The other day, when I was walking to the station with the usual blizzard of thoughts whirling around my mind, I came to pondering why I do a specific thing that I do. Why is it, I wondered, that, whenever I’m in the pub, I offer to get the first round of drinks in?…
This is a two-part post. The first part will offer thoughts on the nature of knowledge and what it really is to be/become free. The second will present a political theory of ‘hegemony’ and why it’s crucial to understanding what’s going on today. Believe it or not, both parts derive from this initial seemingly banal question!…
From the psychology of pint-buying to the question of knowledge and human freedom
The British politics and ethics of buying drinks in pubs is an issue of infinite complexity. I say ‘infinite’ because even when I interrogated myself over why I do what I do in pubs I couldn’t honestly say that I came to a definitive answer! Some of it had to do with me believing I am in a better financial position than most. However, recently I’ve come to appreciate more fully that an act of intended generosity can be interpreted as one of oppression and denial. In a society where drinking in pubs is a significant centre of communal life, people with meagre means will be particularly keen to display their social ‘worth’ by getting rounds in. Paternalism can be, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, the greatest despotism. Another part of it, I confess, was that, being Jewish, I felt a sense of wanting to prove I wasn’t mean with my money! I know this sounds ridiculous, but I remember this being a really big part of it maybe a decade ago. I don’t think like that now very much, but the behaviour lingers on. In short, I came to realise that even I didn’t fully know why I always offered to buy first rounds! However, in the process of this self-questioning, of making more conscious what had been largely unconscious, I feel that I have come to know with far greater clarity why I do what I do in pub situations and, consequently, how I can now make decisions about what I do (not just in pubs!) with greater confidence and satisfaction. This, I think, is what we can call an example of a ‘praxis’ – that unending, dynamic relation between thought and action. I think about doing something; I do it; I reflect on my action; I plan again; I do it again; I reflect; etc, etc.
But, before we talk about praxis and what it means for achieving freedom, let’s go back to my personal realisation of not fully understanding why I do what I do. There are (at least!) three important insights from social science and philosophy regarding mypersonal ‘epistemological ambiguity’I’d like to share here.
First, I’m not alone! Phew! Many psychologists and behavioural economists (e.g. Daniel Kahneman) are showing us how we take decisions every day that are far from fully considered, often intuitive, often based on flawed, jaundiced logic or evidence, and that are only fully rationalised after the event, i.e. we do something and then we tell ourselves and others a story that justifies our decision later. The big point here is that the fully rational individual that informs and underpins the theories and mathematical models of orthodox neo-classical economics (and other quantitative social sciences) does not exist – and the assumptions about ‘homo economicus‘ upon which these models are founded render them thoroughly unstable.
Second, and relatedly, if we begin to peer into the murky world of my inner thoughts, we see a morass that has clearly not been shaped by any individual atomised being, but has evolved out of the relations between this human being and his external world. We see my decisions over buying rounds of drinks shaped by my experiences and ideas relating to money and social status and to ideas about fairness and equality. We also see an educated adult still being influenced by poisonous and fallacious stereotypes about the ethnic group he belongs to. And this is only the stuff that has pierced through into my conscious mind! What lurks beneath I cannot say! What is clear is that I and everyone else are what Marx called ‘social individuals‘. We are individuals, but what we do, think, believe, feel is generated in our relations with society and history.
I will leave the third, perhaps most startling and profound, conclusion to the second post. Here, I want to focus on the consequences of this limit of self-knowing for our individual and collective pursuit of freedom…
On the limits of knowledge
Check out French philosopher Albert Camus’ poetic response to the limits of the knowledge of oneself and the world:
‘Of whom and of what indeed can I say: ‘I know that!’ This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardour or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. For ever I shall be a stranger to myself. In psychology as in logic, there are truths, but no truth.’
For Camus, the ultimate unknowability of oneself and the world makes reality an ‘absurd’ phenomenon, the consequence of which forces us either to make some kind of leap of faith (religious/spiritual and/or scientific) or…to commit suicide! Camus proposes a way out of this quandary by accepting absurdity and living life to full regardless. For Camus, the artist and the rebel are two examples of living the full absurd life.
I recognise that the eternal gap between our understanding and reality means there may never be any single truth to discover. However, there are truths and these can be discovered and shared through science, art, education, dialogue, and political action. Moreover, when these truths are concerned with social and environmental justice they compel us, I believe, to learning and action. So, though Camus is right to challenge Socrates’ famous maxim ‘Know thyself!’, he and other philosophers might go too far in exaggerating the limits of our knowledge. If we commit ourselves to learning about something, anything, we can learn lots about it. We can come to understand our own selves very well too. As individuals, we can do this through self-reflection, meditation, learning theories of the self. As communities, we can do this through dialogue and using and developing theories too. In all these learning processes, the point isn’t just to know ourselves, but to know ourselves better in order then to act – to change ourselves as individuals, as communities, as societies, as humanity.
The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel thought that history was essentially the process of our becoming conscious of our own freedom in this way, but he thought it was a kind of linear, unfolding process driven by what he called ‘Geist’ (which can be translated as both ‘Spirit’ or ‘Mind’). I don’t agree with this for various reasons, foremost of which here is that human progress is not linear and cannot be assumed. Human knowledge and critical thinking can be both cultivated and suppressed. At this current moment, for example, I do agree with Henry Giroux when he argues that we’re experiencing a ‘crisis of civic illiteracy’ in which, due primarily to our cultural institutions of formal education and the media being owned and dominated by the money and ideology of capital, most of us are unable to see our lives beyond our individual, superficial experiences and understand them within this bigger context of society and history. We don’t have what C Wright Mills, the American sociologist, called a ‘sociological imagination’. This, I suggest, is probably the single biggest obstacle to us being able to create conditions for our personal and collective security, happiness, and flourishing. In short, civic illiteracy, as Giroux puts it, is the greatest obstacle to our freedom! If we can’t see ourselves as thinkers then we can’t imagine alternatives. If we can’t imagine alternatives, we can’t seek to create them.
There are three important conclusions to take from all this:
(1) Any individual or organisation claiming certainty in their knowledge is expressing a hubris that is politically, socially, economically, and ecologically dangerous. Two great examples of this destructive hubris are the financial models that fuelled the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 (and continue to persist) and the continued ‘extractivism’ that sees the Earth as a resource to exploit (See Naomi Klein’s new book on this).
(2) Anyone claiming that we cannot know anything at all is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How can we take any action if we’re eternally uncertain of everything?! Of course, we can know loads about how this world works and about ourselves.
(3) Learning about ourselves and the world isn’t enough to be free. We need to use this knowledge to make a better world. So, it’s only through a praxis of learning and action that we can develop our personal and collective freedom.
In the next post, I’ll explore how these conclusions about the nature of knowledge, action, and freedom might shape a useful theory of politics and how that theory can help us make some good sense about what’s going on right now in the UK, in Europe, and far beyond.