Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that America is “one of the countries where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and are best applied”. He finds explanation in the peculiarities of democracy. Philosophy is for aristocrats. America is egalitarian. Yet egalitarianism encourages also intellectual self-reliance. So it is that doubting authority comes rather naturally to Americans.
I will argue that the philosopher whose precepts are “best applied” in America is not Descartes but Nietzsche. What distinguishes the latter is the concept that mind is a battlefield rather than a serene throne. I will quote from aphorism 333 in Gay Science.
What does Knowing Mean? “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari (do not laugh, do not mourn, nor to curse), sed intelligere!” (but understand) says Spinoza, so simply and sublimely, as is his wont. Nevertheless, what else is this “intelligere” ultimately, but just the form in which the three other things become perceptible to us all at once? A result of the diverging and opposite impulses of desiring to deride, lament and execrate? Before knowledge is possible each of these impulses must first have brought forward its one-sided view of the object or event. The struggle of these one-sided views occurs afterwards, and out of it there occasionally arises a compromise, a pacification, a recognition of rights on all three sides, a sort of justice and agreement: for in virtue of the justice and agreement all those impulses can maintain themselves in existence and retain their mutual rights. We, to whose consciousness only the closing reconciliation scenes and final settling of accounts of these long processes manifest themselves, think on that account that “intelligere” is something conciliating, just and good, something essentially antithetical to the impulses; whereas it is only a certain relation of the impulses to one another.
Nietzsche was the first to realise the abyssal origin of our thoughts. Descartes’ thinking self is the triple product of instinctual vectors rather than a metaphysical substance. It is something reminiscent of a Western movie, where three gunslingers confront one another in Mexican standoff. The finale truel in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the classic example. The camera moves back and forth between the contenders, capturing the mounting tension. The graves of Civil War soldiers flung all around, reminding the viewer that the world is a deadly battlefield. The soundtrack plays a sinister note, disrupted occasionally by the croaking ravens.This is exactly the kind of situation that, according to Nietzsche, takes place in our unconscious, as laughing, mourning and coursing keep one another in Mexican standoff. Rational knowledge breaks the deadlock by a truce.
More than elsewhere, in America the game is played through socio-political proxies. It is what Michel Foucault has called the “external history of truth”.
The hypothesis I would like to put forward is that there are two histories of truth. The first is a kind of internal history of truth, the history of a truth that rectifies itself in terms of its own principles of regulation: it’s the history of truth as it is constructed in or on the basis of the history of the sciences. On the other hand, it seems to me that there are in society (or at least in our societies) other places where truth is formed, where a certain number of games are defined—games through which one sees certain forms of subjectivity, certain object domains, certain types of knowledge come into being—and that, consequently, one can on that basis construct an external, exterior history of truth.
The American “external history of truth” involves such games and places as the court of justice, the cinema, the media, the pulpit, the political discourse, the street protest, the talk-show, the blogosphere. It is here that “the precepts of Descartes… are best applied”. America has offered the best opportunity for the truth-seeker by letting everything happen and clash in those places.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The ultimate meaning of Emma Lazarus’ lines, graven on pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, is the promise that truth will make us free. Or is it?
In the United States… Christianity itself is an established and irresistible fact, which no one undertakes either to attack or to defend. The Americans, having admitted the principal doctrines of the Christian religion without inquiry… the activity of individual analysis is restrained within narrow limits, and many of the most important of human opinions are removed from its influence… In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.
Religion has become less powerful in our day. Yet expert opinion has become as much an “established and irresistible fact”, as Christianity was when the French writer travelled to America. The assertions of doctors, psychiatrists, behavioral scientists, and so on, assume the guise of what Kant has called “the public use of reason”. Their lack of self-restraint betrays rather “the private use of reason”, wherein the Enlightenment has confined religion. What distinguishes each other is exactly what Tocqueville called “the precepts of Descartes, i.e. the exercise of philosophical doubt. An assumption that refuses to be questioned does not belong to the public square.
One might subsume political correctness under the same category. The difference from outspoken faith lies in the absence of the “wall of separation”. As such, it not only influences the public to raise “formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion “, but informs policy making as well. The perverse reversion of this invasion of the public space by expert opinion is the privatization of truth. The history of Galileo’s trial is repeating itself in gag orders and government/corporate restrictions of public information. Going public with common-interest knowledge might throw one into a Kafkaesque maze of legal problems.
In this context, the untutored Cartesianism mentioned by Tocqueville manifests itself as common-sense doubt regarding expert opinion, and blasphemy against political correctness. It is a new form of the proverbial impiety of the common people. And it is, ironically, the left which is trying to suppress these heresies from its alleged base.
Hegel anticipated the postmodern sterilization of thought as he wrote about the “customary tenderness for things, whose only care is that they shall not contradict one another”. Of which Lenin comments: “This irony is exquisite! ‘Tenderness’ for nature and history (among the philistines)—the endeavor to cleanse them from contradictions and struggle”. What Hegel and Lenin called philistine and reactionary, the cleansing of society from contradictions and struggles, has come to be called “progressive”.
Tocqueville’s “formidable barriers” surrounding liberty of opinion, are not truly barriers, but tectonic fault lines of the “external history of truth”. They are places where the instincts predating knowledge, recast as social tectonics, clash and unwind, shaping the ever-changing landscape of truth. Volcanoes and earthquakes are deadly phenomenon, but they make possible for a planet to be alive by recycling the elements of life. Similarly, ideas are alive on a dynamic infrastructure and are energized by eruptions of political passion. Logical truth comes only as a final compromise.
One cannot help noticing how old Europe is becoming more and more like Mars with its dead geology. No plate tectonics, no earthquakes, no fire from the depth, no life. Dreaming of truth is still possible in America.