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German Historicism and American Pragmatism are very different philosophies, but they have some similar results

German “Historicism” (whether of the “right”, Hegel, or the “left” Karl Marx) and American “Pragmatism” (Charles Pierce, William James, John Dewey….) are very different philosophies (very different indeed) – but they have some things in common which lead to some similar results. They both deny objective and universal truth – the Ralph Cudworth or Thomas Reid thinking of “We hold these truths to be self evident….” of the American Declaration of Independence and the philosophy of the Bill of Rights. Made most obvious by the Ninth Amendment – indeed the Bill of Right is clearly compiled in the wrong order, the Ninth Amendment should be the First Amendment and the Tenth Amendment should be the Second Amendment – read it and it should be obvious to you.

German Historicism holds that different “truths” apply to different “historical periods” and to different “races” and “classes” – perhaps the only answer that such a relativist philosophy deserves is the one that such men as Erik Brown, “Mad Jack” Churchill and Audie Murphy gave it. But there are books that refute it, for example Carl Menger’s “The Errors of Historicism” (1883 – specifically on the German “Historical School” of economics and its denial of the universal and objective laws of economic truth), “Human Action” by Ludwig Von Mises, and “The Poverty of Historicism” by Karl Popper.

It is interesting to note that both the economists Carl Menger and Ludwig Von Mises and the philosopher (and, I must stress, very much NOT an Austrian School economist) Karl Popper were German language thinkers largely educated outside the German university system – the universities of the Hapsburg Empire did not reject the idea (to be found in Aristotle and others) that there are universal laws of truth (in human affairs – including morality) and that it was the goal of reason to find these universal and objective laws and apply them in practical life. Whatever its terrible faults the Roman Catholic Church (which dominated the intellectual life of the old Hapsburg Empire) did NOT submit to relativism – they did not forget that the word “Catholic” means “universal”, denying that different laws of morality apply to different “historical periods” or to different “classes” or “races”. An anti relativist position that traditional Christianity shares with traditional Judaism, in spite of the persecution of Jews by some Catholics, Judaism being based upon objective morality and Free Will, moral agency – indeed Spinoza was rejected by mainstream Jewish believers because, it was alleged, he rejected Free Will rejecting human moral personhood as well as the moral personhood of God Himself. To a Jewish believer, and to a traditional Christian (indeed to decent atheists also), Martin Luther’s philosophical work “The Bondage of the Will” (which makes “here I stand – I can do no other” NOT a statement of moral conscience, but a statement that means “Mr Luther, and everyone else, is a robot – just carrying out pre programmed instructions”) is actually more offensive than his diatribes against the Jews (from which Mr Hitler loved to quite – and fully in context). To libel people, in this case Jews, with various false charges, and to suggest that they be robbed and murdered is bad – but to deny human personhood itself is much worse. And one certainly does not have to be be a believer to believe in moral personhood – as the great “Commentator” on Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias showed in his “On Fate”.

American Pragmatism also rejects the idea of universal and objective laws of truth – “the right is the only the expedient in our way of thinking” (William James) may be out of context (the context allegedly makes the statement less evil than it sounds), but it actually it sums up how Pragmatism was normally understood by most of its followers (not just its enemies). Far from being a “development” of the Scottish-American Common Sense School (broadly Thomas Reid to James McCosh) Pragmatism was a radical rejection of it, and everything that was based upon it – such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. One might as well pretend (as some absurd books do) that David Hume was a mainstream part of the “Scottish Enlightenment” – when he was actually the arch critic (opponent) of it – for those interested in what the mainstream Scottish Enlightenment was about read the works of such thinkers as Thomas Reid. Or that Thomas Hobbes was a supporter of moral agency (free will), objective morality, and the moral duty to come to the aid of other people who are unjustly attacked, even if to come to their defence will lead to one’s own death – when he was actually totally alien to all this, as Ralph Cudworth took great pains to point out in his refutation of Thomas Hobbes. The central idea of the moral tradition – to use human reason to find universal laws of moral truth and to use our free will (moral agency – the “I” personhood) to act in a good way (against our base desires to do evil – in the moral struggle between good and evil that each of us is engaged in every day) is NOT what Hobbes and Hume are about.

To turn specifically to economics… both German Historicism (of both “left” and “right”) rejected universal laws of truth in economics (as it rejected universal laws of truth in everything else) – everything is relative to the “historical stage” and to “race” and “class”. And American Pragmatism is the same on this matter – it also rejects universal and objective laws of truth in economics.

To both the Historicist and the Pragmatist – if a government or Revolutionary Movement (for some of these people reject “the state” as traditionally understood) does not deliver X and (according to their doctrines) it was the correct time (historical stage0 to deliver X then it was because of some TREACHERY (either Class Treachery or Race Treachery) – the leaders did not will X hard enough. And any failure by the state or a political movement can be “fixed” – for example, to American Pragmatists, the idea that Obamacare is against the universal and objective principles of economic law is meaningless (because there are no such principles) if the political leaders will medical care for all hard enough it will arrive, and if there is some flaw in the scheme it can be “fixed”. The endless calls to “fix” Obamacare are really calls for the state to deliver something that violates the basic laws of political economy (for example the calls for lower costs for something that covers more, rather than less, medical conditions) – and only “make sense” to people who believe that the basic laws of political economy do not exist.

The ultimate expression of both Historicism and Pragmatism was probably Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Movement – much better read than Adolf Hitler and much flexible than “Lenin” (although Mussolini had been senior to “Lenin” in the international Marxist movement) – Benito Mussolini took the various Historicist and Pragmatist thinkers of his day (and the British Fabian and other thinkers also) and blended them together to produce his Fascist movement. For example, Mussolini would have understood BOTH sides at Alexandria Virginia in the recent fighting (the “Alt Right” and the “Anti Fascist” Marxists) and could have blended into EITHER side at will – given speeches that either side would have supported, indeed cheered wildly. Did Mussolini really believe in any of it? To him that would have been a silly question – as there was no such thing as objective truth any more than there was any such thing as objective morality, ideas were just about how to gain POWER and he took “the right is only the expedient in our way of thinking” quite literally, just as he did the idea of the “myth” in Sorel, a radial development of the idea of the “noble lie” in Plato.

The promises of such political movements violate the basic and universal laws of economics? These movements deny such laws (or the laws of objective and universal morality) even exist – so that does not bother them.

For example, how many United States Senators believe (really believe) in such laws of economics? Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee out of a 100? Any more? Perhaps one or two more – but not many more than that. The same is true of the British House of Commons.

We live in an age where the basic ideas of the Historicists and Pragmatists (in the sense of their denial of economic laws as limits on what politics can provide to people) dominate modern thought (including the thought of many establishment “economists”) – in truth we live in a Fascist Age, both among open Fascists (such as the people who went marching through the University of Virginia at night with lighted torches chanting “Blood and Soil” – the very Nazi movement their grandfathers fought to destroy) and among the Marxist Frankfurt School (“Politically Correct”, “Diversity”, “Critical Theory”…) “anti Fascists” also.

15 comments to German Historicism and American Pragmatism are very different philosophies, but they have some similar results

  • Paul Marks

    When someone says “I want Obamacare fixed” (as if Economic Law is optional – or can be got round by some clever scheme) they are a Pragmatist and that is not a good thing (it will lead to bailouts for the insurance companies and even worse things).

    As for the violent thugs on BOTH sides at Charlottesville Virginia – they are all Pragmatists (none of them believe in objective and universal principles of truth) and they are all Historicists – of either the Hegelian “right” (although racialism owes more to Fichte) or the Marxist “left”.

    None of these people has any space in their souls for the philosophy of the Bill of Rights – they have driven it out of their souls.

  • Paul Marks

    The late William Rees Mogg (the father of Jacob Rees Mogg was mocked as “Mystic Mogg” for supposedly making false predictions – he was mocked by stupid people who did not bother to carefully read what he actually wrote.

    For example, William Rees Mogg was mocked for saying that theAm United Stated would go bust – but what he actually wrote was that American would go bust IF Hillarycare was passed. And it was not passed – it was defeated in the 1990s

    But now it has been passed – under the name of Obamacare. And it can not not be afforded – it is indeed the “straw” (or rather the great log) that broke-the-camel’s back (on top of all the other “Entitlement Programs” and the Credit Bubble financial system).

    It can not be “fixed” – it can not be afforded, that is the simple (and brutal) truth. And it is not going to be repealed – there are too many Pragmatist Republicans (let alone Democrats) for repeal to happen.

    So America will go bust – in fact if not in law.

    Reality is not optional – neither Historicism or Pragmatism can make it so.

  • David Roberts

    Paul, are you aware of Jordan Peterson and his investigations into morality?

  • Paul Marks

    Martin Luther was consistent – as well as his philosophical determinism, he was a supporter of tyranny. Mr Luther supported serfdom, then NOT an ancient tradition in all the German lands – but newly being introduced to many areas crushing a formally free peasantry. Mr Luther also condemned resistance to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire – yes condemned it. Not on theological grounds (Mr Luther like Mr Calvin denied, strongly denied, that he was trying to turn Christianity into Islam) – but on the political grounds that it was not for ordinary people to take on political matters such as resistance to the expansion of Islam, one’s ruler (including the Islamic Sultan – the unlimited Despot), makes all the decisions. Mr Hobbes did not have to invent much – it is there in the works of Mr Luther.

    However, Mr Luther was a good family man with a sincere love of music and art. And Mr Luther politics was a logical application of his philosophy – he did not commit the absurdity of trying to combine determinist philosophy with libertarian politics.

    Even his ravings against the Jews (the endless lies against Jews and the demands for Jews to be robbed and murdered – the stuff that Mr Hitler loved to quote from) may well have been influenced by his very bad health in later life, which may well have had an effect on the mind of Mr Luther. It is possible to resist such pain – but of course the philosophy of Mr Luther denied that it was possible to resist such influence (as he, essentially, denied the “I” that would do the resisting). To Mr Luther a human being can not resist evil impulses (such as his own to demand that the Jews be robbed and murdered) because, formally speaking, human BEINGS do not exist.

    Today people (for example nearly all politicians) who insist on calling opiate abuse an “epidemic” and the drug abusers who ruin their live “victims” (as if the drugs jump up from the table and forcibly inject themselves into the flesh-robot people who have no control over their actions), echo these sentiments of Mr Luther.

    YES traditional society has been destroyed by Progressive policies – and this has indeed been a terrible thing, destroying meaning for ordinary people and leaving them exposed to the pushers of drugs (which include large pharma companies – pushing pain killers to people whose true pain is SPIRITUAL, of the SOUL). But people can still resist harmful impulses – and it does terrible HARM to people to continually tell them “you have no control over your actions – you are a VICTIM”.

    “Be a man – FIGHT it” would be better – but few politicians will say that. It is more popular to tell people that nothing it their own fault – that they can not resist the evil that is in all of us.

  • Paul Marks

    I have listened to parts of some Professor Peterson’s lectures David – but I am certainly NOT an expert on his work.

    I suspect I would not like this aspect of his work (efforts to “explain” morality) – but I do not know, as I have not really studied his work.

  • Paul Marks

    For those who believe we can, with effort, resist our evil impulses life is often torment – a torment of shame and guilt, for that we have done and that we have left undone.

    What the Nazis offered (and still offer) is “freedom” from this burden of shame and guilt, the “freedom not to be free” freedom from moral responsibility for out actions – for “you can do otherwise than you do” humans being predetermined.

    It should be obvious where the National Socialists got this idea from (they got it from Mr Luther who, most likely, got it from mainstream Sunni Islam – although he denied that). So one could rob, rape, murder….. and still feel good about one’s self. The burden of shame and guilt being removed – as one could not have done differently than one did. One is “free” to be the “blond beast” – even if one is actually not blond.

    Do they really believe it? Deep down?

    The late Commander Eric Brown (who de facto led the British team into Belson, and was, basically an all round hero – see his life) argued that the answer to this question is NO.

    In his interviews with the guards of Belson, before they were hanged, Commander Brown came to the conclusion that their moral relativism and determinism was only a ruse – they all eventually admitted that they knew they were doing wrong (as they did it) and could have done otherwise than they did.

    The Nazi guards knew they were going to be hanged, whatever they said, and so had no reason to lie. And Commander Brown was a very good interrogator – someone who could see through lies.

  • NickM

    Would that be Eric “Winkle” Brown who I know of as a test-pilot?

  • Paul Marks

    Yes indeed NickM – one of the many aspects of the life of Commander Brown. Ask Mr Ed about him.

  • NickM

    Alas for Mr Ed I have Brown’s autobiography which I must get round to reading. Oddly enough (historicism, synchronicity, or blind luck) I have just discovered that I might have spent my final year at Nottingham University living in the house one of my heroes was born in!

  • Jon

    Paul, with the greatest respect, I find the way you write quite difficult to ingest and I can’t put my finger on why. I’m left in awe but slightly disappointed with both my own degree of learning and ability to follow sentence structure when I read what you write.

    I think what you’re saying is consistent between this post and your previous one, which is that what we have here is a two headed monster- a sort of russian election where there are two sides really advocating the same thing but for favouring themselves rather than the other side. If so, I agree with you but those bought into a politically correct agenda would assume you are a paid up member of the evil torch bearers and ignore you (or worse) accordingly. It happens to me quite a lot, and you’re a far better libertarian than me, clearly, since I’m still very soft around the edges.

    I can’t help feeling that there’s something in the advice that Janan Ganesh gives the Continuity Remainers in his FT column this week (https://www.ft.com/content/230972b6-7b87-11e7-ab01-a13271d1ee9c) (though why he thinks this will work when they had the combined weight of all the political parties, the media and economics establishment behind them and lost the referendum is beyond me) applies to libertarians even more so.

    To effect change, we/ you need to coalesce around a central practical cause. It should be simple and easy to see a practical application for the cause which benefits a majority of people or a significant minority who could be perceived to need help, and that is difficult to oppose. The ratchet that SJWs use i.e. X has had a hard time because they face discrimination at the hands of an unjust law, becomes X needs special promotion at the hands of the law in order to correct ‘historic injustices’ and must be entirely beyond criticism. Accepting the first premise (not unreasonably) makes the second harder for most people to argue against, though it will leave them feeling uncomfortable.

    We should use the same tactic. It can’t be esoteric, it must be clear and practical. Ideally, it mustn’t put us (at first) on the wrong side of a security argument because you will alienate those who are most likely to be your earliest adopters.

    I have no idea what this is, but I’m sure that almost every commenter here has two or three issues stashed away. Can we pick one that we can unite around?

  • Paul Marks

    NickM – wow. Which hero?

    Jon – try reading what I write aloud (after all I am typing what I hear – even if only in my head).

    Actually the above is the easy bit. I start by visualising something (without words) and only then do I try and explain it (using words – that I first sound out to myself) to try communicate to others. My only guide is “does this sound O.K.?” I have no idea what literary style even is.

    Something to rally around – that Pragmatists, Historicists, Nazis, Marxists and so on would all reject?

    For the Americans that should be obvious – the BILL OF RIGHTS.

    The Bill of Rights is very clear and practical – and none of the bad people will accept it.

    For example Richard Spencer of the “Alt Right” is in favour of the Federal Government paying for the health care of “the masses” (as long as they are the white masses) – he is not exactly a fan of the Tenth Amendment limiting the Federal Government.

    2nd Amendment?

    The KKK always hated that – as regards to black people, the South had a lot of Klan inspired “Gun Control” regulations intended to keep firearms out of the hands of black people (so they could not defend themselves).

    What about ASSET SEIZURE – the heart of the “War on Drugs”, and the rest of the modern Police State where government can just steal your stuff without having to prove you gained it dishonestly. American cities such as Philadelphia are well known for having local governments that are essentially criminal organisations – that, on top of regular taxation, just steal (sorry “asset seizure”) stuff from people they (the officials) do not like.

    The 4th and 5th Amendments (IF applied – a big if) would stop Asset Seizure and restore something like the Rule of Law to the United States.

    “The Bill of Rights only applies to the Federal Government”.

    Some people have argued that the Bill of Rights does not apply to the States – but this argument falls on three grounds…….

    Even at the very start of the Republic, James Madison (the person who complied the Bill of Rights) and others were clear that the key provisions of the Bill of Rights (being Natural Rights) applied to the States – not just the Federal Government.

    The 14th Amendment (so hated by the Alt Right) puts the matter beyond any reasonable doubt – the basic rights of people may not violated by State Governments.

    Lastly almost all States have State Bill of Rights that cover what the 4th and 5th Federal Bill of Rights say anyway.

    The problem is, as always, getting judges who will actually enforce the Bill of Rights (Federal or State) and that means judges who believe in the PHILOSOPHY of the Bill of Rights. If the people believe in the PHILOSOPHY of the Bill of Rights eventually even the judges will respect it, the key (the key to everything) is to get the people to believe in the PHILOSOPHY of the Bill or Rights. Americans have to learn again who Thomas Reid and James McCosh were – they used to know, quite ordinary people used-to-know.

    “But Britain Paul”

    I do not really see any practical way of restoring basic liberties to the United Kingdom.

    I think it is a long shot (a very long shot) in the United States – but a campaign to restore (enforce) the Bill of Rights is certainly worth a go.

    One of the things that torments me about the United States is that there is still hope – not much hope, but some (enough to torment me with hope and fear).

    I am much more relaxed about the United Kingdom – for a very bad reason.

    Still I must not sell my country so cheap – within living memory (just), J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis were active at Oxford and Sir William David Ross and Harold Prichard were Professors of Moral Philosophy there.

    So perhaps I should torment myself with hope for Britain – after all these men all understood the basics, and expressed the basics (about what human beings are, and what we should try to do) much better than I can.

    If humans are human beings (if people are persons) who can, with effort, know moral right from moral wrong – and, again with effort, do what is morally right against our desire to do evil……

    Well everything else follows from that.

    It is very clear and very practical – and we are dead without it.

  • NickM

    I’m 43. I lived in the house Albert Ball, VC had been born in when I was an undergrad at Nottingham University. I did Postgrad in Leeds and every Friday the School of Maths would decamp to the Packhorse on Woodhouse lane for a few jars and some quite wow conversation about basically everything from football to AI imaging for cancer diagnosis. Oddly enough we used to sit in the same room a junior Eng Lit lecturer who used to declaim anglo-saxon poetry did quite a few years before with his students. One day he was invigilating an exam at Leeds Uni and found himself writing the curious line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. The rest as they say is history. Many of us are not much changed from our forebears. OK, there have been changes. attitudes to sexuality and race for example but here is an important point. We might have been state-funded at a state university but we all knew we’d done bloody well to get there and we were fierce in our genuine intellectualism.

  • Jon

    Ok- I’ve got my reading list – and will take your advice Paul – thank you!

    I really think that the right from wrong bit is where we’re losing. Because lefties are better at seeming nicer and effectively sell the means, even if they can’t quite bring them selves to own the (venuzuelan) ends.

  • bobby b

    “One of the things that torments me about the United States is that there is still hope – not much hope, but some (enough to torment me with hope and fear).”

    Take heart. There’s a lot of hope. Realistic hope.

    When you hear and read about the U.S., you’re mostly seeing the huge urban centers on both coasts (and in some of the middle) which are the bastions of liberal USA.

    Granted, they control more than half of the population. But the rest of us control more than 80% of the land, and in our constitutional scheme, that counts for something.

    I spend most of my time in that 80%. I stop for a beer in VFWs and American Legion posts. I eat with people who pray before eating. The kids – of all races – say the Pledge of Allegiance daily, and unironically. They study history. Real history, not feminist/black/intersectional history. Their kids look at military service as something higher than a last resort.

    The people with whom I most like to spend my time are in these places. They’re horribly unfashionable, they frequently can’t remember where they put their phone (which would absolutely kill most urban types – they’d be unconnected!), they seldom speak in double meanings, and they get along just fine no matter their individual politics.

    They enjoy parades. They hit the bars on a Saturday night, listen to music and dance and get drunk, and no one gets raped or beaten.

    This isn’t most of our people, but this is most of our country. It remains a very good place to live, and people in the cities are slowly rediscovering this and moving back out. The small dying towns are showing signs of life again. That’s where our hope lies.

  • EdMJ

    “But Britain Paul”

    I do not really see any practical way of restoring basic liberties to the United Kingdom.

    I’d say there is some small cause for hope here too Paul. Witness the rise of Jacob Rees-Mogg for example. Here’s his ‘manifesto’ for what he sees as a principled foundation for the Conservatives:


    (Paywalled, but plain text version can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/ukpolitics/comments/6thmfa/i_dont_want_to_be_prime_minister_but_if_i_was/dlkpbzs/)

    I think there is a lot to like in it. Some choice quotes:

    “Unlike the Socialist, the Conservative believes that society is built from the bottom up, not the top down. Individuals come together to form families, communities and nations. The instruments of government are there to serve not to command. The random mass of individual decisions will better suit the comfort of the nation than the careful direction of resources from Whitehall.”

    “It follows from this view that the state is there to enable people to lead the lives they wish as far as possible without conflicting with their neighbours, rather than directing them along specific paths. Policy decisions flow from this and it is the moral basis for what the government does. It is interested in what people can do, rather than what they are unable to do…”

    “In terms of taxation, the view that individuals matter is a reminder that the money belongs to a specific person, and the state may only take what it needs. It is not the state’s money of which it benevolently allows the taxpayer to keep a portion. Generally people will spend their own money more effectively than the government and there is no money at all, except for that earned in the private sector.”

    “Conservatives should recognise that individual human ingenuity and business acumen will do better than central planning.”

    “Conservatives ought to back the free market, but that is not the same as big business. We must tackle monopolies. Big business loves regulation – and incidentally the European Union – because it keeps out competition, maintains high prices and reduces the power of the individual consumer.”

    “Each of us wants to improve our own standard of living and to see our children better off than we are. This is best done by freeing individuals to maximise their own successes through government that has confidence in their capacities, which trusts the people.”

    Basically, he’s the Anti-Corbyn, and I think he’s our current best hope for the country. If you agree, you can show your support here:


    And here: