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Saturday, June 14, 2014


I very much hope that you have all read William Polk's important essay on the events in Iraq, posted here yesterday.  Today, I am going to make a series of observations intended to complement, but in no way to displace or amend, his arguments.  What I have to say has application to many other issues of national and foreign policy, but it is, I think, particularly apposite to the Middle East situation.

I inaugurate my remarks with several quotations from the writings of the great twentieth century conservative English philosopher, Michael Oakeshott.  Some of you find it odd, I know, that I should have a fondness for a thinker who is one of the darlings of the apparatchiks at right-wing think tanks, but I would remind you that Oakeshott's excoriation of the intellectual tradition that he labels "rationalist" is matched by Marx's disdain for the Utopian Socialists who were among the most notable partisans of the rationalist mentality.  By the time I have finished, you will perhaps understand what I think we have to learn from Oakeshott.

Let me begin with a portion of a single sentence from "Rationalism in Politics," the title essay of Oakeshott's most important book.

"The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems..."

Against this conception of politics, Oakeshott counterpoises his own view of politics as the participation in a tradition of activity.  He says of the rationalist several paragraphs later, "He is not devoid of humility;  he can imagine a problem which would remain impervious to the onslaught of his own reason.  But what he cannot imagine is politics which do not consist in the solving of problems, or of a political problem of which there is no 'rational' solution at all."

What can Oakeshott mean by this, and how can it help us to understand the situation in Iraq?  The key lies in the unthinking invocation of what I can label inappropriate metaphors.  We are accustomed to describe the conflict between the Shi'ia and Sunni in Iraq as a "problem," to which competing solutions are now being offered.  But the use of the word "problem" and its associated terms, such as "solution," implies that it is possible to give a correct characterization of the current situation, an unambiguous description of a different situation we wish to see come into being, and a repertory of tools and techniques that we might employ to accomplish that end.  And this way of thinking, I suggest, is wrong.

What are some legitimate examples of problems?  Finding a vaccine to protect humans against polio was a problem, solved initially by Jonas Salk.  Constructing a workable atomic bomb was a problem, solved by the team of scientists and engineers who made up the Manhattan project in the last years of World War Two.  Putting a man on the moon was a problem, set for America by John F. Kennedy and solved by the scientists and engineers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

What is an example of a pseudo-problem -- a task or policy goal or desideratum that sound like a problem but in fact is not a problem at all?  Nation-building is an example of a pseudo-problem.  Nations are never built, constructed, or erected.  Nations are sets of political and institutional arrangements rooted in and evolving out of the history and traditions and past actions and experiences of groups of people.  Trying and failing to build a nation is never a case of a lack of resources or a failure of will or a shortage of experts.  Nation-building always fails because "building a nation" is a phrase that has no coherent meaning.  Consequently, there is no genuine meaning that can be give to the question "How can we contribute to the building of a stable democratic Iraq?"

An associated example of a pseudo-problem is "training indigenous forces."  The United States has devoted an enormous amount of time, effort, and resources to training the Iraqi military, only to have the troops we have trained throw down their weapons, shed their uniforms, and flee into the night when confronted by attacking ISIS troops [who are not terrorists, by the way, but that is neither here nor there.]  The natural reaction to this turn of events is to conclude that we have not trained them well enough, but that is a total conceptual confusion.  The ISIS forces, after all, have not been the beneficiaries of our training, or, so far as I can make out, of the training of anyone else.  Clearly, the failure of the Iraqi forces has nothing to do with the success or failure of their training.  I am sure they know how to operate their weapons just as efficiently as do the ISIS forces [which seem to be using some of the same weapons, originally supplied by the American military.]  Incidentally, since the establishment of the United States was made possible by the defeat of a well-organized national army by a collection of citizen-combatants manifestly less well trained than their enemies, you might have thought American politicians and military experts might have understood this.

Am I saying that the United States cannot in any way influence affairs in the Middle East?  Of course not.  We have been influencing affairs in the Middle East for at least sixty or seventy years, and perhaps longer.  We influenced affairs in the Middle East by forging close and supportive ties with the regimes controlling large reserves of oil.  We influenced affairs in the Middle East by overthrowing a secular democratic government in Iran and installing a puppet Shah.  We influenced affairs in the Middle East by arming the Taliban during their successful struggle against Soviet invaders.  We have influenced affairs in the Middle East by aiding and enabling Israel's occupation and domination of the Palestinians.  We influenced affairs in the Middle East by first making chemical weapons available to Saddam Hussein during his war against Iran and then by invading Iraq and overthrowing Hussein.  We have had an enormous influence on events in the Middle East.  What we have never been able to do is "solve" whatever "problem" we think at the moment the Middle East poses.  Our failure is never a consequence of inadequate information or weakness of will or insufficient resources.  It is always a consequence of the fact that neither the Middle East nor any other region of the world poses "problems" to which there are "solutions."

Well, sufficient unto the day, as my uncle used to say.




James Camien McGuiggan said...

Oakeshott's general point here is also made by R. G. Collingwood, who spends considerable time developing it as a methodological principle concerning history and philosophy as much as politics. It's always good to hear that Collingwood, who is so often forgotten, has hit the nail on the head yet again, and finds allies in English conservatives and U.S. communists both. His time will come.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have to confess I don't find this in THE IDEA OF HISTORY. Elsewhere?

James Camien McGuiggan said...

I don't have anything to hand at the moment (and won't for a week or so), but if memory serves, it's passim in An Autobiography, An Essay on Metaphysics and, possibly, The New Leviathan. But it's not dealt with at any great length in any of these texts. Mink's superb commentary Mind, History and Dialectic brings together the various remarks Collingwood makes and systematises them. It goes under the name of 'the logic of question and answer' or variations on this.

Seth said...

That Iraq is not a 'problem to be solved' is hardly a refutation of rationalism. Only a refutation of the patently absurd notion that people in Washington DC have the power to select an outcome.

I can see why rationalism might be attacked by drawing parallels with 'scientism' -- understood as a naive attempt to use inadequate theoretical means to address questions that require better, deeper insight than happen to be available to science at present. But the way to fix weaknesses in rationalism is not to abandon rationalism, but simply to acknowledge that there is more work to do.

The DC war hawks who brought us the Iraq war were not wrong because they were too rationalist. They were wrong because they used bad reasoning from false premises to reach pre-conceived conclusions.