Chile has a history as remarkable (and as stormy) as U.S. history. Its more recent history is of much more interest, of course. On September 11, 1973, forces loyal to Augusto Pinochet stormed the palace then occupied by socialist Salvador Allende, in what is known here as El Golpe. Allende committed suicide rather than be captured. Pinochet assumed absolute power and presided over a military dictatorship until 1990. That year, he held an election, lost, stepped down, and turned the Chilean government back over to civilian rule. The entire era still troubles this nation: Pinochet was a dictator and does what dictators do, which is to rule by force, suppressing free speech and imprisoning and torturing political dissidents. Chileans do not forget the thousands who simply disappeared during the Pinochet years. But Pinochet also oversaw the rebuilding of Chile's economy via the "Chicago Boys," a small group of Chilean economists sent to the University of Chicago to study under Milton Friedman. They returned, armed with classical liberal ideas, and began Chile's transformation into the first world nation it is today.
Pinochet is thus praised by some who see him as having gotten rid of a communist threat and turning the country in a new direction. Chile today is as prosperous as any Latin American country-but its prosperity has come with a price! That era still hangs like a shadow over the aggregate psychology of this country. Perhaps it's just leftists, who are still around. But that might be too simple an explanation. There is a sense in which this has become a very business-oriented nation of workaholics, very risk-averse, who take breaks only on holidays like the one to be celebrated beginning Monday. My observations of the rising Chilean middle class remind me of William Whyte's The Organization Man, a disquieting study of the then-rising U.S. middle class published in the early 1960s. The Chilean middle class appears to consist of organization men in Whyte's sense, with relatively few entrepreneurs. As we now know, the rising of large organizations presages a more and more centralized society-with corporatism possibly the best name for the specific economic model. Under corporatism, corporations and government make policy together under the guise of democratic rule, with elections, etc. Corporations get rich; governments get power. Both are happy with the arrangement, but are the common people satisfied? Do they have many options?
What of spiritual concerns? While there is religiosity here-that of the prevailing Catholicism characteristic of Latin America-it is at least as superficial as much of the religiosity of mainstream Christian denominations in the U.S. Here I am reminded of Harvey Cox's The Secular City (1965) which charted the progressive secularization of the modern world and its "bypassing" of the great questions of theology. Is that the direction Chile is heading? I do not yet know. Chile has its share of large corporations; and globalism definitely has found a place here. David Rockefeller Sr. has come to Chile on numerous occasions. Chile is, of course, one of the partners in the infamous Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), forged over a two-year period behind closed doors by the elites of various nations including the U.S., Mexico, Peru, Australia and China. The TPP has been vehemently criticized as the NAFTA of the Pacific world, and a long term danger to any rising middle class, although Chile's tremendous natural resources offer it some protection from the kind of outsourcing that has decimated the middle class in the U.S. More meditations of this sort in future posts.
II. Last week I discussed three prospective works in progress. One of the key purposes of this blog is to get the central ideas of these works up in one place, lest circumstances beyond my control prevent their completion. I can only hope the ideas are important enough to justify the effort. Is thinking about the future important? Obviously it is! Can this blog contribute to a discussion of where we ought to go as a civilization, whether in Chile, the U.S., or wherever we happen to be? The jury is still out on that one.
A central theme of all this work will be what Auguste Comte (1798-1857) called the Law of the Three Stages, so I'll spend the remainder of my time here today discussing that, concluding with a theory about its present status. Comte is best known as the founder of the science of sociology and the originator of the philosophical ideology known as positivism. The Law of the Three Stages had emerged in his work in the 1830s, in his Course on Positive Philosophy. Although the Law of the Three Stages figures most prominently into the third of the projected series, it is also the lynchpin that holds everything together. So it would be best to begin with a discussion of it: its origins and postulates, its twentieth century fate, and the question of where we go from here.
What is the Law of the Three Stages? In Comte's hands, it defined the natural trajectory of a civilization, just as Newton's laws governed the trajectory of a falling body or thrown physical object. Comte didn’t invent the idea. One can find similar notions in Vico and Condorcet. But he gave it its clearest exposition. According to Comte, a civilization goes through three stages or conditions (he uses both terms--one could also speak of layers.
The first he calls the "religious or fictitious." The second is the "metaphysical or abstract." The third was the then-emerging "scientific or positive." It is important that these are not historical stages; all three both can and do coexist in Western civilization, albeit uneasily. The first, viewed through Comte's eyes, might be thought of as civilization's childhood; the second, as civilization's adolescence; the third, as its adulthood. Once civilization embraces the third stage, it finally has its feet firmly planted on the ground in this world, not some other, and can stride forward responsibly.
The first stage is the stage of: “God said it; I believe it; and that settles it.” While such sentiments might appeal to many Christians today, they allow little room for thoughtful discussion or discerning examination or philosophical inquiry. Stage One Thinking, as I will call it, is fearful of philosophy, as it might provoke doubt. It thus has little to offer those who are restless and dissatisfied with “mere belief,” but rather want some kind of understanding of what it is they are believing, and what the implications might be. Stage One purports to rely exclusively—or almost exclusively—on revelation from God Himself as its source of truth. Those who can claim to have received revelation, or to speak for past revelations in holy books such as the Bible, assume special prominence within society. Thus in practice Stage One Thinking, unhampered by later stages, easily gives rise to theocratic authority structures. It has as little tolerance for dissent as any dictatorship. The asking of the wrong questions may be handled through excommunication or exile or even execution (witness the fate of Giordano Bruno in response to his suggestion that God had created “other Earths” besides ours).
The second stage is the stage of high metaphysics and system building—philosophy in a grand sense. This stage produced the major classics of Western philosophy from Plato and Aristotle down through Aquinas, from Descartes and Hobbes down to Hume, Kant, and Hegel—and arguably, in the twentieth century, someone such as Whitehead. Stage Two Thinking is the first product of those who seek a comprehensive worldview, or theory of reality and everything in it, including whether or not God exists, who we are and how we came to be, what the moral life consists of in society, and so on. Stage Two Thinking gave rise to the classical arguments for God’s existence (the ontological, the cosmological and the teleological arguments), to the idea of natural rights of human beings, and of the idea of morality as something discoverable—perhaps a product of the relationship between the acting person and the rest of reality. Stage Two Thinking, however, does not treat God’s existence (for example) as a working premise or presupposition but rather as a proposition standing in need of proof. Many Stage Two Thinkers became agnostics or atheists in response to arguments for God’s existence falling short of their targets. They set the stage for the next development.
The third stage began with the scientific and technological revolutions. This was clearly the stage Comte believed was emerging in his lifetime. His vision was of a way of thought which rejected the ideas of either revelation or abstract reason as sources of knowledge or truth. Instead, what counted was empirical verification of our ideas, or their testability, and their success in practice at improving the human material condition. Positivism took its name because its approach to the human condition was optimistic—positive, not negative. Its philosophers had little patience with such notions as original sin, and not much more patience with what they considered to be the air-castle-building of their predecessors. With its feet firmly planted in this world, not some other, Stage Three Thinking looked to human happiness itself in this life for the greatest number as the ultimate good, and Utilitarianism came of age in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (the latter clearly respected Comte’s work). Stage Three Thinking embraced meliorism, the idea in moral philosophy that human beings can improve themselves not just technologically but morally, through their own efforts, especially via education. It looked to science, technology and commerce as our salvation and path to the good life, which was to be lived in this world, in Cox's "secular city." Some would develop very mixed feelings about commercial capitalism, and seek to check or control what they believed to be its excesses: the British Fabians and American progressives come to mind. Stage Three has little respect for such notions as natural rights, which they see—without using this vocabulary—as a throwback to Stage Two (the phrase Bentham had used was “nonsense upon stilts”).
To make a long and complicated story short, Stage Three had begun to manifest its dark side not long after the start of the twentieth century. Comte had believed the third stage to be a path to Utopia. History has shown otherwise. Kierkegaard (arguing from within his own unique Christian perspective), Nietzsche, and the Existentialists took one kind of avoidance versus Stage Three. Philosophers such as Walter T. Stace (1886-1967) began to ponder a kind of darkness that falls across the philosophical landscape once a comprehensive naturalism is embraced. See his essay "Man Against Darkness" (1948), or its predecessor "A Free Man's Worship" by Stage Three thinker Bertrand Russell (1902).
A multitude of other circumstances served to throw cold water on the idea of Stage Three as the path to Utopia. To make a long story short: not only had we failed to transcend war with science, technology and commerce, but our wars became increasingly destructive; there was abundant evidence of our basic inhumanity to our fellows—the genocide of the Nazis and Stalinists surely bespoke a capacity for evil that flew in the face of the prevailing meliorism of Stage Three.
On the scholarly front, the positivist conception of science had broken down by mid-century. Thomas S. Kuhn completed the destruction of this view of science in his widely read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). The positivist conception of science had held that the empirical methods of science delivered Truth, and that no other methods delivered Truth. While this latter idea made—still makes—a great deal of sense within the various scientific disciplines, Kuhn showed that a mature science is always governed by a body of presuppositions that, for a time, are taken as above scientific scrutiny: he used the term paradigm for what he had in mind (Ludwig Wittgenstein had first used the term to speak of governing usages in language). More ominously, thinkers who examined science in Kuhn’s wake—sociologists of science, for example—drew attention to authority structures within scientific communities and began to analyze science from a perspective taking seriously the idea that power and domination structures can masquerade as claims to truth, rationality, and objectivity. We had arrived on the shores of postmodernity, inspired by increasing unease with modernity coming from multiple directions.
By the time we arrived at the postmodernist upheaval in the humanities, it should have become clear that Stage Three Thinking had run its course. It had been devastatingly criticized and eclipsed. If we entered Stage Three in the early to mid 1800s, we probably left it sometime during the mid-1900s. Thinkers ranging from Kuhn and his colleague Paul Feyerabend on our shores, the latter, with his provocative Against Method: Outlines of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975) to Continental philosophers such as Michel Foucault had subjected its assumptions to devastating criticism.
Moreover, in a much broader sense: the increasing societal uncertainty, anxiety, and escapism that began to characterize public life in advanced civilizations beginning around 1970 (possibly earlier) also indicated one of the weaknesses of Stage Three Thinking: in the last analysis, Utilitarianism fails as a theory of social ethics. We do not know how to pursue “the greatest good for the greatest number” without shafting or harming someone. Consider: the infamous Tuskegee Experiment is very much aligned with the utilitarian spirit. It illustrates very concretely the objection to Utilitarianism charging that the serving "the greatest good for the greatest number" is quite compatible with sacrificing the interests of some to better serve the rest.
More reason for thinking we had left Stage Three behind was the increasing flight into dangerous economic fantasies that began around this time. The belief that institutions in civilization from government to acting persons can live beyond their means indefinitely is an exemplar of an unrealism that had become firmly entrenched in public life by the time the twentieth century drew to a close.
I would argue that sometime around 1970—the exact date is not important—we entered a fourth stage, a Stage Four, that Comte couldn't have envisioned. If Stage Three was “scientific and positive”—optimistic—Stage Four is skeptical and negative. Stage Four Thinking purports to have exposed as illusory the pretenses of objectivity, rationality, and acquisition of Truth that characterized all the earlier stages: Stage Three as well as Stage Two.
Here is the question: what does Stage Four Thinking put in place of those notions its sees itself as having eliminated? The surprising answer: almost nothing. With Richard Rorty—having become the most visible and widely read Stage Four philosopher on U.S. soil—we have “social hope” to cling to. While cashing out what Rorty means by this is necessary down the road, I believe we will have to conclude that once we’ve embraced his criticisms of foundationalism—the idea that knowledge, morality, etc., have foundations which it is the special providence of philosophy to discover—“social hope” becomes whatever we make of it and there becomes little to choose from between what had been the U.S. vision of the “American dream” and that of the Nazis who saw Utopia at hand once they had eradicated the Jews.
There are thinkers who have made peace with Stage Four Thinking. They believe that there is no reason to formulate the problems in such stark or extreme terms. They see Stage Four as containing new possibilities, perhaps foreshadowed by Nietzsche’s vision of the “overman” as creating and standing on his own values instead of embracing those created by others in the past. They look to the possibility of experimentation within a world not based on rules taken as rooted in foundations, but rather tailored to fit situations and societal specifics and subject to change as circumstances change. Certain species of entrepreneurship might fit the bill as capable of thriving within a Stage Four environment—in which, e.g., a city embraces an ever-widening array of cultures and lifestyles, made manifest in music, art, food and drink, social gatherings, and in doubtless other forms: the Stage Four “secular city” is, in this sense, a quite different place than the Stage Three “secular city” in its openness and diversity, where the only “value” is a demand for universal tolerance of that which is different. One can find happiness in the Stage Four environment—if one avoids looking at the “big picture.”
Nietzsche warned about the “advent of nihilism” as a consequence of the “revaluation of all values” which saw them as human creations—inventions, and not discoveries or revelations. In an important sense, Stage Three was nihilistic. Ultimately, its vision of morality as a product exclusively of the human desire for happiness or pleasure left civilization morally at sea. Since Stage Four essentially agrees with Stage Three in seeing morality as a human creation, here is the $50,000 question: is Stage Four just as nihilistic? Where do we go from here?
This stage will be our civilization's undoing if we cannot transcend it: by moving to a fifth stage, or Stage Five. (I am assuming here that the movement through stages or levels is unidirectional. I don't believe we can go back, say, to Stage Two, or that we would want to.)
How to characterize this fifth stage is a huge problem. Let's say it will be Christian but not in the sense of Stage One; it will be metaphysical and encouraging of such notions as the rights of acting persons, but not necessarily in the sense of Stage Two; it will respect science as the most important achievement within its domain, but not see science & technology as capable of solving all human problems, as was common in Stage Three. It will likewise refuse also to see commerce or the marketplace as able to solve all human problems, although these activities can solve many human problems if allowed by governments (and corporations demanding special privileges) to function. Stage Five will attempt to find merit in the potential for creativity opened up by the rule-challenging stance available in in Stage Four (Brian Eno comes to mind), but must not lose itself in Stage Four's nihilism. It will draw on all of these, but be more than just a fusion of the best of the first four stages.
This characterization is, of course, very incomplete. This is purposeful; I do not want to specify too much in advance. We want here to specify just enough to have a productive conversation going in the right direction, in the spirit of the British cybernetics pioneer Stafford Beer, who wrote this phenomenal passage when distinguishing algorithms from heuristics and the reasons and circumstances when the latter need to be pursued. Algorithms have precise rules; heuristics do not. "To think in terms of heuristics," Beer wrote, "is at once a way of coping with proliferating variety. Instead of trying to organize it in full detail, you organize it only somewhat; you then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go" (Brain of the Firm, 1973, p. 53). Thus is the status of Stage Five Thinking at this time. (Note: I owe this quotation, and similar ones, to my having paid attention to experimental composer Brian Eno's remarks in interviews over the years going back to the 1970s. Credit where it is due.)
Do you believe the future of civilization is important? Do you wish to support the discussion here with a donation. If so, please feel free to donate by clicking on the button below. Thanks!