Historicism, postmodernism and political violence: the closing of the human mind
Many university humanities curriculums neglect the study of classical and Enlightenment ideas
The struggle for a more democratic future electoral arrangement under the Basic Law has become increasingly confrontational and even violent. While successful political struggles anywhere are seldom unaccompanied by violence, this does not imply that violent political struggles are morally justified.
Most philosophical traditions have moral sanctions against the use of violence against fellow men, including in politics.
Hobbes and Locke advocated a social contract theory of the state by arguing that when men agreed to leave the state of nature and join civilization, it was to end or limit violence and respect the rule of law.
Henry Thoreau went to jail for one day because he refused to pay his taxes in protest against the state for constitutionally legitimising slavery, but he was not violent even though he broke the law. His idea of civil disobedience influenced Gandhi and also Martin Luther King.
All of this is not to say that the birth of liberal political democracy has been non-violent; the issue is whether the use of violence has a moral ground.
An even more important reason why violence should not be endorsed and legitimated is that the forces that overthrow an oppressive government could themselves become the new oppressor. Once the door to violence is open, it might be difficult to close. Violence often only begets more violence.
Yet I know of two intellectual traditions that have been employed to justify the use of violence to achieve political goals: historicism and postmodernism. I find both extremely unpalatable.
Historicism emphasises the significance of a specific context, such as a historical period, geographical place and local culture. It argues that to understand why a person is the way he is, you must examine that person in his society, and to understand that society, you must understand its history and the forces that influenced it.
Historicism has been interpreted variously. One strand has focused on Hegel’s views about the historically determined nature of human societies, and inspired the genocidal excesses of the German Nazi state.
Another focused on Hegel’s ideas about social conflict and social progress, and inspired Karl Marx.
Karl Popper condemned historicism for its view of an inevitable human destiny could be transformed into a justification for violent struggles to overthrow an oppressive state and for the state to violently oppress the people in fulfilment of that destiny. He believed human history was not predetermined and could not be predicted.
Postmodernism is a 20th-century philosophical movement that, like historicism, emerged in continental Europe. Its most important consequence is its scepticism that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, can offer an objective truth of reality.
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Postmodernism is the most ruthlessly consistent statement of anti-reason and anti-realism. It places feeling at the root of all values, regards knowledge and values as relative, and devalues the scientific enterprise.
Postmodernism completely rejects Enlightenment rationality. Truth and values are no longer absolute and objective, but relative and subjective.
Once we set aside reality and reason, what are we left with? We can, as the conservatives prefer, simply turn to and follow the traditions of the groups we belong to. Or we can, as the postmodernists prefer, turn to our feelings and follow them.
These core feelings are related to ideas about human nature put forth by the likes of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, who placed rage, power, guilt, lust, and fear at the centre of the postmodernist emotional universe.
Postmodernists disagree over whether those core feelings are determined biologically or socially. In either case, individuals are not in control of their feelings: their identities are a product of their group memberships and their “truths” are “ethnocentric truths” determined subjectively within their groups.
With no objective standard by which to mediate different perspectives and feelings, and no appeal to reason possible, group Balkanization (or fragmentation) and conflict must necessarily result.
Hong Kong’s youths, like those elsewhere, have had an overdose of postmodernist ideas. Their minds are a ready canvas for historicist dreamers bent on inventing nativist narratives to interpret Hong Kong’s difficult economic, social and political condition for them.
The humanities curriculums of so many universities today are dominated by “multicultural studies” that teach only “ethnocentric truths”, crowding out the study of classical and Enlightenment ideas. They are closing the minds of our most talented youths.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a liberal American politician and sociologist, said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” The postmodernist would respond by saying: facts cannot be known, and if your opinion is not the same as mine, you are not a member of my community. The next step is to determine whether you are friend or foe. This is one of the legacies of postmodernism.
A concoction of postmodernism and historicism will not bode well for the future of liberalism.
Richard Wong Yue-chim is Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy at the University of Hong Kong