Wednesday 16 November 2016

Manent Mercredi (3): oppositional thinking

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)

Fundamentally, what annoys me in the work of some  contemporaries that I have touched on, such as Louis Dumont, but even in such as a writer like Heidegger, is that their thought is dominated by a polarising and in the end polemical approach. A sort of battle of the giants is revealed to us between the new and the old, but the new and the old are each still thought of in terms of the other: the modern is defined by being the negation of the ancient, which is itself defined by being the anticipated negation, so to speak, of the modern.


The evolution [of my thought] of which I am speaking consisted in freeing myself as much as possible from the polemical posture which is shared by the two great parties of the Modern and the anti-modern. And which is even, in the final analysis, shared by those who look for impartiality in a 'neutral' polarity, 'without conqueror or conquered', between 'holism' and 'individualism', whose attempts I've followed with sympathy: they may modify the tone, but not the basis of the debate for it is still a principle of opposition, a polarity of contraries, which organises their thought. Opposition and hostility are not only some of the most powerful forces in human life; they often penetrate the most intimate depths of thought. It seems to me that, in the more recent period of my work, by reducing, if I can put it like this, the element of hostility which was included in my thought, I have arrived at an expanded understanding of the questions which have occupied me from the beginning.



It's easy to apply this to the current public world. The tone of mutual hostility which exists between (say) pro and anti-Trump partisans is clear. But Manent I take it is going beyond this. (The following should be read more as speculation rather than an interpretation of Manent.) An analysis, say, such as feminism which rests essentially on an opposition between male and female interests, and between the patriarchal past and the progressive future, covers up real life complexities and other possible political approaches and resolutions.  And the solution here is less about opposing feminism (because that simply reproduces the oppositional thought) but disregarding it entirely. Ideological thinking such as feminism traps even its opponents into being opponents.

In politics, Manent's main focus, I think leads to an obvious way forward. One constantly wrestles to free oneself from the black and white thinking associated with identification with or opposition to a particular ideology, and instead tries to reduce (note the hint that full success is impossible) the influence such ideological approaches have on you in favour of a prudential attention to reality and human nature.

[The focus on feminism isn't something I found in Manent. But it occurred to me while writing this that opposition to binary, oppositional thinking is something that feminism regularly pays at least lip service to. The irony of this of course is that it's hard to think of many other ideologies which currently produce so much oppositional thought and action both within its own ranks and as a reaction.]

Daniel J. Mahoney's essay on Manent is interesting:

This focus on practical philosophy—on deliberation and action—has become increasingly central to Manent’s work. He rejects a social science rooted in the fact-value distinction as estranged from the deliberations and choices that confront acting man. Contemporary discourses about “values” are remarkably vacuous, he maintains, since they ignore the structure of human action and render human choice arbitrary or groundless—in Max Weber’s famous formulation, men choose their gods, who may turn out to be demons. Behind soft democratic relativism, with its endless evocation of arbitrary “values,” lies an inexpiable “war of the gods,” a neo-Nietzschean metaphysic that destroys the moral integrity of liberal democracy. Manent’s thought points in a more truthful and salutary direction.


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