The Long View: Why We Need a Philosophy of History

The driver of world history. No, I'm really not kidding.

The driver of world history. No, I'm really not kidding.

Francis Fukuyama's legacy will surely be his essay, "The End of History", or the book version thereof. In the narrow sense that liberal democracy does indeed seem to reflect a completion, or an exhaustion, of the Western political tradition, I think Fukuyama's thesis can still be broadly defended.

This was a recurring theme of John's, he called it The Perfection of the West. This title is John Reilly's gloss on the cyclical historical theories of Spengler and Toynbee. Spengler famously titled his version The Decline of the West, but John noted that Spengler himself said he could just have easily called it the Completion or the Perfection of the West.

The idea here is that progress [in just about any fashion you want to define that] is not linear. It goes through periods of growth that result in an efflorescence of novelty, followed by long periods of stasis. However, the periods of stasis are really just as important as the periods of growth, because the times when it seems like nothing is changing are when the advances of the previous period of growth are turned into permanent features of civilization.

The periods of stasis are a winnowing, separating the wheat from the chaff. If you take the long view, you can use past experience to filter current enthusiasm through a version of that winnowing:

One of the best reasons to study philosophy is so that you know enough not to worry too much about the world historical implications of things like Prozac. Lots of drugs, notably alcohol, also produce a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem sufficient to deaden the struggle for recognition. Prozac will have to be very widely prescribed indeed before it has as much effect on the state of human consciousness as Heineken beer.

If you add in human genetics, you can probably understand the modern world very well indeed.


Why We Need a Philosophy of History

 

In the summer of 1989, Francis Fukuyama published an essay in "The National Interest" entitled "The End of History." Appearing in one of the great revolutionary years of modern history, the essay provided a Hegelian interpretation of the collapse of Eastern European Marxism and the apparent universal vindication of liberal democracy. The essay (later expanded into a book, "The End of History and the Last Man") became famous, but not because so many people leapt to embrace its thesis. The title invites attack, especially attacks that do not engage the fairly narrow meaning that "history" has in Hegelian philosophy.

On this tenth anniversary of "The End of History," Fukuyama is at it again with another essay in "The National Interest," this one entitled "Second Thoughts." To put it briefly, he says that his 1989 essay was correct on its own terms, but that those terms were wrong. He continues to assert that liberal democracy is the only possible philosophy of society that satisfies both the economic and the "spirited" sides of human nature, the latter being that aspect of the personality which craves recognition as a moral agent. Thus, liberal democracy truly is the terminus of the long struggle between "master and slave" that constitutes political history in the Hegelian sense. Fukuyama now says, however, that this terminus is not really final, because science is still progressing.

While Hegel knew that different aspects of human nature were manifest in different historical eras, still he assumed that this nature was in some sense constant. A constant human nature implied the possibility of some form of society that would optimally satisfy all its aspects. In 1989, Fukuyama announced that we at last had such a society, or at least a situation where the principles for such a society were universally acknowledged. Societies prior to liberal democracy were inherently unstable, because they could not provide for the physical needs of their members adequately, and because they were so structured as to invite struggles for personal recognition. Liberal democracy is the first society that can no longer be disturbed by these factors, but it is nonetheless mortal. Human nature may have been constant in the past, but it will probably not be in the future. Modern science is on the verge of making fundamental changes in the physical and psychological nature of the species.

Society would change dramatically, for instance, if people could be made immortal, a goal that Fukuyama says is at least conceivable in light of some recent findings in the genetics of aging. Less speculative is the use of psychoactive drugs, such as Prozac and Ritalin. These are already used on large numbers of school children, mostly boys, to control newly discovered "behavior disorders." It is not hard to imagine a world in which the struggle for recognition, or for anything else for that matter, is contained by the use of chemicals rather than by liberal economic and political institutions. This is how "soma" was used in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," a novel that also illustrated how reproductive technology could be used to maintain an inherently stable caste system.

For myself, I have to say that I never had much problem with the conclusion of Fukuyama's original essay, if it is understood as a statement about intellectual history. There is a sense in which Western classical music "ended" in the 19th century, just as political philosophy is supposed to have ended with Hegel. (Of course, it took until 1989 for all the alternatives to liberal democracy to be disposed of in practice, but then people persisted in composing new kinds of music after Brahms, too.) The relationship of a "final" theory of society to the actual practice of politics and economics was less clear to me. For instance, it is possible that "democracy" could persist as a venerated fossil in a world where hardly anyone bothered to vote and government was largely the business of a small corps of judges and bureaucrats, or for that matter of plutocrats and soldiers. "The End of History" in this sense means not the achievement of a state of perfection, but the admission of a failure of imagination. Thus, while I too did not quite accept Fukuyama's original thesis, I found it a valuable exercise.

The level of pure philosophical analysis found in the earlier essay, very rare in today's public life, is missing from "Second Thoughts." One of the best reasons to study philosophy is so that you know enough not to worry too much about the world historical implications of things like Prozac. Lots of drugs, notably alcohol, also produce a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem sufficient to deaden the struggle for recognition. Prozac will have to be very widely prescribed indeed before it has as much effect on the state of human consciousness as Heineken beer. The really interesting point raised by neuropharmacology is the credulity with which its claims are received. These are, in reality, based on materialist superstitions about the mind that contemporary philosophy is often unable or unwilling to combat.

Genetic and reproductive technology might seem to be a more serious issue, but I wonder whether it really presents important systemic implications. Human cloning, when it occurs, will be a misguided enterprise, but it is not going to change the nature of life as we know it. If the human genome were tampered with in such a way as to create a wholly new kind of intelligent animal, that might indeed end human history. However, as E.O. Wilson notes in one of the responses that accompany Fukuyama's article, making a new animal on purpose is very hard. Since one gene sequence is often involved in a number of somatic and behavioral expressions, you cannot change the biological characteristics of an organism to fit arbitrary specifications. As for immortality in higher organisms, if it were possible, it would occur somewhere in nature.

Francis Fukuyama was interviewed by John Horgan for the book, "The End of Science," so it is a good bet that he has at least heard the phrase. It is a little mysterious why the subject is not mentioned in "Second Thoughts." We do indeed live in a world of brilliant basic research, particularly in cosmology, and of astonishing breakthroughs in engineering, not the least of which concern genetics. Still, what we also see today, perhaps, is the beginning of a failure of the imagination that is not so different from that which began in political theory in the 19th century. Fundamentally new ideas in the physical sciences are surprisingly hard to come by. There is still a great deal of development to be done with the chief established theories, particularly in biology, and the limits of technology are very far away in most areas. However, it is not at all clear that science really has much further to go, in the sense of revealing really new things about the physical world. We may well be entering an age of synthesis rather than of exploration.

It is possible that we are not at or near the end of history, even in the narrow sense of the completion of a set of long-running trends in intellectual life and economics. It may even be foolish to speculate about such things. Still, I count myself among those who cannot help making the attempt. In this pursuit, different people find different philosophical approaches helpful. In fact, different people seem to mean different things by "philosophy." In the context of history, what philosophy means to me is viewing contemporary enthusiasms skeptically.

 

End

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