Friday, June 07, 2002

Kuhn, Marx, Gouldner, and MacIntyre

The Conflict Between Secular and Religious Morality,

Between Science and Religion

What is even more striking about Gouldner is the way in which his work shows that Thomas Kuhn's ideas have taken over philosophical thinking.

You remember Thomas Kuhn, of course, as the fellow most responsible for the current tendency to use the word "paradigm" to describe everything from a point of view to contemporary styles in women's clothing. Kuhn originally used the word variously to describe a scientific world view or a set of scientific methods. Kuhn showed that scientists have a tendency to adhere to their favorite theories and methods even in the face of "anomalous" facts that tend to dispute those theories. The burden of anomalies, as he puts it, may become too great, and the scientific paradigm has to be dumped in favor of another, better, paradigm. Kuhn called this process of changing paradigms a "scientific revolution." What other philosophers have done is apply Kuhn's concepts to other disciplines.

With Kuhn, Gouldner can think of Marxist theory as another paradigm and looks for exceptions or anomalies to that paradigm. According to Gouldner, considering the "anomalous" facts might have led to alternative possible theories or paradigms for Marx. Gouldner explores some of these alternatives, including a variation he called "Nightmare Marxism," literally the Marxism of Marx's darkest dreams.

Even from the beginning, it seems, there were plenty of facts relevent to Marx's ideas that Marx himself could not explain and chose to ignore. We know that he chose to ignore those problematic facts because of what appears concerning them in his notes and his letters to Engels. For example, Marx chose to ignore the fact that in Asian economies of Marx's time the State was a class interest, which is to say that the mandarins and bureaucrats of the state ran the economy for their own benefit to the detrimit of other classes. This was a serious problem for Marx because his theory was that the state was a superstructure that operates for the ruling classes, and once the ruling classes are deposed, according to Marx, the state would wither away. However, this clearly was not happening in Asia, and, sure enough, did not happen in the Soviet Union. Rather, the state in the Soviet Union became a class interest, and when the old Russian ruling clase was removed the state remained and consolidated it's position for 70 years until the whole economy collapsed under the weight of it. Members of the apparat drove around in limosines, shopped as special stores, and attended special clinics while the ordinary soviet man stood in lines for bread and vodka. And so it has happened in all of the leftist utopias.

One can therefore very handily dissect Marx and just about every other over-serious intellectual tradition with Kuhn's method.

Another fellow by the name of Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, has done the very same in his criticism of liberal modernity, i.e., secular humanism. MacIntyer started his intellectual life as a Marxist and then became a Catholic, these two phases of his life being linked by this critical project.

MacIntyre uses the term "traditions" to describe global Kuhnian paradigms of thought or world views such as modernity and then looks for the anomolies that subvert those traditions. The most important in the case of modernity is that modernity itself is based on traditional beliefs that can't be arrived at through reason alone. When one realizes that modernity is based by necessity on irrational traditions, then modernity itself is seen as irrational at its root. And, in fact, all traditions have to some extent an unavoidable irrational basis.

This is not just a technical problem for liberal modernity. It goes to the very heart of why the coherency of liberal modernity is breaking down over the issue of human values and morality. It was irrational to suppose that a truely rational system of thought could be created out of thin air, unsupported and unaffected by non-rational traditions. It is, in other words, the irrational basis of liberal modernity that leads to its later problems.

The most obvious problem is that secular humanism has not been able to come up with a replacement for religious morality. For example, modern thinkers can't even come up with a good reason for condemning the Nazis because it has not been possible to develop a system of values using the methods of logic and reason that says way the Nazis should not have done what they did. This is a very serious problem for modernity because it is where modernity makes a hugh break with an important aspect of the human condition. In a sense, the modernist goal of developing a system of thought based only on rationality was flawed from the start by it's pretended reliance on pure reason.

We are getting a little too close to cultural relativism. And, in fact, some leftists revel in the incoherence of modern philosophical thought, thinking the freedom of chaos grand. However, we've always known that there are some intellectual traditions that are closer to the truth than others, and this hasn't changed. It is simply that liberal modernism can no longer support the idea that it is somehow unique in that it is the only truly rational discipline that can always trump other traditions. While some leftists might try to use Kuhn to free themselves from all restraints, most people see distasteful nihilism in that leftist project. While the issue of taste would be irrelevant to modern rationality it is quite relevant if we are talking about the modern tradition of rationality. And so MacIntyre lets concerns about values back into the philosophical discussion. MacIntyre uses Kuhn's ideas to show that there is still plenty of room at the table for Judeo-Christian traditions of morality, and modernity is far from ever being able to condemn religious traditions to philosophical irrelevance.