Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Oh, really?

Richard Cohen argues that the Democrats are allowing the Republicans to steal idealism. I largely agree with his sentiments and his assessments, but I am bothered by the way it is argued (not so much Cohen's doing as a dreadful locus communis of the politics industry), to wit, the notion that realism and idealism are polar opposites.

How are we to understand the distinction between the ideal and real? As we're dealing specifically with human events, as good a place to start as any would be Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah, arguably the first attempt to really systematize the study of human events. In the introduction to the Muqaddimah (which means "Introduction"), Khaldun explains the ways in which people arrive at false ideas about what really happened. In Rosenthal's translation:

Untruth naturally afflicts historical information. There are various reasons that make this unavoidable. One of them is partisanship for opinions and schools. If the soul is impartial in receiving information, it devotes to that information the share of critical investigation the information deserves, and its truth or untruth thus becomes clear. However, if the soul is infected with partisanship for a particular opinion or sect, it accepts without a moment's hesitation the information that is agreeable to it. Prejudice and partisanship obscure the critical faculty and preclude critical investigation. The result is that falsehoods are accepted and transmitted.

Another reason making untruth unavoidable in historical information is reliance upon transmitters. Investigation of this subject belongs to (the discipline) of personality criticism.

Another reason is unawareness of the purpose of an event. Many a transmitter does not know the real significance of his observations or of the things he has learned about orally. He transmits the information, attributing to it the significance he assumes or imagines it to have. The result is falsehood.

Another reason is unfounded assumption as to the truth of a thing. This is frequent. It results mostly from reliance upon transmitters.

Another reason is ignorance of how conditions conform with reality. Conditions are affected by ambiguities and artificial distortions. The informant reports the conditions as he saw them, but on account of artificial distortions he himself has no true picture of them.

Another reason is the fact that people as a rule approach great and high-ranking persons with praise and encomiums. They embellish conditions and spread their fame. The information made public in such cases is not truthful. Human souls long for praise, and people pay great attention to this world and the positions of wealth it offers. As a rule, they feel no desire for virtue and have no special interest in virtuous people.

Another reason making untruth unavoidable--and this one is more powerful than all the reasons previously mentioned--is ignorance of the nature of the various conditions arising in civilization. Every event (or phenomenon), whether (it comes about in connection with some) essence or (as the result of) action, must inevitably possess a nature peculiar to its essence as well as to the accidental conditions that may attach themselves to it. If the student knows the nature of events and the circumstances and requirements in the world of existence, it will help him to distinguish truth from untruth in investigating historical information critically. This is more effective in critical investigation that any other aspect that may be brought up in connection with it.

Khaldun illustrates this point by explaining why it cannot possibly be true that Alexander defeated the sea monsters who were holding up the construction of Alexandria by diving to the bottom of the sea, drawing pictures of the monsters, and then erecting metal effigies of these monsters in order to frighten the real monsters. It cannot be true, Khaldun argues, for everybody knows that fish die when taken out of the water because the air is hot, as is the fish, while the natural balance of humours is such that the fish needs cold air in its lungs; Likewise, people need to breathe cold air. Of course there were other reasons cited by Khaldun to disbelieve the story, but this, he said, was the most convincing argument, because it was based on the facts of existence.

To the discriminating mind, Khaldun's acceptance of the imperfect physiological science of his day hardly invalidates his essential argument. But let's not pretend that it's not a problem. An interesting problem. What do we really know about "the nature of events and the circumstances and requirements in the world of existence"? About the "various conditions arising in civilization"? Can we possibly gain the kind of knowledge required to see the events of history clearly without engaging in the world of ideas? Following Khaldun, I think the answer ought to be clearly no. We must develop our apperceptive faculties along with our peceptive faculties. And if we take that even further, we find that we must engage in the social world, to develop what Khaldun calls, in Al-Araki's translation, "the experimental intellect" (Definition of some of Ibn Khaldun's Concepts, linked from Ibn Khaldun: Discourse of the Method and Concepts of Economic Sociology, minor corrections added by FtY).

The experimental intellect conveys apperceptions which are obtained one by one through experience until they have become really useful.

The useful apperceptive knowledge is that which provides ideas needed in dealing with one's fellow men and leading them. It is therefore not sufficient to have knowledge about social interaction. One has also to experience and discover the adaptability of one's social intelligence to different situations. Apperceptions are gained through interaction with other human beings.

So here's the deal. This commonplace distinction between the ideal and the real in foreign policy is neither really useful nor ideally suited to the problems that confront us. The knowledge we need to understand the nature of conditions is properly speaking pragmatic and cultural. It's opposites are "useless," "solipsistic," "isolationist," "ethnocentric" and the like. A bad idea isn't bad because it's an idea instead of, say, a pebble or a hammer; it's bad because it's useless for solving some problem, or inappropriate for some set of circumstances. It may be just plain rude, incomprehinsible, or boring. It's being more or less real than a hammer just doesn't enter the picture.

A more pertitent distinction to be drawn in foreign policy debates is that between the experimental intellect and the primal father. Another day, perhaps.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:32 AM.


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