pursuit of your life as a rational being” (p.261). Nozick calls this constrained egoism; that which is subject to the constraint of not violating certain conditions, the rights of other people, none of which remain clear with Rand.

While he shares her proclivities to finding a moral theory in particular capitalist ideals, Nozick finds Rand’s moral philosophy as wholly inadequate. In no way does she objectively establish any of her conclusions effectively. We might summarize and say that Nozick is generally arguing against experiential ethics, ethics that focuses on only the facts that are relevant to the moral assessment of actions and how these actions are intended to affect the experiences of other persons (p.263). In a word, the only morally relevant information for Rand in applying her concepts to the social, is the distribution of experiences in society. His final few words almost point to the attractiveness of such a moral theory, he writes “[i]ndeed, it may seem, how could anything else matter other than the experiences people have, how things feel from the inside. What else could there be that’s of any importance?” (p.264).

Max Horkheimer, The Social Function of Philosophy; Erich Fromm, The Character of Social Procress

Max Horkheimer, The Social Function of Philosophy

When talking about physics, chemistry, medicine or history, most have a clear idea of the meaning of these words. Philosophy is a different matter. There are too many conceptions of philosophy: either as an exact science and discipline in itself, or as an auxiliary helper to other sciences. What are the contents and methods of philosophy? Is it about the highest concepts and laws of Being? Is it about the a priori, knowledge not derived from experience? Is it a science or inner experience, scientific language, or about universal values? And the methods vary as well: analyzing concepts, intuition, phenomenology, logic, empirical criticism It’s hard to assume that different people who use the term philosophy are even talking about the same concept.

Horkheimer attempts to introduce his own idea of what philosophy is. First, he distinguishes it from science in a very important way. The sciences deal with problems arising from their contemporary societies, “by its very nature, the work of the scientist is capable of enriching life in its present form. His fields of activity are therefore largely marked out for him, and the attempts to alter the boundaries between the several domains of science, to develop new disciplines, as well as continuously to differentiate and integrate them, are always guided by social need, whether consciously or not. ” Philosophy is not concerned with solving the specific problems of society, and is in fact has an indifferent or even hostile relationship to society.

So what philosophy does is that it “insists that the actions and aims of man must not be the product of blind necessity. Neither the concepts of science nor the form of social life, neither the prevailing way of thinking nor the prevailing mores should be accepted by custom and practiced uncritically. Philosophy has set itself against mere tradition and resignation in the decisive problems of existence, and it has shouldered the unpleasant task of throwing the light of consciousness even upon those human relations and modes of reaction which have become so deeply rooted that they seem natural, immutable, and eternal.” Although Horkheimer concedes that scientific change has brought about social change as well, without any philosophical guide it still remains blind and one sided: thought must not be merely confined within the special sciences and to the practical learning of the professions, thought which investigates the material and intellectual presuppositions that are usually taken for granted, thought which impregnates with human purpose those relationships of daily life that are almost blindly created and maintained.

Horkheimer objects to two other conceptions of philosophy: philosophy as helper to science and philosophy as sociology. Since science in his conception deals with every day values and problem, if philosophy is to become a servant to science then it assumes that there is no way to transcend the contemporary and social forms and is content with handling the everyday tasks of the moment- philosophical skepticism and nihilism. So philosophy is not a servant to the sciences, nor is philosophy sociology. The latter reduces thought to ideology, the product of biases from specific social class. The “stereotyped application of the concept of ideology to every pattern of thought is, in the last analysis, based on the notion that there is no philosophical truth, in fact no truth at all for humanity, and that all thought is seinsgebunden (situationally determined)” and again, back to skepticism and nihilism.

So what is the real function of philosophy? “The real social function of philosophy lies in its criticism of what is prevalent.” The criticism here does not mean to complain about the state of the world, but to prevent mankind from fully losing itself in the actions and ideas of the moment. For Horkheimer, Plato’s use of the Socratic dialogue was a way of creating a more comprehensive thinking, one that is more flexible and better adapted to reality. Ideas recieve their meaning within a system of ideas, that is the meaning behind dialogues, and every one-sided thought or conception may turn out to be harmful. “We may recall the comparison drawn in the Gorgias. The trades of the baker, the cook, and the tailor are in themselves very useful. But they may lead to injury unless hygienic considerations determine their place in the lives of the individual and of mankind. Harbors, shipyards, fortifications, and taxes are good in the same sense. But if the happiness of the community is forgotten, these factors of security and prosperity become instruments of destruction.”

The goal of all the great philosophies is “an equitable state of affairs was for them the necessary condition for the unfolding of man’s intellectual powers, and this idea lies at the basis of all of Western humanism.” It is an optimistic idea, one that believes that people have to potential to achieve the good life or the highest mode of human organization.

So to give a one line summary, the social function of philosophy is to discourage one-sided and uncritical acceptance of the ideas of the particular society or historical society, through the use of reason: the use of dialogical reasoning which places that idea into a larger system of ideas.

Erich Fromm, The Character of the Social Process

Erich Fromm introduces the concept of Social Character to analyse society. Social character are the character traits that most individuals in a particular group share. Character “is the specific form in which human energy is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of human needs to the particular form of existence of a given society.” It determines thinking, action and feeling in individuals, as different individuals will have different definitions of a concept based on their character. This “emotional matrix of character” when applied to social character explains cultural differences, for some ideas which resonate strongly in some character structures may fall on deaf ears to people with a different structure. Ideas may be consciously accepted by a group, but if that idea fails to meet a particular need in the character, it fails to have any real effect. Other ideas are more readily accepted if they carry that emotional weight. “ideas can become powerful forces, but only to the extent to which they are answers to specific human needs prominent in a given social character.”

Fromm summarizes the function of the social character in two lines: ” the subjective function of character for the normal person is to lead him to act according to what is necessary for him from a practical standpoint and also to give him satisfaction from his activity psychologically” and “the social character internalises external necessities and thus harnesses human energy for the task of a given economic and social system.” For example, in a given society where saving is the norm, a person who’s character is in line with the social character will not only be do the action of saving money but will derive psychological satisfaction from it. Likewise, a place where labor and work are valued will have the workers internalize this need as an inner compulsion towards work. When social conditions change, those needs may not be met like they used to, and thus people will seek satisfaction in different ways.

However, humans are not infinitely malleable. There appear to be certain needs and desires that are inherent. “What are these qualities? The most important seems to be the tendency to grow, to develop and realize potentialities which man has developed in the course of history – as, for instance, the faculty of creative and critical thinking and of having differentiated emotional and sensuous experiences. Each of these potentialities has a dynamism of its own.” Because of their dynamic nature, if they are suppressed by their society they may appear in new adaptions, potentially destructive ones. Although Fromm refuses to speculate on where they might come from, he believes that the desire for truth and justice may be inherent as well.

This is where he finds disagreement with Freud’s psychoanalysis, although he acknowledges the debt he owes to the psychologist. First, he criticizes Freud’s view of humans as a closed system of drives and instincts and instead calls for a model in which humans are the interaction of world, nature, self and others. Freud’s conception of the closed system leads to ideas where personality traits are developed because of physiological “errors”- the classic psychoanalytic ideas of “oral” or “anal” fixation, which is the result of the natural process of suckling or defecating in infants not developing naturally. Fromm argues these are the symptoms, not the cause:  the infant who experiences a lack of reliability in the mother’s love may acquire “oral” traits even though the feeding process went on without any particular disturbances. The “oral “ or “anal” phantasies or physical sensations in later years are not important on account of the physical pleasure they imply, or of any mysterious sublimation of this pleasure, but only on account of the specific kind of relatedness towards the world which is underlying them and which they express.

Fromm does not share Freud’s pessimism, where all the so-called higher ideals are the result of “baser” instincts: the feeling of justice resulting from a child feeling envy towards other. For Fromm, these desires are potentially inherent drives in humans. He also calls for a distinction between psychologies of want and abundance. Freud’s psychology, where pleasure is just the termination of pain, is a psychology of want. But when basic wants are fulfilled, there is the potential for culture, for free and spontaneous action: the psychology of abundance. Failing to distinguish the two, for example, sex in Freudian thought becomes merely a physiological compulsion, he cannot account for joy or intimacy or other feelings that come from the psychology of abundance.

So the concept of the Social Character is a different way of analyzing the system of human thought and culture, different from the psychological- instinctual drives create society- the economic- economic interests shape culture- or the idealistic- new religious ideals pushing for new society. It analyzes the adaptation of human character to social structure, and the effect changes in the society can have on that structure. Here are two examples he ends with:

With regard to the problem of the spirit of Protestantism and capitalism, I have tried to show that the collapse of medieval society threatened the middle class; that this threat resulted in a feeling of powerless isolation and doubt; that this psychological change was responsible for the appeal of Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines; that these doctrines intensified and stabilised the characterological changes; and that the character traits that thus developed then became productive forces in the development of capitalism which in itself resulted from economic and political changes.

With regard to Fascism the same principle of explanation was applied: the lower middle class reacted to certain economic changes, such as the growing power of monopolies and post-war inflation, with an intensification of certain character traits, namely sadistic and masochistic strivings; the Nazi ideology appealed to and intensified these traits; and the new character traits then became effective forces in supporting the expansion of German imperialism. In both instances we see that when a certain class is threatened by new economic tendencies it reacts to this threat psychologically and ideologically; and that the psychological changes brought about by this reaction further the development of economic forces even if those forces contradict the economic interests of that class. We see that economic, psychological, and ideological forces operate in the social process in this way: that man reacts to changing external situations by changes in himself, and that these psychological factors in their turn help in moulding the economic and social process.

Ethics of Ambiguity Part III: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity

Simone de Beauvoir starts the chapter by criticizing an attitude that she calls aesthetic, which is an attempt to purely contemplate the world without trying to change it. She claims that this attitude works when looking at the past, because since the past is over there is no way to engage or change these events, but not in the present. A contemplative attitude in a sense is trying to make the present into a past.

Rather she calls for action. This action is the disclosure of being through free projects that she has referenced before. But then she acknowledges a concrete situation people face themselves in. Due to unnatural impositions, which she calls oppression, their future and ability to choose is denied to them. Freedom in this case can only be expressed negatively (freedom from rather than freedom to, to borrow a concept from another philosopher); it becomes revolt.

One of the tools of oppression as de Beauvoir sees it is mystification, taking the situation to be a natural one and keeping the oppressed in the dark about their possibilities. The oppressor has other arguments to justify their oppression: that being denied their rights over others they are in turn oppressed. De Beauvoir denounces this as a sophism: “I am oppressed if I am thrown into prison, but not if I am kept from throwing my neighbor into prison.” Rather, she argues, what they are actually doing is playing the role of the Serious Man and making their own freedom subservient to an Idea or Cause, like an institution or the idea of culture. She gives the absurd example of Salazar, so obsessed with recreating history that the houses he developed became completely unlivable

De Beauvoir does not want to deny the importance of the past, since it adds to the thick richness that is lived existence. Attempting to deny people’s freedom in the name of some abstract past does not do. Likewise, the second argument that the oppressive regime is useful is also rejected on the grounds that it tries to give usefulness an absolute value.”Neither in the past nor in the future can one prefer a thing to Man, who alone can establish the reason for all things.”

The final argument of the oppressor, that liberation is hard, Simone de Beauvoir actually agrees with. Because action itself is fraught with issues.

Here she brings up the issues with violence: they require an incredible sacrifice, not just of the enemy but of your own group. And to ensure that their followers follow on those sacrifice, tyrants throughout history have adopted a two pronged approach: either to reduce the person to his absolute present, his facticity, where he is nothing more but an object among others; the other is to empower their followers by making their sacrifice a sacrifice towards a higher cause, it is a mix of nihilism and seriousness. But de Beauvoir does not want justification by an Idea or Cause to diminish the truth of what it means to sacrifice.

And de Beauvoir will not even let people accept that sacrifice is useful. She criticizes the ends justify the means mentality by first saying that humans are the end, but in sacrificing humans, it is not humans but the false idol Humanity that becomes the end. Moreover, she distinguishes two different meaning of ends by bringing up two kinds of futures. There is the future which is the expanding and continuation of the present, then there is a concept of a messianic future, an eternal End where being fulfills itself. If you are waging a war to achieve the latter kind of future, it seems de Beauvoir is telling us, then your war will never end, because that future will never come.  “The tasks we have set up for ourselves and which, though exceeding the limits of our lives, are ours, must find their meaning in themselves and not in a mythical Historical end.”

Unable to ground itself in a cause, or define the ends in absolute terms, is action doomed to absurdity?

De Beauvoir makes sure to distinguish the ambiguous from the absurd. “To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.” To point out the antinomies and paradoxes of action is to make one aware of this tension and not try to deny it, just as in the previous chapters she points out the different ways people tried to escape their freedom. To act in full light of ambiguity “requires that each action be considered as a finished form whose different moments, instead of fleeing toward the future in order to find there their justification, reflect and confirm one another so well that there is no longer a sharp separation between present and future, between means and ends.”

She compares action to art and science. It is impossible to ask a priori which hypothesis is true, or what is the surest way to achieve Beauty, since these things have to be lived and experienced, acted and experimented on. She says rather there are methods that can be proposed, such as the idea of treating man as an end rather than a means. A person must be regarded in his freedom and existence:  “the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness. If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy.”

There are some men which will evil and oppression, and against them violence may be justified, but what of people who are not doing harm to others but harming themselves? This is a situation that is more complicated, for on the one hand there is a feeling of wanting to help the other, especially if one is in a situation that calls for care-taking. But de Beauvoir rejects that this kind of care taking is like a gardener cultivating his garden, to use a common metaphor. The freedom of the person in your charge has to still be taken as absolute. “We object to the inquisitors who want to create faith and virtue from without; we object to all forms of fascism which seek to fashion the happiness of man from without; and also the paternalism which thinks that it has done something for man by prohibiting him from certain possibilities of temptation, whereas what is necessary is to give him reasons for resisting it.”

And in the case of conflict and revolt, where sacrifices may be necessary, what are some of the criteria for deciding on the best course of action?

The first point is always to consider what genuine human interest fills the abstract form which one proposes as the action’s end. Politics always puts forward Ideas: Nation, Empire, Union, Economy, etc. But none of these forms has value in itself; it has it only insofar as it involves concrete individuals. If a nation can assert itself proudly only to the detriment of its members, if a union can be created only to the detriment of those it is trying to unite, the nation or the union must be rejected. We repudiate all idealisms, mysticisms, etcetera which prefer a Form to man himself.

The problem appears when a cause is for the good of man, but involves sacrifice. This is when accepting the tension of the antinomies of action is important:  if, in  order to avoid the risk of killing one innocent man, one runs the risk of letting ten innocent men die, it is reasonable to sacrifice him. We can merely ask that such decisions be not taken hastily and lightly, and that, all things considered, the evil that one inflicts be lesser than that which is being forestalled.”



To give the final word to Simone de Beauvoir:

 […]Let men attach value to words, forms, colors,  mathematical theorems, physical laws, and athletic prowess; let them accord value to one another in love and friendship, and the objects, the events, and the men immediately have this value; they have it absolutely. It is possible that a man may refuse to love anything on earth; he will prove this refusal and he will carry it out by suicide. If he lives, the reason is that, whatever he may say, there still remains in him some attachment to existence; his life will be commensurate with this attachment; it will justify itself to the extent that it genuinely justifies the world.

This justification, though open upon the entire universe through time and space, will always be finite. Whatever one may do, one never realizes anything but a limited work, like existence itself which tries to establish itself through that work and which death also limits. It is the assertion of our finiteness which doubtless gives the doctrine which we have just evoked its austerity and, in some eyes, its sadness. As soon as one considers a system abstractly and theoretically, one puts himself, in effect, on the plane of the universal, thus, of the infinite. That is why reading the Hegelian system is so comforting. I remember having experienced a great feeling of calm on reading Hegel in the impersonal framework of the Bibliotheque Nationale in August 1940. But once I got into the street again, into my life, out of the system, beneath a real sky, the system was no longer of any use to me: what it had offered me, under a show of the infinite, was the consolations of death; and I again wanted to live in the midst of living men. I think that, inversely, existentialism does not offer to the reader the consolations of an abstract evasion: existentialism proposes no evasion. On the contrary, its ethics is experienced in the truth of life, and it then appears as the only proposition of salvation which one can address to men. Taking on its own account Descartes’ revolt against the evil genius, the pride of the thinking reed in the face of the universe which crushes him, it asserts that, despite his limits, through them, it is up to each one to fulfill his existence as an absolute. Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite. And in fact, any man who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and real will knows quite well that he has no need of any outside guarantee to be sure of his goals; their certitude comes from his own drive. There is a very old saying which goes: “Do what you must, come what may.” That amounts to saying in a different way that the result is not external to the good will which fulfills itself in aiming at it. If it came to be that each man did what he must, existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in death.


Simone de Beauvoir Ethics of Ambiguity: Personal Freedom and Others

In the last part, de Beauvoir outlines the general conditions of humans and their project of freedom. Man is stuck in the “lack” between pure facticity and complete subjectivity, but it is in this lack that freedom arises. But man can try to escape that freedom and the responsibility that comes with it, which is the subject of the second chapter.

The problem, de Beauvoir asserts, starts in childhood. When human beings are children, the world appears ready made for them. There is the world of adults, who have all the answers and live in a stable world where he does not have to be responsible for anyone or anything else: ‘They can not make a dent in  the serene order of a world which existed before him, without him, where he is in a state of security by virtue of his very insignificance. He can do with impunity whatever he likes. He knows that nothing can ever happen through him; everything is already given; his acts engage nothing, not even himself.’

This sense of childhood might also extent into adulthood when people are never allowed to assume responsibility or freedom, such as in conditions of subjugation or slavery. In order to get along with the power that subjugates them, they align themselves to their “masters” like children align themselves to adults.  But barring such external pressures, and even within them, this illusion of a stable ready made world starts dissipating soon enough. De Beauvoir describes the awakening of a child into adolescence as such: “From childhood on, flaws begin to be revealed in it. With astonishment,  revolt and disrespect the child little by little asks himself, “Why must I act that way? What good is it? And what will happen if I act in another way?” He discovers his subjectivity; he discovers that of others. And when he arrives at the age of adolescence he begins to vacillate because he notices the contradictions among adults as well as their hesitations and weakness. Men stop appearing as if they were gods, and at the same time the adolescent discovers the human character of the reality about him. Language, customs, ethics, and values have their source in these uncertain creatures. The moment has come when he too is going to be called upon to participate in their operation; his acts weigh upon the earth as much as those of other men. He will have to choose and decide. It is comprehensible that it is hard for him to live this moment of his history, and this is doubtless the deepest reason for the crisis of adolescence; the individual must at last assume his subjectivity.”

So when a child suddenly realizes the weight and consequences of their existence, ethical action is possible. This realization is both joyful, because now the person is able to feel himself free and no longer “defenseless before obscure powers which directed the course of things,” and anxiety-provoking, because they now have to face the world without the safety net of their childhood, which they might become nostalgic for. To see how this anxiety and nostalgia can be a denial of freedom, de Beauvoir makes a hierarchy of various types of escape from freedom.

At the bottom of the hierarchy is what she terms the “sub-man.” This person refuses outright to have any positive engagement with the world, he takes no responsibility for himself, and his only desire to make himself into a pure facticity in the world. Out of fear- fear of taking on projects, of the future, of engaging and being thrown into the possibilities around him- of the world, he rejects it completely. “He discovers around him only an insignificant and dull world. How could this naked world arouse within him any desire to feel, to understand, to live? The less he exists, the less is there reason for him to exist, since these reasons are created only by existing.” His commitment is only halfhearted, he will take on whatever ready-made idea comes his way, “One day, a monarchist, the next day, an anarchist, he is more readily anti-semitic, anti-clerical, or anti-republican. ”

So it’s wrong to think of the sub-man as the lovable slacker, because the sub-man’s apathy can turn dangerous. First, because the world appears as an uncontrollable force overwhelming him, he will fall prey to any form of evil going on around him, “He realizes himself in the world as a blind uncontrolled force which anybody can get control of. In lynchings, in pogroms, in all the great bloody movements organized by the fanaticism of seriousness and passion, movements where there is no risk, those who do the actual dirty work are recruited from among the sub-men.”

The sub-man’s relation to the world is ultimately one of terror: “The sub-man experiences the desert of the world in his boredom. And the strange character of a universe with which he has created no bond also arouses fear in him. Weighted down by present events, he is bewildered before the darkness of the future which is haunted by frightful specters, war, sickness, revolution, fascism, bolshevism. The more indistinct these dangers are, the more fearful they become. The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself.”

In order to alleviate those fears, the subman can decide to give away all his freedom to a single object, to devote himself to a Cause or an Idea. This is the situation De Beauvoir calls the “Serious Man.” Serious men give up their freedom by making this cause or idea their everything. It is almost an inversion of childhood: the child sees the world of adults as a complete ready-made, fact of existence; the serious man wants to be that adult world. Although some adults, because of economic or social conditions, cannot fully escape the restraints of this imaginary childhood, the serious man knows his freedom, but nonetheless chooses to remain chained, “he dissimulates his subjectivity under the shield of rights which emanate from the ethical universe recognized by him; he is no longer a man, but a father, a boss, a member of the Christian Church or the Communist Party.” And because ‘he is no longer a man’ he falls prey to “the political fanaticism which empties politics of all human content and imposes the State, not for individuals, but against them.” The inquisition and lynchings are two examples de Beauvoir gives.

The serious man can only justify his absurd cause by denying the seriousness of others, making fun of their causes or their projects. Some will do it by cultivating a sense of humor which mocks the cause of others-“the fascist sense of humor”- others will devote their will entirely to their idol, and in all other aspects become a sub-man. Here she gives the example from Proust of a doctor who has great skill in his profession but “outside of his specialty, to be lacking in sensitivity, intelligence, and humanity.” When the Cause (or causes) becomes everything, everything is judged useful or useless within the reason for the cause. But the serious man does not see it, he thinks it is “useful” or “useless” period, and this situation leads to despair and disillusionment: ‘Transcending all goals, reflection wonders, “What’s the use?” There then blazes forth the absurdity of a life which has sought outside of itself the justifications which it alone could give itself. Detached from the freedom which might have genuinely grounded them, all the ends that have been pursued appear arbitrary and useless.’

A serious man who is frustrated by the inability to “be” anything can decide to become nothing. This stage de Beauvoir describes as nihilism. This attitude is different from the “lack” of existentialism which she described in the previous chapter. The nihilist feels this lack, and reacts to it negatively.  They might go for purely rejecting everything around them; where the serious man made following the object the source of his life, the nihilist makes destroying the object his goal. Or they might go even further and try and annihilate themselves, which can also mean annihilating others that give them existence.

Such a position cannot be sustained for too long, and their rejection of the world can be self destructive, a return to the sub-man, or become a new form of serious. She uses the historical example of Surrealism, which first started off as being a continuous rebellion against all values, and ended up being a new form of values. More dangerously, De Beauvoir describes Nazism as first a nihilistic move destroying old bourgeoisie values before itself becoming a new serious cause.

But within nihilism, as opposed to the sub-man or the serious, there is the first realization of the ambiguity or existence, and so the later stages de Beauvoir describes have a possibility of genuine freedom within them. From the nihilistic stance other possibilities arise, because within a nihilistic stance a person might still experience the delight in existing, he might throw himself in activity and take in all the delights of the world. De Beauvoir calls this person “the adventurer.”

The adventurer is the first to of these stages to experience freedom, and so the first to be able to make moral choices from the existentialist point of view. Because, “The adventurer does not propose to be; he deliberately makes himself a lack of being; he aims expressly at existence; though engaged in his undertaking, he is at the same time detached from the goal. Whether he succeeds or fails, he goes right ahead throwing himself into a new enterprise to which he will give himself with the same indifferent ardor. It is not from things that he expects the justification of his choices.”

The adventurer is much further than the nihilist or the serious man, but not quite there. De Beauvoir finds two faults in this figure: first, he might still be pursuing adventure in the name of a serious Cause, and second, he is completely indifferent to the freedom of others and the consequences of his action. Cortez and the conquistadors are used to illustrate both these points: while adventurers full of zeal and joy of life, they still find their cause of religion and empire, and their complete indifference to the freedom of the Indians whom they regarded as mere obstacles from their abstracted sense of freedom.

Insofar as a person  “can become conscious of the real requirements of his own freedom, which can will itself only by destining itself to an open future, by seeking to extend itself by means of the freedom of others,” then he has genuine freedom. But if others become mere instruments for his adventures and conquests, then the adventurer can easily become a tyrant. “And as he can not impose this tyranny without help, he is obliged to serve the regime which will allow him to exercise it. He needs money, arms, soldiers, or the support  of the police and the laws. It is not a matter of chance, but a dialectical necessity which leads the adventurer to be complacent regarding all regimes which defend the privilege of a class or a party, and more particularly authoritarian regimes and fascism. He needs fortune, leisure, and enjoyment, and he will take these goods as supreme ends in order to be prepared to remain free in regard to any end.” It only takes a favorable chance, de Beauvoir says, to make an adventurer into a dictator.

The antithesis of the adventurer is the passionate man. “In the adventurer it is the content which does not succeed in being genuinely fulfilled. Whereas in the passionate man it is subjectivity which fails to fulfill itself genuinely.” If the adventurer seeks to destroy everything that gets in the way of his own pleasure, the passionate man attempts to give himself fully to the realization of an object. There are a lot of similarities between the passionate and the serious man, and indeed de Beauvoir says that the one can often turn into the other, but at this stage, the person realizes his own subjectivity, and passion is about merging that subjectivity with the object of their passion. Whereas the Cause the serious man follows is ready-made, the passionate man sees at as a project, a quest.

It is a double edged sword, because the project the passionate man follows can disclose and give incredible meaning to the world, but a blind single-minded pursuit of this project means that he will withdraw himself from the rest of the world, his freedom is a separation from others.” He knows that his will emanates only from him, but he can nevertheless attempt to impose it upon others.” This can lead to a willing to destroy, or at least an indifference to, anything that is not his goal: Only the object of his passion appears real and full to him. All the rest are insignificant. Why not betray, kill, grow violent?  […] The whole universe is perceived only as an ensemble of means or obstacles through which it is a matter of attaining the thing in which one has engaged his being. Not intending his freedom for men, the passionate man does not recognize them as freedoms either. He will not hesitate to treat them as things.” This leads to fanaticisim.

But just like the adventurer has the possibility for authentic freedom, de Beauvoir sees the possibility for goodness in the passionate: genuine love. “Love is then renunciation of all possession, of all confusion. One renounces being in order that there may be that being which one is not. Such generosity, moreover, can not be exercised on behalf of any object whatsoever. One can not love a pure thing in its independence and its separation, for the thing does not have positive independence. If a man prefers the land he has discovered to the possession of this land, a painting or a statue to their material presence, it is insofar as they appear to him as possibilities open to other men. Passion is converted to genuine freedom only if one destines his existence to other existences through the being — whether thing or man — at which he aims, without hoping to entrap it in the destiny of the in-itself.”

At this point both ones own freedom and the dependence of others is realized. This is frightening because it implies the possibility the failure of any engagement with the world. One strategy to stop this is to take the position of an intellectual, who contemplates the world from a distance and refuses to take sides. “He does not have to choose between the highway and the native, between America and Russia, between production and freedom. He understands, dominates, and rejects, in the name of total truth, the necessarily partial truths which every human engagement discloses.” However, every person born is born to a particular situation, a certain time or place in the world, and so the judgement the intellectual makes cannot be universal. “If he does not assume the subjectivity of his judgment, he is inevitably caught in the trap of the serious. Instead of the independent mind he claims to be, he is only the shameful servant of a cause to which he has not chosen to rally.”

The last attitude is that of the artist or writer. Instead of taking an objective view of the world like the intellectual, the artist tries to realize their existence in the world through their work.  De Beauvoir does not spend a lot of time on this position, and merely states that as long as the artistic stance does not try to attain being, it is authentic; otherwise, it makes their work into an Idol, and falls back in the serious.

De Beauvoir describes these attitudes as pitfalls, in that they to varying degrees denies the original ethical movement of trying to disclose the world, mentioned in the last chapter. One common thread in all of those stages is a distorted relationship to others. Because, the existentialist asserts, there is no contradiction in asserting your freedom and willing the freedom of others, although it might appear otherwise. De Beauvoir here uses the concept of recognition. In Hegel, a consciousness sees another consciousness as something that can limit or deny, and so tries to destroy it. But this is a limited because in destroying the freedom of others he cannot assert his own freedom. Sartre illustrates this further in his play No Exit, where characters want their existence to be recognized by others, but want it to be recognized freely. De Beauvoir adds to this:” This truth is found in another form when we say that freedom can not will itself without aiming at an open future. The ends which it gives itself must be unable to be transcended by any reflection, but only the freedom of other men can extend them beyond our life. ”

So her conclusion is that “to will oneself free is also to will others free,” which is the beginning of the positive aspects of her ethics which she covers in the next chapter.