Awhile back, I did a little speculation about a sort of progression of political consciousness. Basically, I put forward a model of alternating political philosophies as one progressed through life and grasped certain truths, from a sort of authoritarian youth, to a relativistic liberal adolescence, to a conservative adulthood, which might then progress to a few other phases -- a libertarian phase, and ultimately a phase which I could not really describe, but suspected to exist. A person could become 'stuck' at any of these phases through much of his life, even the rest of it after having entered, and of course there is some variation not described here, but in general, most people who make it to 'adulthood' at least do seem to roughly funnel through these phases in this order.
Well, I think I have a little more light to shed on this idea, especially that last 'phase.'
I have since noticed that, in very rough sort of way, this progression seems to parallel a trend that runs backward through history. Many observers have noticed that 'today's Republicans are yesterday's Democrats,' and have taken to labeling a faction of the GOP 'neo-conservative,' presumably to distinguish it from the 'paleo-conservative' positions of the older right. In many ways, the Old Right would have been considered libertarian by today's standards, juxtaposed with a Democratic party which had more in common with today's neo-conservative Republicans than modern socialistic and morally-relativistic Democrats.
In other words, voters are asked to choose between positions which would be considered 'less mature' in the model as time goes on, as the dominant philosophy of American politics moves backwards through the progression. Once you start reading political philosophy from the 19th century, you start realizing that this has been in play for some time -- and then you run into people like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, who are throwbacks yearning for the really old days of medievalism. And as much as you might want to call a man a crank who believes that 'the truth' has been left behind long ago in the past, and that ancient, medieval ways and organizations of society are in many of the most important ways superior to those which have followed, once you start reading a little bit of what they have to say...they start making sense to you.
I do not think that any of this is a coincidence, and I think I'm starting to make sense of it. I think.
I would lump those men -- and a few others, who to many might appear as if they did not belong -- into that class of people which has fallen off the far end of the accepted political spectrum and landed them in a blessed la-la land of their own from which they appear to derive immense enjoyment. And once you have entered into it yourself, it begins to make sense, and you realize that you haven't actually left reality behind as you might have believed, you've only just now entered into it.
Dogma and Criticism
I do not think that this transition can ever properly be explained in a complete form, because at least in part it belongs to that class of knowledge which does not transfer well from mind to mind by the normally accepted modes of rational explication. It's kind of like giving a full and detailed explanation of kissing. It simply must be experienced to be known, and is some ways better related through stories and myths and artistic expression. But I do think a particular chain of thought presented by R. G. Collingwood captures a large part of the idea rather well.
He says that in learning about practically any subject, a person must go through a few stages, which in their general outline should sound familiar. First, a person must approach the subject rather innocently, because he has no knowledge with which to work, except in some cases perhaps as a sort of background from other subjects. Thus, his first absorption of the subject matter must necessarily take the form of dogma due to an utter lack of familiarity with the material. And for most people, some period of time must elapse in this dogmatic absorption mode as new information is taken in.
For some subjects, such as mathematics and even the more well developed 'hard sciences,' it is possible to persist in this mode, more or less indefinitely. (At least, I presume it is. Collingwood never talked about this idea applied to these subjects.) However, for the 'interesting' subjects like history, at some point, an intelligent person will almost always realize that his dogma is chock full of contradictions. This often comes with a suspicious feeling of having been taken in, or lied to.
The reason is that these subjects contain too much of an element of the relational types of understanding for a mere 'drinking in of facts' approach to really convey a substantial understanding of them. To understand requires relation, interpretation, and rumination over their contents. By the very nature of these subjects, no amount of human effort could achieve perfect consistency because they contain too much of that element of art in them, and no other means exists to trasfer their lessons to others than to perform the mental struggle on one's own. It is a natural and important step in maturing in one's understanding of the subject to reach this juncture. It is certainly a special moment for the person who reaches it, but of itself, it is not special at all.
A person who reaches this point passes from a dogmatic understanding to a critical understanding. He may not be conscious of it, but he recognizes that necessarily all the material which lies before him and has been given to him to 'study,' is not so much historical fact as historical evidence -- whether he is actually studying history, or some other subject. Each bit of writing he encounters is evidence of a thought in another person at some past time, which may or may not be true. Criticism -- the 'interrogation' of evidence -- is a necessary element in approaching the subject matter if there is any hope of ironing out the inconsistencies and achieving a true understanding as opposed to a progressive cataloging of dogma.
Criticism in thought -- especially on subjects involving human action -- reflects a certain conscious or unconscious grasp of the notions I was talking about in the last couple of essays, and which I talked about indirectly some months ago. Namely, there are certain realms of knowledge which are inaccessible purely through logical approaches. This is not to say that they are illogical; of course, whatever is true must obey the laws of logic. It is only to say that the knowledge contained within them must be accessed initially by other means -- relationally, rather than by either logical deduction or empirical induction.
Can a person persist in the dogmatic state forever, never achieving that critical mode of understanding in a broad sense? To a large extent, I think that the phenomena can apply both on a subject-by-subject basis and in a broader fashion, so almost all people will eventually become 'critical thinkers' on at least a few subjects of their own expertise. But in the broader sense, I think they can still remain in the dogmatic mode while achieving great intellectual mastery on a range of topics, and in fact such people can be quite brilliant. It is entirely possible to make enormous intellectual strides without recognizing the basic necessity of 'alogical' relational means of gaining understanding of the universe, especially if one hasn't strayed too far into the 'softer' sciences. In something I consider to be a very interesting twist, it seems to me that quite often these people far exceed the knowledgeability and raw intellectual power of many of those who have made the broader critical transition. Note that I am not intending to use 'dogma' in a negative fashion. It is just a way of relating to facts and to the universe, and a quite necessary approach to understanding for all people.
I bring all this up because I have just encountered what I think is an amazing example. I was investigating homeschooling materials and came across this video:
Art Robinson explains the Robinson Curriculum from Arnold Jagt on Vimeo.
Dr. Robinson is obviously a brilliant and insightful thinker and a very intelligent man. But it is quite clear from the video and several statements on his website that he believes the scientific, logical approach to understanding is the only valid means of acquiring legitimate knowledge or navigating reality. Ironically, he has produced and advocates an approach which is probably exceedingly effective at giving those who use his curriculum exactly the type of critical understanding I am talking about and which he seems largely not to have yet realized -- even his own children, who were the first to use it. One of his reviewers directly remarks that the reading material has given him a 'feel' for history that he never had before -- exactly the kind of relational understanding which I have been talking about that comes from achieving a critical level of thought. He has acquired a 'feel' for the history because he has begun interrogating and relating to the authors set before him, rather than simply drinking in what they have to say as 'fact.' The 'facts' have been transmuted into evidence, and he is unconsciously doing what Collingwood calls 'the history of history' -- the investigation of the historical investigators, and the relation to them and to past modes of thinking.
Further, and even more ironically, he appears to have embraced exactly the kind of positivistic, uber-scientific philosophy to which many attribute the decline of Christianity in the last two centuries. Somehow, though, he comes out of it apparently quite steadfast in his religious beliefs. I wonder if his children are in fact more thoroughly rooted in their spiritualities for having accidentally been 'scientifically' educated in such a classical fashion by a man who appears to have had absolutely no intent of doing so, nor any conception himself of the notions he would be giving them! Maybe he should consider putting himself through the same regimen...
At any rate, it seems to me that this moment of critical awareness can go on to produce a critical understanding which 'softens the edges' of dogma by clearing up it's purpose -- to suggest the image of the ideal, not to define it as a set of rules. But of course, before that happens, the realization of the conflict within the absorbed dogma and between it and the nature of reality can also produce a caustic skepticism, and probably does so at least for a time in everyone. Thus, the immature 'believer' experiences a period of conflict and perhaps a feeling of betrayal and alienation. But hopefully, if he is mature, he goes on to see the reasons why, and forgives 'the world,' and puts aside those haughty and rebellious attitudes towards 'indoctrination' to see the picture he was really meant to see by way of that indoctrination. If he is not mature, he may stay mired in this acerbic and skeptical philosophical adolescence, at least until such time as he can come to better terms with it.
Yes, I see that what I have just related might have strong implications for the nature of religious experience, but anyway, this is not an essay about that right now. But to continue, I trust the reader has seen the parallels to the model I laid out earlier. From dogmatic youth, through skeptical adolescence, to a mature and contented critical mind, the progression described by Collingwood seems to closely parallel the political progression.
But what about those latter stages, and those crazy medievalists? And why does history appear to be running backwards?
I think I will stop here and take that up next time. My thoughts on that (or at least, the expression of them) are not yet completely ordered.