Americans are fighting a culture war against statism. Our country, founded as a limited constitutional government that derives its "just powers from the consent of the governed," is under attack by people who seek to transform it into a totalitarian state. There is a philosophical basis for this conflict, which is worth examining. It can be helpful to the defenders of liberty and freedom that are fighting this war.
There are basically two kinds of philosophers. On the one hand philosophers, beginning with Plato (427–327 BC), go beyond the world of human experience and construct abstract explanations, which they impose on experience. For them, as one philosopher (Bryan Magee) puts it, "The world of human experience is not what is permanent or permanently important, and we should try to transcend it with our minds, or at the very least to think our way to the boundary between our world and what is of ultimate significance and see what we can know about it." Then there are philosophers, beginning with Aristotle (384–322 BC), who take the approach that even if the empirical world is not all there is, it is all we can experience and know, and if we try to go beyond it we end up talking nonsense.
Plato was the first statist. He offers his vision of the ideal state in the Republic. An elite group of philosopher-rulers run it. They are wise and all knowing. The rulers are not accountable to the public, and they require absolute individual devotion and submission to the good of the state. In Plato’s republic only philosophers can have access to objective knowledge, philosophers being, as he puts it, people "who are capable of apprehending what is eternal and unchanging" – those few individuals who can sit down in a quiet place and think clearly. Everyone else, the rest of us, he describes as "those who are incapable of this [and] lose themselves and wander amid the multiplicities of multifarious things."
According to Aristotle and subsequent empiricist philosophers, knowledge is a public process of critical exchange that is derived from, and tested by, human experience. Aristotle studied plants, animals, ethics, and different forms of political organization, all in an encyclopedic way. He worked inside experience and did not try to impose abstract explanations on it from the outside.
Then we come to Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). The greatness of Kant rests on his being able to integrate these two lines of philosophical thought, which he did in his Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781. He plays a pivotal role in the conflict between liberty and modern statism.
Kant demonstrated that the world we experience is not the real world. That world does not embody our species’ concepts of space, time, and causality. We perceive things through a scaffolding of three-dimensional space, in a tense of past-present-future, and within a framework of casual connections. As an 18th century philosopher would not have known, but 20th century physics has confirmed, these constructs are not even a component of the world that we can describe mathematically and measure with special instruments. Newtonian concepts of space and time do not apply to the macro world of special and general relativity or to the micro world of quantum mechanics. The real world is something altogether different from what we human beings experience and measure. Kant concludes that the deepest level of reality is inaccessible to human thought and knowledge. He terms the ultimate, rock bottom reality – of "things as they are in themselves" – that underlies the perceived world the Noumenon.
Kant’s two main successors were G.F.W. Hegel (1770–1831) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). They did not entirely agree with Kant’s vision of the Noumenon and explored what, if anything can be known about it. Hegel and his followers, most notably Karl Marx (1818–1883), took one approach, which is the philosophical basis for modern-day statism. Schopenhauer took a different route.
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