Ideology According To Kirk

Continuing a discussion from a Vox Nova thread on whether Russell Kirk was an ideologist, I would like to explain precisely what Kirk meant by ideology. As Jonathan Jones notes, we need to agree on what Kirk meant before we can really ascertain if he, as Henry Karlson claims, qualified as an ideologue. The question is important chiefly because opposition to ideology was a hallmark of Kirk’s political philosophy. Indeed, Kirk often reiterated the remark of H. Stuart Hughes that conservatism is the negation of ideology.

In The American Cause, Kirk defines ideology as “political fanaticism, a body of beliefs alleged to point the way to a perfect society.” He then contrasts ideology with beliefs that merely secure our order, our justice, and our freedom. Kirk writes in Prospects for Conservatives, “The ideologist is convinced that in his rigid closet-philosophy all the answers to all the problems of humanity are plain to be discerned. We have but to be governed by his rules, and the earthly paradise is ours. He may be an a priori reasoner, or an a posteriori reasoner, but in his system no room is left for Providence, or chance, or free will, or prudence. He is the devotee, often, of what Burke called 'an armed doctrine.' His ancestor was Procrustes, and he is resolved to stretch or hack all the world until it fits his bed.”

Kirk devotes the opening chapter of The Politics of Prudence to the errors of ideology. Here he speaks of the ideologue as one who “thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature.” “In his march toward Utopia,” Kirk writes, “the ideologue is merciless.” The ideologue “endeavors to substitute secular goals and doctrines for religious goals and doctrines.” Politics for him is messianic, an instrument of salvation, the instrument of salvation, to be more specific. Political compromise is impossible because “the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation.”

Ideology according to Kirk, then, is not a simply a political philosophy or worldview, as some people use term. Nor is it tantamount to preferring one political philosophy to all others or believing oneself to be right and another to be wrong. We see ideology rather in the idea that all the oppressed can be liberated by Communism, the notion that war can be defeated by making the whole world Democratic, the assertion that one is either with the leader and his methods or one is with the enemy and his designs. The ideologist doesn’t just see his ideas as better than everything else under the sun; he sees his ideas as beyond critique. He has nothing to learn from anyone. All others must learn from him, and he is merciless in his teaching methods.

Pass the Hemlock, Please

Upon learning a few years ago that I was a daddy, one of my initial thoughts was, "Cool. Someone I can corrupt!" I imagine I wore that mischievous smile seen frequently on Calvin's face when he and Hobbes were up to no good. So I confess, without a shred of guilt, that it is no deviation from parental design that my son's favorite scene in Aladdin is the scene where the palace guards who are chasing the hero fall into a wagon of fertilizer. Nor is it an accident of chance that my son calls this the poop scene.

The Hustler

My wife and I recently watched Robert Rossen's The Hustler, staring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and a vicious George C. Scott. Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, a pool hustler eager to play Minnesota Fats, who’s said to be the best pool player in the country. The film deals with themes of extraordinary talent and flawed character, both common in stories of contest, but it plots the grueling competition between the great ones near the beginning. The thirty-seven hour pool game sets the stage for the rest of the story, which depicts Eddie’s meandering between “contracts of depravity” and moments of fellowship and grace. The dialogue is great throughout, but this exchange between the Newman and Laurie, delivered just perfectly, gripped me by the heart:
Sarah : I love you, Eddie.
Eddie: You know, someday, Sarah, you're gonna settle down... you're gonna marry a college professor and you're gonna write a great book. Maybe about me. Huh? Fast Eddie Felson... hustler.
Sarah Packard: I love you.
Eddie: You need the words?
Sarah: Yes, I need them very much. If you ever say them I'll never let you take them back.

Made You Google!

Prediction: The expression above will soon become a trite saying found especially in emails and instant messages.


I'm very pleased to see that President Obama recognizes that we have societal obligations to our enemies, that we can defend ourselves and respect the dignity of those who mean us harm. I hope he one day recognizes that we have societal obligations to the unborn, that we can defend women's rights and respect the dignity of those in the womb.

Hope and the Death Penalty

Rodak raises this question in the comment section of the previous post:
If you kill a man before his time and cut off all hope for his repentance, does this please the Lord?
One of the reasons we ought to punish a criminal is the hope that the punishment will teach the criminal to reform his behavior. The death penalty doesn't allow for this reformation to occur, and therefore, to my mind, fails to do what penalties ought to do.

Killing someone represents a failure to hope. Sometimes the failure to hope is reasonable, such as in that split-second opportunity for me to act when a murderous intruder enters my home. When a criminal is safely behind bars, however, we have a societal obligation to help him reform.

Tactical Opposition

Jay Anderson has a reason for opposing the death penalty that I haven't heard before:
Indeed, I have come to oppose the death penalty, myself, NOT because I think it inherently wrong or unjust - I don't, but because, as a prudential matter, opposing the death penalty makes arguing on behalf of a culture of life much easier. I got sick of getting bogged down in arguing the REAL distinctions that exist between abortion and capital punishment, and decided that, along with the Pope and his Bishops, it was preferable to oppose capital punishment.
Jay's opposition to the death penalty because he believes and is frustrated that some of those he debates cannot make distinctions doesn't make much sense to me. He takes a public position against a practice when he believes that the practice can be justified. Jay is no calculating political partisan, but his opposition to the death penalty seems, well, calculating. Moreover, I'm not sure it's an effective tactic. We want to convince people to embrace a culture of life, yes, but we also want proponents of that culture to understand important distinctions.

On the other hand, I think opposition to the death penalty strengthens the pro-life case because it reinforces the respect due to life by refusing to destroy life even when someone has committed the worst of crimes. Opposition to the death penalty stresses that the life of even the most monstrous man is sacred and deserving of respect.

The Daring Interpreters

In long forgotten ages past, when the dawn of the written word first shone over the horizon, scholars seeking ways to truth otherwise than the normal sought out texts of esoteric, mysterious, and obscure nature. They walked upon ways many considered dark and treacherous. They were the daring interpreters, united by their interest in alterity, and they have continued their journeys between the lines of official history. Do you dare to join them? Do you dare to follow those who cannot be followed? Their ways are all unique, different, and yet hope binds them. If you would join your story to theirs, then turn your eyes to the right, fix them upon the pathway under the profile, and take that step toward a strange and wondrous community.

Framing Philosophically

We use words as signs in part to distinguish one thing from another. Words distinguish by establishing borders that include and exclude meaning. Speaking figuratively, we could say that a word is like a frame, such as for a picture or a window. It contains what is included within its boundaries and excludes what is without, and we see what is included within the frame by looking through the frame. The word “animal” includes within its borders the significance of what it means to be an animal and excludes whatever isn’t contained in that significance. The word “cat” establishes a smaller frame, so to speak, for it contains what it means to be a cat, but not what it means to be any kind of animal.

When we combine words to form sentences, we construct more complex frameworks, but the function of excluding and including meaning remains. Whole systems of thought likewise establish distinguishing borders between what meaning is included and what meaning is excluded. Therefore, we can continue to speak of these systems using the figurative image of a frame, albeit an intricate one. A metaphysical system might aim to include within its boundaries the essential aspects of being while excluding what is not true of being. The metaphysician here would seek to construct a framework through which the viewer could see the truth of being.

While the framer may look to reality as the basis for how he constructs his framework, the framework itself is an artifact, something he has created. All frameworks are artificial, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be true. The metaphysician who strives to express truth will strive to construct borders that correspond to the reality of being and the real differences between beings, at least in so far as he experiences them. He will strive for accuracy, for a framework that includes and excludes as accurately as possible. He will also strive for clarity, an endeavor that adds something to our image of a frame. The clarity of his philosophy is measured by how well the things he philosophizes about show through the glass placed within his frame.

The reason for glass within our image may become clear when we consider that even the metaphysician who strives to express the essential truth of being will incorporate metaphors and figurative expressions into his construct. He will express abstract concepts using concrete images. In so doing, he creates and adds meaning to what he strives to express. Metaphors describe one thing by means of another; therefore, the other thing is in a sense combined the thing described. So long as what the framework shows is true, we can still see through the glass, but the glass changes what we see, if ever so slightly. It may add darkness, color, or distance, for instance. The glass within the frame allows us to see through it, but it also affects our perception.

I’ve used the example of a metaphysician as someone who constructs a framework and strives to make his framework as accurate and clear as possible. The metaphysician is concerned with being. The moral philosopher, to give another example, is interested in expressing the truth about the moral life or, we might say, the good. He makes use of frameworks as well. Where do philosophers of alterity, such as the deconstructionist, fit into this image of constructing frameworks?

Philosophers of alterity are sometimes characterized as enemies of truth. They don’t seem interested in the pursuit of truth, at least in the way the metaphysician is. Nevertheless, such a characterization fails to frame what these philosophies are about. Where the metaphysician is intent on describing what fits into his framework, the philosopher of alterity is interested in what doesn’t fit into the framework, specifically in what the framer has excluded from framework. Where the metaphysician may insist on the accuracy and clarity of his system, the philosopher of alterity insists on calling the artificial structure of his system into question. Where the metaphysician is motivated by speaking the truth about being, the philosopher of alterity is motivated by giving justice to what is otherwise than being. A philosopher of alterity may deconstruct a frame, but he does so not as an enemy of truth or even as an enemy of framing, but rather from the desire to give what the frame excludes – alterity – its due. We might say that the metaphysician and the philosopher of alterity each have a unique vocation or role to play in the act of framing.

Got Legal Opinions?

President George W. Bush summarizes his legal philosophy as applied to the war on terror:
Everything we did was -- you know, it had legal -- legal opinions behind it. Look, you're sitting there, you've captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He's the guy that ordered the September the 11th attacks. And we want to know what he knows in order to protect the United States of America. And I got legal opinions that said whatever we're going to do is legal. And my job is to protect you, Larry.
Notice that the president defines his job in a way that gives precedence to the act of protection, not to upholding the law or ensuring justice. According to President Bush, the laws of war serve the aim of protecting the citizenry. In this reading, whatever the government does to protect Americans, even if that includes acts of torture or other injustices, should be legal. It is more important that the law protects than that it ensures justice.

If we value safety more than justice, then we will sacrifice justice in the name of safety.

Brian Treanor’s Aspects of Alterity

This post begins a series on Brian Treanor’s Aspects of Alterity: Levinas, Marcel, and the Contemporary Debate.

I first saw the book a couple months ago sitting on my brother-in-law’s coffee table. I picked it up, read the first few pages, and knew immediately that I had to put every other reading project on hold and read this book post haste. When my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas, my thoughts turned not toward the pipe dream of a Playstation 3, but to the reachable reality of a philosophy book, which, frankly, I preferred anyway. Treanor’s text not only deals with the debate between deconstruction and hermeneutics that has in recent years become the focus on my own philosophical interest, it also narrates that debate through the works of thinkers paramount in my own personal philosophical development.

Treanor examines, in page-turning philosophical prose, the debate between Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and John D. Caputo, who insist on maintaining the alterity of the other as an absolute alterity, and Gabriel Marcel, Paul Ricoeur, and Richard Kearney, who conceive of otherness as a relative alterity, a chiastic intertwining of alterity and similitude.

Gabriel Marcel, one of the thinkers I read when first studying philosophy, arguably swayed my thinking more significantly than any other philosopher has to date. Marcel started me on a path away from the light of grand metaphysical systems that led eventually toward the darkness of deconstruction and postmodernism. I doubt Marcel would be pleased at his work’s affect upon my philosophical journey, though it may please him to know that I probably side nowadays more with Ricoeur and his hermeneutics than with Derrida and his deconstruction. Probably.

Treanor does as well. He argues that the other is relatively other rather than absolutely other. While sympathetic to the aims of Levinas, Derrida, and Caputo to respect the absolute alterity of the other by not reducing the other to categories of the same, Treanor makes the case that we cannot know or even encounter absolute alterity, because we can only encounter that which has aspects of similitude. To encounter something, it must be present in a ways at least somewhat familiar and understandable. Alterity, to quote Treanor, “is that aspect of things, and others, that is (absolutely) unfamiliar, alien, or obscure.” Absolute alterity would be absolutely unfamiliar, having not even traces of what we could perceive or understand. We encounter the alterity of the other only because the other is in some way familiar, similar to what we have previously encountered.

In future posts I’ll look in detail at Treanor’s arguments for a conception of alterity as relative alterity, his analysis of how Levinas and Marcel differ in their philosophies of language, his insight into how their conceptions of otherness derive from their different religious beliefs, his claim that deconstruction flirts with relativism, and other aspects of his outstanding book.

Memories of Splat

Some years ago I was returning to San Antonio at the tail end of the Christmas break, having spent my vacation with family in Ohio, and at the precise moment that I crossed the State line dividing Arkansas and Texas, a bug splattered against my windshield. It was the first splat on that long trip, and it was followed by many more from Texarkana to the home of the Alamo.

The memory of bug guts announcing my entrance to Texas came to mind today as I was riding home from work on my bicycle. Yes, even though gas prices have plummeted and it can get below freezing, I still bike to work when weather permits. On particularly cold days, when I don’t wish to subject my little son who rides with me to the harsh winds, I am blessed with rides from generous colleagues. They probably take more pity on the little guy, but I’m okay with that. Sure, I don’t brave the weather like I did back in high school, biking in subzero temperatures or in freezing rain with no gloves, my hands gripping metal bars because the rubber had rubbed away, but I can take it.

Truth be told, I prefer the winter cycling to the summer cycling. I look like a normal, nicely dressed – albeit hippy-haired – church bureaucrat instead of a mismatched fool wearing my summer outfit of a t-shirt, khaki shorts, and dress shoes. Better than that, though, is the dearth of bugs. Sure, they’re around. Some even say hi when I pass. But gone with the winter wind are the miles of swarming gnats that I dubbed Velcro bugs for the way they’d stick to my sweaty clothes and hairy arms, requiring me to tilt my head and use my helmet as a battering ram to ward off the pests.

When Taking What is Good is Bad

The approach to philosophy whereby the reader abstracts those statements from philosophical works that he finds truthful, while ignoring the rest, and then combines them into a system of his own might seem a reasonable way of doing philosophy. It is not. The world of philosophy is not the sum total of true statements made by philosophers throughout history, as if all philosophers were giving their particular answers to the same questions. Philosophers are separated by the questions they ask. Each philosopher produces a separate and unique philosophy.

While some philosophers may seek to give expression to universal truths, what they express are in fact particular truths, discovered and, in a sense, given birth to by their particular philosophical projects. Insights from various philosophers can of course be combined into something new, but this new philosophy can no more be considered universal than those from which it was developed. Like those from which it came, it is born of a particular person, fashioned in a particular history, culture, and language, in response to particular situations.

While there is nothing wrong with learning from the good and true in particular philosophies, picking and choosing those statements one finds true and good while ignoring the rest uproots those statements from the context in which they were born and which gives them their full meaning. It tends one toward a superficial reading in which the reader looks for ideas that fit neatly in his own system and dismisses those ideas that are otherwise than his own or seem to have no coherent place in his philosophy.

Heines Site Returns

And returns as a blog! Fr. Timothy's site is sure to be a place of moving sermons, insightful observations, thought-provoking columns, and, of course, delightful humor. I can't say you'll read much there regarding postmodernism, but nobody is perfect.