Thursday, October 6, 2011

Presuppositions and Value Systems

Many’s the argument when I tried to introduce greater perspective by suggesting that we examine our presuppositions.   I can’t recall ever getting very far with that, but to treat the matter simplistically, if my “constellation of presuppositions” was based upon Liberal Democracy and my opponents “constellation of presuppositions” was based upon some form of Socialism we were probably wasting heat and anger by trying to debate only the conclusions and not at the very least relating our presuppositions to those conclusions.  H. Stuart Hughes on pages 15 & 16 of his Consciousness and Society puts that matter differently.  People are “seldom influenced by logical considerations.”  What is important to grasp, Hughes tells us, isn’t logical arguments derived from presuppositions but “Value Systems.” 

“. . . the problem of consciousness early established itself as crucial. . . it was the period in which the subjective attitude of the observer of society first thrust itself forward in preemptory fashion – hence the title of this study.  Earlier it had commonly been assumed that this attitude presented no serious problem: rationalists and empiricists alike agreed on an identity of view between actor and observer in the social process, and on assuming this common attitude to be that postulated by scientific investigation or utilitarian ethics.  All other standpoints, it had been argued, could be dismissed or discounted as intrusions of irrelevant emotion.  Now rather suddenly a number of thinkers independently began to wonder whether these emotional involvements, far from being merely extraneous, might not be the central element in the story.  By slow stages of reorientation – and often against their original intention – they were led to discover the importance of subjective ‘values’ in human behavior.  Man as an actor in society, they came to see, was seldom decisively influenced by logical considerations: supra- or infra-rational values of one sort or another usually guided his attitude might diverge from that of the actor – was himself in no radically different situation: for him also a value-system, however little articulated, dictated the selection of the problems worth of investigation and thereby prejudiced the nature of their solution.

“Thus the various thinkers with whom we shall be dealing were all in their different ways striving to comprehend the newly recognized disparity between external reality and the internal appreciation of that reality. . . .”

I wonder if this is true.  The people I’ve debated have never, without exception (to the best of my recollection) sought to “recognize disparity between external reality and the internal appreciation of that reality.”  They presupposed (sorry Hughes) the truth of their value system and their conclusions were based upon their presuppositions which was in their estimation external reality. 

My political value system is Liberal Democracy.  The basic system (as Fukuyama argues) is superior to anything else that is out there.  Someone whose value system is some form of Socialism will describe a different set of conclusions and dismiss Fukuyama. 

We know from reading Heidegger that he never embraced Liberal Democracy.  We also know that many of the European thinkers in the period Hughes is interested in did not embrace it.  Europe for centuries had authoritarian forms of government.  It wasn’t until well after the period Hughes hopes to illuminate that the bulk of these Europeans abandoned authoritarianism. 

But here I am imposing my own value system.  I am assuming that Liberal Democracy is good and Authoritarian forms of government are bad.  Plato, Carlyle, Nietzsche, Marx and Heidegger would disagree with me.  Many in the EU today would disagree with me.  In a loose translation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, embodied in a growing number of entitlements, come before democratic ideals. 

On page 17 Hughes writes, “Some of these thinkers never quite realized the implications of their own theories: they clung tenaciously to a set of philosophical presuppositions that their thought had long outgrown.  A second group welcomed the advent of the irrational and sought to ground in ‘intuition’ the social philosophy of the future.  Finally there were a few thinkers – and I believe these were the greatest – who while fighting every step of the way to salvage as much as possible of the rationalist heritage decisively shifted the axis of that tradition to make room for the new definition of man as something more (or less) than a logically calculating animal.”

My mind wandered again.  I had a friend who as a young child was taken out of Russia shortly after the Revolution.  Unfortunately they chose to flee through China and were captured by the Japanese.  As a consequence of those years in Japanese incarceration he never abandoned a hatred of all things Japanese.  I think also of the American South.  They were defeated by the more authoritarian Lincoln and his Union but one of their watchwords was “the South shall rise again.”  I remember hearing that from Southerners in the Marine Corps.  Another watchword was “comes the revolution we’ll all ship over.”  I never understood where that came from or precisely what it meant, but it may have been part of another value system that only the death of those who held up could cause it to be abandoned – there is no rationalism in any of this.

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