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Herd Philosophy and the Rhetoric of Enlightenment

by John Mann

Is it true that “an unreflected life is not worth living”? It has been a common assumption in philosophy that there is an unreflective mass, the common herd, who live by ignorance and tradition, and the reflective philosophers: a few real individuals able to look at life objectively and rationally.

This assumption appears in many of the articles in issue 1 of Philosophy Now. I shall argue that philosophers are just another herd living with different (not necessarily better) values and beliefs, and that their ‘arguments’ for philosophy and enlightenment are simply rhetorical devices to prioritise their own values.

Opinion polls question a relatively small number of people and are able to reveal not just the opinions of millions, but even the changes of opinion of millions. These changes of opinion happen apparently freely, yet according to the pollsters when a person of a particular ‘type’ changes their mind, so too do thousands or even millions of others of the same type, as if they were twins living apart but leading identical lives.

The idea that you are living a stereotyped, typical life, mirrored by millions of others seems anathema to philosophers (and not just philosophers) who each strive to be individuals, not just ‘typical’ students, or typical intellectuals or typical liberals. However belonging to a common group means holding the same beliefs and rules (ie ways to process and relate beliefs), hence when one member of the group makes a decision on the basis of these common beliefs and rules they cannot but help all coming to the same conclusion.

The articles in issue 1 assume that a stereotyped life is an unreflective life, and that by reflecting on your assumptions (beliefs and rules) and making them explicit you can escape the herd mentality.

The first article on rational choice works by distinguishing between unconscious decisions employing ‘group’ rules and conscious, explicit (rational) decisions employing our own individual rules. Suppose we say the way we reason works like this.

1. We have certain beliefs and rules of action, like all the others in our group.

2. When making a decision these rules are just processed by the brain like a computer processing a piece of software.

3. Therefore everyone in the group will come to the same conclusion.

Suppose you are a part of a group which holds the belief “I am interested in philosophy” and which also holds the rule “I buy magazines on subjects I am interested in”. Making the ‘rational choice’ of buying Philosophy Now simply involved processing this belief and rule to give the conclusion “I will buy Philosophy Now”.

The first article argues that this unconscious applying of rules does not qualify as a rational choice. The implicit rules must be made explicit and the individual then decides whether to apply the rule or not.

The problem here is can we ever leave a group? Could it be that all the arguments about the individual weighing up courses of action are illusory? We weigh up arguments the way the group we belong to weighs up arguments; our judgement of what is a rational choice is just what our group’s rules have decided is rational.

The second and third articles on free will and determinism raise similar issues. If instead of free will we say more exactly “free to will and act as we choose” then clearly there is no gap between what we believe we want (Philosophy Now) and our ability to will and act (go and buy it!). However if this was just an unconscious application of implicit rules, this choice was not free in the sense that we could have done otherwise. Given our beliefs and desires it was a necessary consequence that we would buy the magazine.

Yet if the sum of group rules and beliefs held implicitly by the individual simply are the individual, then this unconscious application of rules in no way limits the individual’s freedom – he wills and acts according to exactly what he believes. If however we believe that there is more to an individual than the sum of his group characteristics it would be possible to hold that what he thinks he wants isn’t what he really wants. In this sense his will would not be free, because what he wills and acts isn’t really what he wants.

Remember, the whole point of being able to say that when one member of a group decides something so will all the group, is that the decision is made on the basis of common rules and beliefs – indeed that the decision is simply the processing of those rules and beliefs. If it were possible for the individual to regularly ignore or escape from these group rules, we could not make generalisations about groups.

The question of pornography, the subject of the fourth article, makes clear use of the individual/group distinction. Any attempt to essentially link pornography with depersonalisation, it is argued, fails since there are plenty of pornographic pictures of men without any resulting depersonalisation. However what makes pornography a problem is our particular social and cultural context where women are stereotyped into mother, wife and whore. Thus pornography in this context may lead to the depersonalisation of women by reinforcing the ‘rules of patriarchy’ ie the patriarchal stereotypes.

The author argues that pornography depersonalises women for the group who unreflectingly believe the patriarchal rules. However (I develop this argument from what is implied in the article) those who are conscious of patriarchal rules can distance themselves from them, and so view pornography with no resulting depersonalisation of women. The analogy given is that offering pornography to those with patriarchal rules is like giving whiskey to the Indians, whereas those not in the patriarchal group can ‘taste’ without getting drunk.

This clearly opens up the whole question of whether an individual can escape from a group; if so, do those who escape not form a new group? Is there perhaps a more refined form of patriarchy operating for the second group? I shall return to these questions later.

The fifth article, on pre-Socratic views of change and permanence, opens up how philosophy particularly uses a theory of group rules to define itself. A philosophical movement can be defined as a group holding a common set of beliefs and rules. The history of that movement is the individual group members applying various rules to various beliefs, thus the consequences of the group’s ideas are gradually made explicit. A stepchange in philosophy occurs when rather than applying an already held rule to an already held belief, someone is able to make explicit the implicit rules and beliefs, and argue against them for a wholly new set of rules and beliefs.

Of course this new movement itself has implicit assumptions, and this leads to the idea of certain knowledge; that by investigating what we assume to be true we can reach a set of a priori assumptions that must necessarily be true. Rather than discuss this particular method, I simply wish to point out that this argument itself assumes that we should seek to make explicit the rules and beliefs we hold, or that we are being invited to hold.

The sixth article on whether popular music is art involves the argument that we cannot scrutinise with satisfaction pop music the way we listen to Beethoven. The explicit distinction here is between art that works to a simple formula, predictable art, obvious art and that which involves complexity, ingenuity, creativity. The implicit distinction is art enjoyed by the reflective (the enlightened) and that enjoyed by the unreflective herd.

‘Low’ art is simply that in which those who ‘know’ about art find nothing interesting. They can predict every move, find everything, find nothing that has not been done before. However it is exactly this type of art those less ‘knowing’ of art find enjoyable. Those unaware of the rules are surprised and excited where those in the know are bored and underwhelmed. The article is therefore defining high art as that enjoyed by the group with a knowledge of art’s explicit rules, and low art as that enjoyed by the ‘herd’, the unreflective mass.

The seventh article begins with the problem that philosophers, following their theme of making explicit rules and beliefs, have found the idea of God self-contradictory and therefore not fit for rational belief. The author finds nothing wrong with the making explicit part of the argument, being of course a philosopher, but argues that there is nothing irrational about holding selfcontradictory beliefs (about God).

The eighth article, on rationality, argues that rationality has to proceed from some base, but that the base cannot (ultimately) be justified rationally – the existential choice is yours it says. Here rationality is defined as the set of ‘rules’ of the group, which operate on the beliefs (the base).

The last article is by a philosophy student asked to justify her choice of philosophy in terms of a career. She argues that since philosophy teaches you to critically examine your assumptions, it teaches you to take a step back from the usual arguments about a ‘career’ and ask why do you want a career? What is the idea behind ‘career’?

Thus, the reasons given in the magazine for making explicit group assumptions are as follows:

1. that we will be able to hold rational beliefs;

2. that we can act freely and consciously;

3. that we can distance ourselves from the immorality inherent in common beliefs;

4. that we can gain knowledge of a group (whether a philosophical group, or political group or religious group) by knowing its common assumptions and beliefs;

5. by continuously applying this method we can gain certain knowledge;

6. it teaches us to appreciate high art;

7. it enables us to have a reasonable faith in God;

8. it prevents us getting duped into wanting a career.

Now clearly since I hope to have made clear some implicit assumptions, I am not against this practise. What I shall argue however is that whether such a practise is at all useful is undecidable.

Since these rules and beliefs are to quite a large degree what we ourselves are there is no particular reason why we should want to substantially change these rules. Even if we were consciously aware of the fact that when making the decision to buy Philosophy Now we were simply processing our belief “I am interested in philosophy” with our rule “I buy magazines I am interested in” there is no reason to suppose this would change our action (buying the magazine). This is what Peter Sloterdijk in his book Critique of Cynical Reason calls enlightened false consciousness, the person who, even though they know about sexism, capitalism, pollution, imperialism etc still enjoys pornography, works for a multinational, causes pollution and moans about the third world. More trivially we can be aware of how formularised Spiderman comics and Heavy Metal music are and still enjoy them. Hence the idea that simply becoming conscious of our assumptions is valuable and important is not necessarily true.

Even if we see inconsistencies in our beliefs and rules – having made them explicit – we still don’t escape the ‘herd’. Everyone else who reflects on their beliefs goes through the same process of discovering inconsistencies and resolving them. Thus a new herd is created with new reflective, self-conscious rules but at no time does an ‘individual’ emerge wholly free from common responses and choices.

Neither does it follow that resolving inconsistencies is necessarily a good thing. The practise of rationally analysing phenomena is employed with a passion by political radicals, exposing the implicit rules of capitalism and capitalist ideologies. Using variants of the ‘dominant ideology’ theory, they are able to argue that many commonly-held beliefs are accepted unconsciously, and that when made explicit are inconsistent with other stated beliefs and aims. Similar arguments are employed against sexism and racism.

However simply noting inconsistencies does not reveal how to resolve them. Politically, the failure of socialist societies to predict the negative effect of large-scale changes designed to remove the injustices of capitalism (and there is similarly no obvious way of removing sexism or racism) has resulted in many people reevaluating the legacy of the enlightenment. Instead of the rise of rationality and objectivity it is seen more as the rise of another group of assumptions and rules. It is the pessimism of ever escaping implicit beliefs and rules to achieve some enlightened vantage point that forms the melancholy mood of poststructuralism and post-modernism.

The traditional conservative (small ‘c’) argument to this is that phenomena are too complex to be understood by one individual. Any attempt at ‘rational’ change will have unforeseen consequences, hence any radical change cannot guarantee being a change for the better. Just because we do not understand why something is, is no reason to change it – we may end up with something worse.

Such an attitude sounds entirely unphilosophical, however some philosophers (eg Descartes) held that philosophical speculation was too dangerous to ever be put into practise. We have to live by the accepted rules and conventions of the day. An example of this could be choosing a career. Suppose a philosophy student decided to work in a factory to leave their mind free for philosophy. A conservative might argue that because tradition dictates that students with a degree should get a job requiring a degree, that is what they should do – no matter how ‘rationally’ they can justify not doing so. Thus even within the history of philosophy some have recognised that this fundamental reason to do philosophy – the making explicit of implicit beliefs – may have no benefit whatsoever.

Yet even suppose we could escape the ‘herd’; by deliberately and perversely refusing to follow the norm could we then achieve a wholly unique life? In theory this is possible. If we were able to make explicit our assumptions and beliefs and then using some form of random process that did not follow any rules replaced them with other assumptions and beliefs it is difficult to see how we could be repeatable, whether there could be any others like us. The disadvantage is that we would almost certainly be put in the group called ‘mad’.

It is sometimes observed that only madmen and philosophers sit at a desk wondering if it exists or not. This common viewpoint of identifying pure rationality, like madness, as outside the ‘norm’ is a frequent rule for many people. Often it is those able to rationally justify their beliefs who are seen as strange – those who are able to justify what they eat, what they wear, what they believe. Indeed, if someone does something out of the ‘ordinary’ it is reason that is usually held to blame. When Jesse Jackson runs for President, ‘normal’ people ask “What’s his real reason? Why does he really want to be president?”

We have all seen films where the ‘outsider’, the one who doesn’t follow convention, is forced to justify their actions before the law. The outsider’s ‘reasons’ are never rationally debated, but seen as symptoms of their essential abnormality. They are thus caught in a ‘double bind’ – their weird explanation is taken as further proof of their guilt.

We have come upon a number of issues. Are there two groups, the reflective and the unreflective? The ‘intellectuals’, with their own history of socialism followed by cynicism, acting en masse the same as the unreflective herd, changing from one collective belief to another as ‘individually’ as a row of dominoes? Do we simply move from the collective, group mentality of the unreflective to an identical group called the ‘reflective’? Are our enlightened, rational rules any more individual, any more unpredictable, more ‘true’ than the unreflective group?

How should the two groups view each other? For the reflective group, unreflection means error, bias, stupidity. They only love the unreflective group as God loves the sinner not the sin, or history (for Marxism) loves the proletariat for what they can do, not for what they are doing, or feminists love women for what they are, not who they are. The unreflective view ‘intellectuals’ as lacking common sense, living with their heads in the clouds, looking at the stars and falling down holes. Each thinks the other’s art is crap, each thinks the other’s religion is blasphemy.

In making explicit this set of assumptions I hope to have shown that neither group has all the answers. To take an ecological example, if the unreflective were unable to exploit their natural resources and were therefore forced to live in poverty, the reflective have now nearly exhausted their natural resources and may have destroyed the world’s eco-system too.

Reference :

Sloterdijk, Peter: Critique of Cynical Reason, Verso 1986

© John Mann 1991

John Mann lives near Ipswich and does things with computers for a living.

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