Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 19 March 2015

The Concept of Freedom Between Empiricism and Rationalism

There are two concepts of freedom in classical liberal philosophical and political theory (cf. I. Berlin, The Two Concepts of Liberty, and N. Bobbio, “Kant e le due liberta’” in Da Hobbes a Marx). The first concept combines the instrumental aspects of freedom – appetite and intellect - and sets its boundaries heteronomously, that is to say, through an external limit to the Will as appetite: – appetite and means to its satisfaction are rationally, though not necessarily reasonably, regulated through limited provision of whatever individuals seek to obtain imposed by external forces such as scarcity or other appetites or the State. This is the “negative” meaning of freedom also known as “liberty”, according to which freedom is whatever the appetite is allowed to do by scarce means and resources or by other appetites either through sheer force (Hobbes, Schopenhauer) or by convention based on labour or utility (cf. Locke’s notion of labour, Mill’s utilitarianism, Schopenhauer’s sym-pathy, Constant’s market-based liberalism). Here is the classic definition of “negative freedom” – what we call “free-dom” – offered by Berlin:


I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. (, p.3)


Of course, as Berlin correctly implies, the inconsistency between freedom and reason cannot be overcome by positing a natural or scientific or even logical necessity because what may be impossible for the Will to achieve with one set of means may be possible with another, what is impossible today may become possible tomorrow (flying to another galaxy, for instance) depending on the means available, and in any case, any restriction on an individual’s aim, however unreasonable, is a restriction on its free-dom in the instrumental sense. Freedom therefore may only be opposed to coercion if we adopt a definition of necessity that allows of all means, however impractical or impossible. In other words, contra Weber, even absolutely impossible or irrational volitions can be free, and then the only obstacle to the Will is co-ercion and not physical-scientific “necessity”. Even where human beings attempt the impossible – are constrained by “necessity” -, any attempt to restrain them from the attempt, however foolish it may be, must amount to co-ercion and is therefore a matter for political deliberation. Berlin himself seems to agree with this conclusion:


Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability. If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot read because I am blind, or cannot understand the darker pages of Hegel, it would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced. Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings.3 Mere incapacity to attain a goal is not lack of political freedom.4(loc.cit.)


 (By contrast, Hannah Arendt [in On Revolution], still clings to the distinction between necessity and coercion. This is what led Nietzsche to re-define the notion of physical-scientific and logico-mathematical “necessity”, as we are about to see in connection with Schopenhauer.)



The limit of this “negative” conception of freedom is that if appetites are to be externally, heteronomously, kept in check so as not to lead to self-destruction or mutual annihilation, then they must be governed by Reason in its substantive sense, which is incompatible with appetite. The extreme pessimism of this “negative” definition of freedom is evident in the conceptualisation of freedom developed by Western liberalism, which is also the ideological foundation of capitalism, and is evinced by the dismissive approach its theoreticians take to the “positive” or “rationalist” concept of freedom.


I am free if, and only if, I plan my life in accordance with my own will; plans entail rules; a rule does not oppress me or enslave me if I impose it on myself consciously, or accept it freely, having understood it, whether it was invented by me or by others, provided that it is rational, that is to say, conforms to the necessities of things. To understand why things must be as they must be is to will them to be so. Knowledge liberates not by offering us more open possibilities amongst which we can make our choice, but by preserving us from the frustration of attempting the impossible. To want necessary laws to be other than they are is to be prey to an irrational desire - a desire that what must be X should also be not-X. To go further, and believe these laws to be other than what they necessarily are, is to be insane. That is the metaphysical heart of rationalism. The notion of liberty contained in it is not the 'negative' conception of a field (ideally) without obstacles, a vacuum in which nothing obstructs me, but the notion of self-direction or self-control. I can do what I will with my own. I am a rational being; whatever I can demonstrate to myself as being necessary, as incapable of being otherwise in a rational society - that is, in a society directed by rational minds, towards goals such as a rational being would have - I cannot, being rational, wish to sweep out of my way. I assimilate it into my substance as I do the laws of logic, of mathematics, of which I can never be thwarted, since I cannot want it to be other than it is. [15]

This is the positive doctrine of liberation by reason. Socialized forms of it, widely disparate and opposed to each other as they are, are at the heart of many of the nationalist, communist, authoritarian, and totalitarian creeds of our day. It may, in the course of its evolution, have wandered far from its rationalist moorings. Nevertheless, it is this freedom that, in democracies and in dictatorships, is argued about, and fought for, in many parts of the earth today. (Berlin, pp15-6)


Evident is the dismissive distaste with which Berlin addresses the “rationalist” or “positive” concept of freedom and its “metaphysical” pretensions. Yet Berlin fails to explain why the “negative” concept of freedom shared by liberalism in politics, empiricism in science, and neoclassical economics should be any less “metaphysical” than that of rationalism! Indeed, the flaws of the “positive” concept of freedom as a range of conduct autonomously adopted by the Will either alone or in conjunction with other wills can be said to apply equally to the “negative” definition of freedom (Berlin, loc.cit. p.8). To the extent that human beings may decide autonomously to restrict their freedom in the sense of their appetites or self-interests to a minimum, this restriction must be reasonable if it is not to void freedom of its meaning! In other words, even the substantive sense of the Will as volition cannot be consistent with Reason because its autonomy must be guided and enlightened by Reason and also be limited and measured by (be commensurate with) the intellect or instrumental reason – because otherwise it degenerates into either insatiable appetite or self-annihilating abnegation, which means that it can reduce itself to naught (cf. I. Berlin, op.cit.).


Even Berlin acknowledges that indeed before we define freedom we need to define human being itself:


This demonstrates (if demonstration of so obvious a truth is needed) that conceptions of freedom directly derive from views of what constitutes a self, a person, a man. Enough manipulation of the definition of man, and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes. Recent history has made it only too clear that the issue is not merely academic. The consequences of distinguishing between two selves will become even clearer if one considers the two major forms which the desire to be self-directed - directed by one's 'true' self – has historically taken: the first, that of self-abnegation in order to attain independence; the second, that of self-realisation, or total self-identification with a specific principle or ideal in order to attain the selfsame end. (Berlin, p10)


Still, yet again, we can see the negative slant that Berlin places on any attempt to theorise the notion of self as anything other than the in-dividuum, the individual self or its “ego-ity” [Ich-heit] – as if any analysis based on other than “empirical”, that is to say “present” or “given”, reality necessarily implied the “manipulation” of the human self! Once again, Berlin is agitating the delusions of Utopianism as a barrier to the construction of a rational society - and indeed as a screen and apology for the existing society of capital! – as is shown in the following passage:


But if we are not armed with an a priori guarantee of the proposition that a total harmony of

true values is somewhere to be found - perhaps in some ideal realm the characteristics of which we

can, in our finite state, not so much as conceive - we must fall back on the ordinary resources of

empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge. And these certainly give us no warrant for

supposing (or even understanding what would be meant by saying) that all good things, or all bad

things for that matter, are reconcilable with each other.[29]… Nevertheless, it is a conclusion that cannot be escaped by those who, with Kant, have learnt the truth that 'Out of the crooked timber of humanity no

straight thing was ever made’[31 at fn.58]


The difficulty that Berlin is having arises from his inability to go beyond the notion of the human “self” as belonging to an “in-dividual” – an indivisible atom – rather than to a species-conscious being. Once more, Berlin remains trapped within the ontogenetic or individualistic and empiricist mould, - a trap which is equally shared by Western empiricism and rationalism alike, namely, their total allegiance to the metaphysical “autonomy” or Freedom of the human mind or soul, of “Ego-ity”.




Classical liberal political theory assumes that the State is the holistic ethico-political ex-pression and pro-duct of more fundamental social components that precede the State both historically and analytically. The bourgeois theory of the State, known as liberalism, shares this vision of the State with the added ingredient that society itself can be separated into a scientific economic sphere governed by the “laws of the market” and “economic value”, on one side, and a political sphere of public opinion guided by ethical values, on the other. In other words, if Economics is the bourgeoisie’s scientific rationalisation of capitalism, then Liberalism constitutes its quintessential political ideology. Liberalism is the political expression of capitalism in that it proclaims that it is possible to separate the economic sphere of social life which is the realm of necessity or “free-dom”, that is, the rigid constraint of each individual free-dom imposed by the free-doms of others all understood strictly as “individual freedoms” (the optimal utilisation of resources made scarce by the insatiable nature of individual self-interest – whence the dismal science – this is the constraint that founds the scientificity of capitalist social relations, the Objective Value of neoclassical economic theory) from the sphere of freedom or public opinion in which individuals can air their most subjective beliefs, the Subjective or Ethical Values of the liberal public sphere, without – for that very reason, that is, by reason of the “ideal” nature of opinions and beliefs – upsetting the politico-technical neutrality of the State which, again, is founded on the scientificity of Economics, that is to say, on the liberalist presumption of the scientific workings of the self-regulating market mechanism.


The subjectivity of these ethical values, their origin in the ideal “freedom of the human will”, and the fact that this ethical-moral “freedom” can be founded exclusively on the objectivity and “scientific” operation of the market mechanism and on the “laws of Economics” – it is these two factors combined that liberalism can exploit ideologically to vaunt its unique affinity with democracy. The central tenet of liberalism is that “democracy” is socially impossible unless the sphere of economic production and exchange is kept hermetically separate and protected from the sphere of public opinion with its “irrational” ethico-moral and religious beliefs!


Locke and Constant are the great theoreticians of liberalism. For Locke, the separation of economic and political spheres is made possible by the fact that it is possible to assign individual property rights to resources by means of “individual labour” – by which Locke means also the labour of others exchanged like any other product of labour or commodity. Constant goes further by treating liberalism as the social state that allows the transformation of proprietary antagonism from war to commerce. In other words, for Constant, commerce, or the Lockean appropriation of resources on the basis of supposedly “individual” labour, leads not just to social peace guaranteed by a neutral State, but also to international peace between nation-states on the basis of the disciplining effect of property and capital movements between nation-states! This could not be achieved without the existence of “natural rights” that precede the State. Here is Constant:


War precedes commerce, because they are merely two different ways of achieving the same end—namely, coming to own what one wants to own. If I want something that you own, commerce— ·i.e. my offer to buy it from you·—is simply my tribute to your strength, ·i.e. my admission that I can’t just take the thing I want·. Commerce is an attempt to get through mutual agreement something that one has given up hope of acquiring through violence. (De la liberte’, p.3)


But the obvious objection arises that if commerce is chosen by the weaker party as a means to obtain something from the stronger party that it could not obtain by force, then there is no reason why the stronger party should keep to their part of the commercial agreement! Constant is at once conceding that commercial transactions are founded on relationships of force, and then insinuating that they are ideally based either on mutual consent or at least on the wiles of the weak in enticing the strong to relinquish their possessions! Yet, if commerce is based on “mutual consent” or better still, as liberal market ideology insists, on “equal exchange”, then it is obviously something very different from war and cannot be said to replace it. And if commerce is based on wiles and inducements if not outright deceit, then there is still a foundation of “violence”, however veiled, in the commercial transaction. Of course, Constant’s argument flies in the face of what lies at the heart of liberalism – the “equal exchange” on which the market mechanism supposedly rests, which necessarily rests on the neutral pricing of exchange values that wars make impossible to achieve! Hence, it is simply inarguable that “commerce replaces war” for the simple reason that, if commerce is claimed to be based on “unequal exchange”, then it is merely a form of violence akin to warwhich means that commerce will always degenerate into war; and if commerce is instead claimed to be based on “equal exchange”, then commerce and war are two completely incomparable forms of human behaviour and interaction so that commerce cannot ever be said to be able to replace war! The same argument would invalidate Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals that is, the argument that morality replaces violence - except that in that case it is the “internalisation” of morals and “crystallisation” of conventions that makes the thesis more credible. Indeed, both theses become plausible only on the Hobbesian foundation of mutual fear – that is, commerce and morals as political conventions founded on the equal capacity of individuals to harm one another.



Berlin’s smug and obtuse insistence on the superiority of empirical “facts” makes it inevitable that he should cite and quote Joseph Schumpeter, perhaps the most sophisticated proponent of empiricism in social science, in the very last paragraph of his influential essay on “the two conceptions of liberty”:


Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. 'To realise the relative validity of one's convictions', said an admirable writer of our time, 'and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ [J. Schumpeter, CS&D, p.243] To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one's practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity. (Berlin, op.cit., p.32)


Evidently, Berlin and Schumpeter are relying on the truth-fulness of empiricism, on its “realism” as against the “metaphysical need” of rationalism, that is, against its [ch1] presumed intransigence and recalcitrance, according to Berlin, in the face of “facts”. Schumpeter begins Chapter Two of his Theorie with this sweeping and suggestive summation:


“The social process which rationalizes our life and thought has led us away from the metaphysical treatment of social development and taught us to see the possibility of an empirical treatment; but it has done its work so imperfectly that we must be careful in dealing with the phenomenon itself, still more with the concept with which we comprehend it, and most of all with the word by which we designate the concept and whose associations may lead us astray in all manner of directions. Closely connected with the metaphysical preconception…. is every search for a ‘meaning’ of history. The same is true of the postulate that a nation, a civilization, or even the whole of mankind must show some kind of uniform unilinear development, as even such a matter-of-fact mind as Roscher assumed…” (p.57)


The footnote at “rationalizes” was expanded for the English translation and reads as follows:


“This is used in Max Weber’s sense. As the reader will see, “rational” and “empirical” here mean, if not identical, yet cognate, things. They are equally different from, and opposed to, “metaphysical”, which implies going beyond the reach of both “reason” and “facts”, beyond the realm, that is, of science. With some it has become a habit to use the word “rational” in much the same sense as we do “metaphysical”. Hence some warning against misunderstanding may not be out of place.”


Evident here is the maladroit manner and dis-comfort (not aided, and perhaps exacerbated, by the disjoint prose) with which Schumpeter approaches the question of the “meaning” of history. The Rationalisierung, which Schumpeter adopts from Weber, has made “possible” a scientific “empirical treatment” of “social development (Entwicklung)”, but has done so only “imperfectly”, not to such a degree that we are able to free ourselves entirely of “metaphysical” concepts – which is why “we must be careful in dealing with the phenomenon [of Entwicklung] itself”. Nevertheless, Schumpeter believes that it is possible to leave “metaphysics” behind and to focus on “both ‘reason’ and ‘facts’”, and therefore on the “realm of science”. In true Machian empiricist fashion, Schumpeter completely fails to see the point that Weber was making in adopting the ante litteram Nietzschean conception of Rationalisierung to which he gave the name. “The social process which rationalizes” is an exquisitely Weberian expression: far from indicating that there is a “rational science” founded on “reason” and “facts” that can epistemologically and uncritically be opposed to a non-scientifc idealistic and “metaphysical rationalism”, Weber is saying what Nietzsche intended by the ex-ertion of the Will to Power as an ontological dimension of life and the world that “imposes” the “rationalization” of social processes and development in such a manner that they can be subjected to mathesis, to “scientific control”! What Weber posits as a “practice”, one that has clear Nietzschean onto-logical (philosophical) and onto-genetic (biological) origins, Schumpeter mistakes for an “empirical” and “objective” process that is “rational” and “factual” at once – forgetting thus the very basis of Nietzsche’s critique of Roscher and “historicism”, - certainly not (!) because they are founded on “metaphysics” (!), but because they fail to “question critically” the necessarily meta-physical foundations of their “value-systems”, of their “historical truth” or “meaning”!


Far from positing a “scientific-rational”, “ob-jective” and “empirical” methodology from which Roscher and the German Historical School have “diverged” with their philo-Hegelian “rationalist teleology”, Weber and Nietzsche before him were attacking the foundations of any “scientific” study of “the social process” or “social development” that does not see it for what it is – Rationalisierung, that is, “rationalization of life and the world”, the ex-pression and mani-festation of the Wille zur Macht! By contrast, Schumpeter believes that the mere abandonment of any “linearity” in the interpretation of history, of any “progressus” (as Nietzsche calls it), is sufficient to “free” his “rational science” from the pitfalls of “metaphysics”!


Berlin considers and acknowledges the limitations of the liberal worldview when human needs other than those that have to do with claims on social resources are considered – such as the need for full participation in the conduct of social affairs:


This is the degradation that I am fighting against - I am not seeking equality of legal rights, nor liberty to do as I wish (although I may want these too), but a condition in which I can feel that I am, because I am taken to be, a responsible agent, whose will is taken into consideration because I am entitled to it, even if I am attacked and persecuted for being what I am or choosing as I do. [22]….


All this has little to do with Mill's notion of liberty as limited only by the danger of doing harm to others. It is the non-recognition of this psychological and political fact (which lurks behind the apparent ambiguity of the term 'liberty') that has, perhaps, blinded some contemporary liberals to the world in which they live. Their plea is clear, their cause is just. But they do not allow for the variety of basic human needs. (Berlin, op.cit., p.26)


Here at last, Berlin confronts the realistic limits of liberalism, and therefore of capitalism and its market ideology, and their “negative” conception of freedom, as well as their utter inability to provide a tenable foundation for human society, let alone participatory democracy! (Exposing the repression by liberalist bourgeois regimes such as the American Federation and the French First Republic of constituent power and democracy in the interests of constituted order is the greatest merit of Hannah Arendt’s study On Revolution, - a theme reprised in Antonio Negri’s Insurgencies.) The liberal State is a non-State, it is the dissolution, the dis-gregation of human society. As we are about to see, it is the negatives Denken from Hobbes through to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche that exposes pitilessly the nihilism of liberal political theory, and constitutes indeed its reductio ad absurdum by exasperating its most fundamental assumptions – which turn out to be just as “metaphysical” as anything proffered by rationalism! For whilst Hobbes demonstrates apodictically the impossibility of liberalism as a framework for a State conducive to a human society founded on its assumptions on the human self, Schopenhauer epitomizes the extreme pessimism implicit in these assumptions – again to the extent that his empiricism reveals the utterly unsustainable and self-dissolving nature of the liberal State and of its society.


Hobbes was always keen to reduce human beings to their blind appetites or “passions” whilst at the same time confining their volition to the instrumental exercise of reason: his political theory is aimed at deriving the foundations of a rational State by reducing human action as much as possible to the predictability of mathematics and mechanics. Obviously, Hobbes believed that rationality could be imposed “scientifically” on the Will.


FROM the principal parts of Nature, Reason and Passion, have proceeded two kinds of learning, mathematical and dogmatical : the former is free from controversy and dispute, because it consisteth in comparing figure and motion only; in which things, truth, and the interest of men, oppose not each other : but in the other there is nothing indisputable, because it compareth men, and meddleth with their right and profit ; in which, as oft as reason is against a man, so oft will a man be against reason. And from hence it cometh, that they who have written of justice and policy in general, do all invade each other and themselves with contradictions. To reduce this doctrine to the rules and infallibility of reason, there is no way, but, first, put such principles down for a foundation, as passion, not mistrusting, may not seek to displace; and afterwards to build thereon the truth of cases in the law of nature (which hitherto have been built in the air) by degrees, till the whole have been inexpugnable. (Dedication to De Homine)


Here it is clear that “the rules and infallibility of reason” – Hobbes’s mathematical learning whereby “truth and the interest of men oppose not each other” - are in complete opposition to irrational “Passion” or self-interest – Hobbes’s dogmatic learning whereby “right and profit meddleth with men” by warping their allegiance to reasonnot merely in terms of instrumentalinfallibility”, but above all in terms of “truth”, by which Hobbes intends a universal value and not just logico-mathematical consistency. For Hobbes, it is possible “to reduce this doctrine [dogmatical learning - that is, political and ethical science]” to a “foundation [of Reason such] that passion may not displace it”, and to base this foundation on “the truth of cases in the law of nature…by degrees, till the whole is inexpugnable”. In other words, despite their appetite orpassion”, human beings are still able to follow the dictates of reason to reach a political convention that is mutually beneficial and universally valid – and thereby preserve their individual lives by choosing freely to erect a State that will guarantee social peace. Hobbes’s freedom, reason, life and peace are not purely instrumental categories, for if they were there is no way that human beings could place them “above” their egoism or “passions”. Clearly, these values must be universal and not purely instrumental – they form part of the make-up of the world, of the constitution of the universe in a way that clearly invokes the transcendental if not divine nature of human being.


In contrast to Hobbes, Locke conjectured a political theory in which human beings can give themselves a rational political order – a State - based on natural law or natural rights (jusnaturalism) without first alienating their freedom. Such a freely-entered political order preserves the natural rights possessed by humans in the state of nature, which amounts therefore to a pre-political civil state (Bobbio, Da Hobbes a Marx). Like Hobbes, however, Locke conceives a legal system erected by the State based on rights that derive almost entirely from Labor and its pro-ducts – Property -, with the difference that for Locke property rights based on Labor exist in the pre-political or civil state or state of nature – they are natural rights -, whereas for Hobbes there can be no rights in the state of nature but only in the State – all rights must be positive.


As a concession to Hobbes, Locke admits that whilst Hobbes’s authoritarian state is not necessary, it would become so were humans not to erect a neutral state to arbitrate their competing claims to natural rights because, if their pre-statal society or pre-political state were to descend into civil war – into the clutches of Hobbesian “passions” – then, according to Locke, “the ensuing civil war of the state of nature would continue indefinitely”. In other words, the conflictual Hobbesian state of nature is not congenital to humanity, and therefore the mechanical authoritarian State devised by Hobbes is not inevitable. But if it is not pre-empted by the erection of a political state, the Hobbesian state of nature may well eventuate and thence, contra Hobbes, be impossible to escape via a Hobbesian social contract. Locke’s theory deals neatly with one of the principal objections to Hobbes’s political theory, which is that if humans were originally in a bellicose state of nature, it is impossible to imagine how they ever escaped it! – Which is why the Hobbesian State totters uncertainly between a state by political institution and one by historical acquisition.


The obvious problem with Locke’s theory is of course that it is impossible to identify the natural rights that he takes for granted in setting out his theory of the liberal state. Indeed, the same applies to Hobbes, because although his State is a state by conventional institution and not by historical acquisition, it is impossible to see what role it can play in its civil state (status civilis) in the evolution of its social life in all its aspects (economic and ethical) apart from its role in the reception of the status quo, that is, the conditions that prevailed in the state of nature, at the time of the establishment of the State. In other words, both for Locke and Hobbes, either the State is an autonomous institution that, by that very fact, will inevitably intervene in and interfere with its civil state, or else it is an entirely neutral and mechanical entity that relies on the “organicity” or innate harmony of that civil state – in which case, again, it is hard to see why a State should be erected at all, except in the Lockean sense of insuring against the degeneration of the civil

into a Hobbesian state of nature – but then, why should it do so, and according to what “law” or “right” can it function other than Locke’s questionable “natural law”?


Yet, despite their obvious differences, the Reason of Hobbes and Locke, as well as that of Grotius and Spinoza and Rousseau, is still the onto-theo-teleo-logical reason of the late Renaissance, of Leonardo and Galileo and Newton, if not of Cusanus and Aquinas (cf. E. Cassirer, Individual and Cosmos): it is not just an instrument, but also a guide to a universal Truth, a human inter esse, - albeit, in Hobbes’s case, one understood as ultima or extrema ratio. Hobbes’s State is a deus mortalis – “mortal” indeed because it is the by-product of human appetite, dire necessity (fear of death) and political convention, yet still a “god” because of its derivation from the principles of innate reason. Hobbes keeps faith with the notion that truth must prevail over passion, reason over egoism. This is why human beings only surrender their freedom in foro externo, in the political sphere when erecting the State, and then only ob metum mortis, upon fear of death, in “dire” necessity. But for Hobbes human beings still preserve intact their freedom in foro interno – in the sithy of their souls, as Joyce might say – which is where “reason” also ultimately prevails over “passions” to erect the State. This decision requires in Hobbes an ultima ratio that is founded on a human interest or inter esse (it is not, as in Schmitt, “auf Nichts gestellt”, sprung out of nothing, as in Nietzsche). Indeed, both in Hobbes and Locke the social contract is founded on the common human interests of preserving life and protecting and advancing the acquisition of wealth – “estate” - through Labor.



It is this faith in the ability of reason as intellect to act as and surge to the status of Reason as an autonomous guide to action (Practical Reason) that Schopenhauer, after Schelling’s “negative philosophy”, will demolish in his radical critique of Kantian ethics and, as a corollary, also in his critique of Hobbes’s authoritarian positivism and of Locke’s liberal jusnaturalism. For Hobbes and Locke, human reason is more than a calculative instrument that facilitates the reaching of the social contract (that is, the con-tracting of many interests into a common goal): for them, freedom and reason and truth are universal values that can overwhelm passions and egoism to safeguard life and attain social peace. Reason is a positive quality of the natural order that emerges from the “universal agreement” of what Hobbes calls “mathematical learning” despite the fact that human “passions” ensure the equally universal disagreement over metaphysics and religion. The very possibility of mathematical learning – the self-evident (“irresistible” for Arendt, in The Life of the Mind) truth of logico-mathematics is conclusive proof of the existence of Reason and is actual evidence of the possibility of overcoming dogmatic learning by means of the mathematical.


But, as the tone of the passage below shows, whereas for Hobbes and Renaissance man the ability of human beings to agree universally on logico-mathematical means (“mathematical learning”) rather than on metaphysical and ethical ends and values (“dogmatic learning”) reveals the existence of Truth as a supreme universal Value, for Schopenhauer the neutral instrumentality of these “truths” shows the exact opposite of what Renaissance man aspired to – that is, the impossibility of universal values such as Reason and Truth or indeed Freedom in its substantive sense: –


Now, had it been wished to use Reason, instead of deifying it, such assertions as these must long ago have been met by the simple remark that, if man, by virtue of a special organ, furnished by his Reason, for solving the riddle of the world, possessed an innate metaphysics that only required development; in that


case there would have to be just as complete agreement on metaphysical matters as on the truths of arithmetic and geometry ; and this would make it totally impossible that there should exist on the earth a large number of radically different religions, and a still larger number of radically different systems of philosophy.


The so-called universal truths of logico-mathematics belong to the realm of instrumental reason and therefore lack any Value whatsoever because they are perfectly devoid of any content or substance: in its “perfect instrumentality”, logico-mathematics is utterly devoid of any inter esse! It is the very “formalism” of logico-mathematical “truths” – their very “universality”! – that relegates them to the status of mere and pure “instrument”, of a “tool” that takes the “content” of the “use” to which it is put – and that therefore voids them of any “innate metaphysics”, of any Truth! The fungibility of logico-mathematics, its “neutrality” or “invariance”, is precisely what empties it of any content as “truth”. Far from being its ultimate and insuperable instance, logico-mathematics exposes the ultimate ineffectuality of Truth – its Value-lessness. (I have called this “Nietzsche’s Invariance” in my Nietzschebuch. A further discussion is in my “The Philosophy of the Flesh”.)


This point, which we believe is of insurmountable importance for our interpretation of what is commonly called “science”, natural or historical, may be re-stated as follows: human action can never be said to be true or false because its practical effects can be neither; similarly, formal identities are not and cannot be true or false because they are “pure” identities without “content” or “consequences”, and, where they have practical consequences, these can be neither true nor false. As Cacciari sums up the matter (in Krisis, at p.59):


The nihilistic critique does not re-found, does not reformulate these problems. Its skepsis is radical: either “there is no sense” – or else the forms of reason discover a new logic, a new relationship with reality – forms and reality that are now found to be without substance. Either the nihilist situation is invertible only ideologically, as in Schopenhauer – or else that very ‘misery’ of the formalism of reason, in which the crisis of the Kantian a priori seemed to terminate, needs to be founded – founded on the necessity, precisely, of this formalism, of this loss of substantive nexus, of this definitive ‘retreat’ of truth.


We will deepen and sharpen this analysis in our next piece on another, this time “rationalist”, great liberal theoretician – Benedetto Croce.


  1. The best definition of rationality that I can think of is just by looking at upside vs downside in the face of uncertainty. In other words, rationality is best defined by increasing convexity as a response to some uncertain variable. From there, it becomes very simple and easy to operate. The only implicit assumption here is that we cannot correctly determine the probability distribution of the underlying variable (not the response variable) or that the error in determining the distribution makes any prediction of the response variable impossible, which is almost always the case. If that implicit assumption is falsified, it becomes even easier to operate because we can basically calculate the odds (like being a casino). One of the first people to understand this concept was actually the great John Maynard Keynes (who WAS NOT an economist).

    I think most people have a very, very poor definition of rationality. Rationality is one of THE most simple and easy things to define, but so many people define it in ways that're not only completely useless, but actively harmful if taken up. The definitions are, often times, not rigorous and inherently complex.

  2. One more important point of note, the way you describe mathematics isn't actually mathematics. Mathematics is just a way of thinking about things that's fundamentally sound. Math can really be boiled down to two things: assumptions and logic. If both of those are correct, your conclusion will be correct. That's all mathematics is! It's a way of looking at things that's fundamentally sound.

    The irony of mathematics is that if your approach to mathematics is methodical, you're gonna go nowhere fast. In order to be effective at math, you need to be able to think mystically.

    I'd also like to add that Hobbes made A LOT of errors in mathematics. This was well known, even in his time.