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Monday, May 9, 2016

Illusions and American Politics

One of the missions of philosophy and critical thinking is to dispel illusions. I do not mean to disparage illusions. Illusions arise in the very natural way that we interact with each other and our environment. They can be quite useful. They may actually lead us to raise questions about ourselves and our world. But they are useful only when we recognize and acknowledge that they are illusions.

There are four illusions that arise in our thinking that we need to be aware of. I submit that understanding these illusions will give us insight into the craziness of the recent partisan political campaigns and may assist the new political restructuring that so many observers are predicting (though that is perhaps another illusion). The four illusions are 1) the libertarian illusion, 2) the liberal illusion, 3) the dogmatic illusion, and 4) the reality illusion. Let me discuss them one at a time, their positives and their negatives, and show how they might affect our political reasoning and discourse.

The libertarian illusion: This as I remarked earlier is the illusion of the independent self and free will. Consciousness is the loop back of our behavior to objects in the world. We know from experiment that our brain moves our body to act before we are conscious of that act; and we then rationalize the act as if it came from nothing but our will. We experience ourselves in charge of our activities, oblivious to the background experience of how determined our decisions are by genetics, upbringing, and especially the interaction with others. We feel invincible as the poet says: "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul." Nice sentiment, but far from the truth.

For the libertarian freedom is lack of restraints, the negation of limits. The individual is a rule unto himself and has no need to rely on others. Nor should he do anything for others since that destroys the others' freedom. Such freedom is the basis of laissez faire capitalism and Darwinian morality. Think Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Many of the captains of the industrial age were libertarians in that they did not recognize governments' role to regulate economic affairs for the sake of the working poor. For the libertarian, the common good is simply the sum of individuals acting on behalf of their own self-interest without interference.

Free will of the independent self is a helpful illusion because it encourages us to take responsibility for our personal acts. It also encourages us to treat others so that they become more responsible self-reliant. As good organizers learn: don't do for others what they can do for themselves. Otherwise you leave them powerless.

But it is an illusion that can be very destructive if used to rationalize the kind of rugged individualism that does not recognize our inter-dependence, our gifts deserving gratitude from parents, mentors, teachers, and society. It is destructive when it rationalizes inequity and blames the less fortunate instead of working with them to change the conditions of oppression.

The liberal (or conservative) illusion: The classic liberal assumes that there are eternal values the ordained by the divine or by nature. And it is the responsibility of Leviathan, whether Tribe, Church or State, to enforce the rules and norms that correspond to those values. In the US liberals are contrasted to conservatives although both share the assumption of natural rights and laws. In many European parliamentary forms of government the liberal party is the conservative party.

The conservative discovers these rights and laws in the past and especially in the great ideas taught by our ancestors. The liberal discovers these rights and laws in a future anticipated by the trajectory of history. Both are subject to the illusion of time as an object out there and of history as divinely or naturally determined as it so seems in our lived consciousness. Both the liberal and the conservative claims to be on history's side. They both believe that there is a key to the portal to progress and they
have it. Both believe that there are correct principles to righteousness and they know what they are.

The illusion is helpful in that it encourages us to consider the role of culture with its values and ideas in shaping our viewpoints and our worlds. This makes reform possible. But it is destructive insofar as it accepts the inevitability of the division of humanity between the endowed and the less endowed as well as the inevitability of progress. It is an illusion that overlooks that culture and history are fabrications of human thinking rather than divinely or naturally ordained. It often overlooks the fact that values and ideas are human artifacts which can lead to the next illusion.

The dogmatic illusion: Often called the illusion of the absolute or the objectivistic fallacy. This illusion arises because in our activity in the world we are focused on things, objects we have named. A rose is a rose by whatever name, as is snow, mountains, dogs, and humans. This attention to the objective neglects the roles our brain, culture, history, and consciousness are playing in shaping the object. We tend to think that the truth is absolute and "out there." Propositions are true when they correspond to the reality we experience as shaped by language and culture. And if you do not experience things the way I do, or the way my tribe or nation or religion does, too bad for you. You are in error.

The illusion is helpful in that it does direct us to the world and to the data we are receiving as we interact with the environment and each other. It is hurtful when it does not uncover the fantasies of myth and leads to ideological thinking without understanding the origins and fallacies of ideological thinking. It confuses beliefs with faith that transcends all beliefs and stimulates critical thinking.

The reality illusion: We are born as naive realists taking everything we see and hear as the way things really are. Though education we begin to understand that conventional thinking or common sense expressed in ordinary language must be continually challenged. Even so we are want to believe
that the truth is out there in the wisdom of the ancient sages, the formulas of science, the authority of
sacred writings and divine revelations. However, presently the new science, accounting for new data through advanced technology, is questioning the classical science of Newton to Einstein.

Contemporary philosophy of science, enlightened by advances in neurosceince, has discovered that our knowledge of nature and of ourselves is mediated by the symbols and tools we use to categorize and relate the data. The holy grail of a unified field theory in which we have the theory of everything, the certainty of truth, and the definitive law of nature is recognized as a fools errand, an impossible dream. This for some might be an occasion to give up the quest and resign to a life without meaning. But for those with faith, it situates truth and good, not at the beginning or end of the journey, but actually in the quest itself. Our reason for life is not to receive meaning from some outside authority or illumination, but rather to creatively and collectively choose and make our meaning.


These four illusions relate to a structure of human behavior that I, with the help of many of my mentors in science, religion, and philosophy, have described many times elsewhere . That structure I call presence--being here, now, with, towards. It affirms and even celebrates human existence as a tension between inner and outer space, between past and future time, between self and others in community, between belief and faith or transcendence.

The illusions consist in resolving the tensions by a preoccupation with or absorption in one of the poles. So the libertarian reduces community to individual selves. The liberal/conservative reduces transient temporality to paradise in past or future or both. The dogmatist loses the subjective in the objective. The realist reduces becoming to being by denying existence in its ambiguity, contingency, and transcendence.

The reality illusion leads to the great man theory of politics (including the rationalization of

demagoguery or the divine right of rulers) and to authoritarianism and tyranny in practice. The dogmatic illusions leads to fixed ideology, apocalyptic theory, and, in practice, to violent conflict including state terror and counter-terror. The liberal illusion perceives an end to history and progress in the achievement of true values and cultural domination. The libertarian illusion and the theory of the self-made man, the glorification of the individual, and winners and losers leads to the practice of blaming victims and to the horrors of slavery and oppression.

All four illusions reinforce each other. Polarization of parties, withdrawal of people from political life, ordination of autocrats, acceptance of inequity, diminishment of publics and civil society, violence and terror, populist demagoguery born of fear of loss, measuring human happiness by private wealth, all are rooted in these illusions unrecognized as illusions.


Progressive thinking, at least what I mean by it, is a critical response to all four of these illusions. The illusions will always be there as long as human existence, being-in-and-to-the world, is exercised through symbolic and mediated behavior. However, the true progressive recognizes and so dispels these illusions by seeing them as such.

First let me dispel illusions regarding progressives often held by realists, dogmatists, liberal/conservatives, and libertarians. Progressive does NOT mean:
  • progress is inevitable (the realist illusion)
  • there is a key to progress (the libertarian illusion)
  • history has a side that one is on (the liberal/conservative illusion)
  • there is a fixed norm or measure of progress (the dogmatist illusion)
There is theory, discourse, teaching in progressivism, but it is not fixed doctrine or ideology. It is more a continually revising description of method and a point of view. Its antecedents can be found in pragmatism (James, Dewey, Rorty), existentialism (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre), and phenomenology (Hegel, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty), and many postmodern thinkers. It is a method of critique, of uncovering illusions, of the use of satire and irony, of reconstruction, and of agitating thinking.

But most of all progressivism is a practice. personal and political, a way of life and a way of action in the world. Progressives choose to 1) accept the contingency, frailty, and suffering of existence, 2) engage in existence through action despite all evidence of the meaninglessness and futility of existence, 3) relate to others, and especially those who have been left or forced out, and work with them to create a relational world of shared power.


Perhaps we are a moment of decision (we always are!) towards the reconstruction of our politics beyond the arbitrary boundaries and categories we have established. Perhaps this is a moment in which we can set aside the libertarian blindness to social order in the making of individuals, the liberal fantasy of utopia and conservative romance of paradise, dogmatic righteous ideology, and loss of faith and transcendence by belief in an unchanging nature or mind. I call such a moment a
progressive moment. 

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