Saturday, 16 May 2020

Rationalism vs. Empiricism: Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Schumpeter

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 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.


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