Two materialisms; or, “There’s materialism, and then there’s materialism, if you know what I mean”

Dualist materialism

Dualism categorizes all things into two orders of reality: the material and the ideal.

The material contains physical nature, our bodies, the social reproduction of our bodies including material production, sex, childcare, housework, and so on. The ideal contains all thoughts, dreams, and other mental phenomena, as well as all symbolic communication such as speech, writing, and the ideas expressed in speech or writing.

Assuming dualism, then, idealism is the view that the ideal determines the material, that the realm of ideas determines what happens in the realm of bodies and physical objects.

And assuming dualism, materialism is the view that the material determines the ideal, that what happens in the realm of bodies and physical objects determines what we think and say and write.

So dualism provides one way of reading Marxian theory and his ‘materialist method of history’ in particular: as the claim that relations of production are the fundamentally determining force in society because it is through relations of production that all forms of human activity gain their material basis.

However, dualism implies that the material and the ideal belong to different types of reality, and therefore that there is, in the end, something distinctly non-material about ideas and, by extension, about texts, discourse, etc.  I find this a highly problematic view.

For one thing, it leaves intact the problems of skeptical philosophy which materialists find so exasperating.

Monist materialism

Monism, on the other hand, treats all things as belonging to a single type of reality.

Monist idealism asserts that all reality is actually mental, or spiritual, and that what we experience as a material world all around us is actually the projection of some mind or minds, such as the mind of God, or human minds collectively or even individual human minds.

Monist materialism treats all things as material, including mental and symbolic phenomena.  Thoughts are physical events happening in the body.  Ideas have a physical existence in some medium, as spoken utterance or written inscriptions or data stored in computer memory. The process of a human being encountering a spoken or written idea and converting it into some meaning is the process of a physical body encountering an object and having a physiological reaction to it. The process of interpreting ideas is more complex than, e.g., bumping your knee on a rock and feeling pain, but this complexity does not mean we are dealing with a fundamentally different reality.

In other words, monist materialism treats ideas are as physical things or physical processes.

Once we adopt this attitude, we can perceive immediately how ideas result from human activity, how they are the products of human labour.  Words, concepts, associations, images, representations, logical relationships, and so on — all of these things are technological artifacts. They are physical tools, built by human activity, reproduced, transmitted, and put to practical use by human activity.

This view suggests two implications for praxis that I find important:

  1. It implies that we treat texts, narratives, discourses, and so on as material in exactly the same sense that we consider steam engines or fields of corn as material. We would make practical distinctions among these types of objects, but not ontological distinctions.
    • A sub-implication of this is that, as materialists, we can choose to read everything written by post-structuralists, postmodernists, communicative theorists, and other idealists as if all of their claims were claims about the interplay of material forces — even if this reading violates the intentions of the authors in question.
  2. Cherished philosophical ideas like “reality”, “being”, “truth”, and “reason” are technological products of human labour in exactly the same sense that a hammer is, or the design of a hammer.

Thus, when I write words like “reality” or “ontology”, I understand myself as using tools that have a certain efficacy.

What would happen if we put down these tools and used other tools instead?

29 thoughts on “Two materialisms; or, “There’s materialism, and then there’s materialism, if you know what I mean”

  1. What happens? Inter alia, you give up Marxist historical materialism (hurray!). Once ideas can no longer be implicitly or explicitly dismissed as sub-real relative to industrial tools and so forth, the base-superstructure scheme collapses. For example, Foucault proved that the discourses of normalization, far from being mere add-ons to industrial capitalism, are the latter’s very condition of possibility.

    Also, you correctly propose that ideas should be understood as technology. But the converse is also true: what we designate as “technology” in ordinary language and most social science (tools, machines, etc.) are also ideas, to wit know-how, and moreover are systematically related to other ideas. This demolishes the sort of naïve, positivist technological determinism that (as far as I know) continues to plague the social sciences.

    For example: technological specialization is far from a merely “technological” phenomenon. Far from it: the tendency to specialization can be seen in every sphere of human activity in Canada etc. advanced countries right now. It is therefore a cultural phenomenon, in the strong sense of a Hegelian “ Zeitgeist”. Technological specialization does not explain this phenomenon; the reverse is true.


    • Well, I don’t think I give up Marxist historical materialism. I still think that certain categories of material forces exert a stronger determining effect than other categories of material forces. For instance, I think that ideas adapt themselves to the practical opportunities for action more than the converse.

      But who knows if that is enough. Maybe my Marxist friends will get angry with me for what I’ve written in this post and throw me out of the club (again). 😉

      I agree with you, though, that technology can be understood as the instantiation of ideas – with this proviso: that, as a materialist, I understand ideas as always produced in and through practical relations.

      For instance, we can treat a field of cotton being worked by African slaves as a pure informational system, can we do so without abstract away the many coercions, sufferings, desires, and pleasures necessarily involved in the formation of that situation? As well as, of course, the physical limits of the human body, the brute facts of death and of birth, the efficacy of the tools of production, and so on.

      This is where I disagree with Luhmann, if I understand him correctly. To me he seems to obscure the social (that is, material) production of ideas and treat only one aspect of ideas (their communicative aspect) as the whole of them and as constitutive of social systems (which he equates with communicative systems).

      Habermas, too, seems to make the same “mistake” (i.e. the same move that I don’t wish to make). His notion of communicative action seems to me an idealization. It seems to me that if we could strip away all the factors that Habermas wants us to strip away from communication in order to achieve the ideal speech situation (power, economic need, etc.), we would no longer have any motivation to say anything at all to each other or to hear each other; our speech would degenerate to nonsense or fall silent.

      I am out on a limb here as my reading of both of these authors is pretty limited. But you can see the direction of my knee-jerk response to the notion of reading the material as informational.


  2. Never read Luhmann myself and don’t know a whit about what’s in it. Of Habermas I’ve only read secondary sources and the odd selection in readers (I wasn’t recommending him BTW).

    Yeah, Habermas’ paradise of undistorted communication is just a Utopian pipe-dream and doesn’t even cut it as a theoretical fiction. It is a, however, good illustration of the tendency of most Marxist thought to treat e.g.
    “ideology”, “false consciousness”, etc. as not just logico-empirically false, but altogether ontologically false, so many mere unrealities and illusions that wither away at the end of History.

    For me, it goes without saying that ideas are invested in social practices and relations at all times (even pure contemplation is a type of action, and nobody really thinks entirely by or for himself). Come to think of it, considered as material reality there’s no reason to distinguish between e.g. the “discursive” and the “practical”, or use such notoriously awkward po-mo terms as “discursive practices” (yuck), unless there’s some discrepancy between what people say and what they do (which also always amounts to discrepancy between what they say and what they say they’re saying, e.g. Althusserian denegation).

    Also, I think that treating ideas as material realities means going beyond bases and superstructures towards genuine wholism.


    • Yes, I’ve never like the concept of false consciousness or the pejorative uses of the term ‘ideology’ (Althusser’s move to a non-pejorative concept of ideology is one reason I find his work appealing).

      I agree entirely about pure contemplation as being a type of action, and the erasure of a distinction between ‘the discursive’ and ‘the practical’ – except that there’s a distinction to be made between, for example, talking about plowing a field and actually plowing a field, even if this is now a distinction between two forms of practice rather than between practice and not-practice.

      As for wholism: I can see how that monist materialism can take us in this direction, but I still think it doesn’t do so necessarily. For me the crucial concept, the key point in the materialist method of history in addition to historicity and materialism, is contradiction.

      As I mentioned earlier, it seems to me that even if we allow that, e.g., us writing to each other is a material social relation and not something immaterial, then I could still take the view that some material social relations are more consequential than others such that, in a capitalist society, the social production of commodities shapes fundamentally everything else that happens in society, and not vice-versa. I suppose I think that we could keep the base-superstructure distinction as a practical distinction without it being an ontological distinction.

      Then, if we take the view that this production relation contains an inherent contradiction, that this contradiction produces classes of people with antagonistic interests, and that these class antagonisms generate forms of thought that are opposed and irreconcilable, then we have Marx’s position in The German Ideology, in a monist rather than dualist form.

      In a nutshell, the material world would contain within itself a contradiction that makes the holistic integration of society impossible until that contradiction (the class relation) is abolished.

      My own view is a little more complicated (I think there are several fundamental contradictions, not just one), but to me this is how I think materialist monism harmonizes with orthodox Marxist theory.


  3. I sure agree that the notion of contradiction is indispensable and IMO the thing to retain from the Marxist tradition. When I spoke of holism I was thinking more along the lines of theories of social change in which historical development is construed in terms akin to biological growth, i.e. a set of interpenetrating changes in all of the structures that make up the whole, which happen at (more or less) the same time, and for the same unifying reason. (Sorokin’s methodological statements in “Social and Cultural Dynamics” are indicative of what I’m thinking).

    The problem with base-superstructure explanation as I see it is as follows. (I’m sure you’ve heard all the arguments, a million times; I’m just representing for my problematic as per the previous thread).

    Any form of social practice to some extent embodies all of the others. It is true that today, commodity production shapes everything else that happens, in that all human activity today passes through the marketplace and assumes the form of market-oriented production and-or consumption. But commodity production is never simply, or even primarily, economic action. It is, at once, and indissociably: political (the exercise of an individual right under the watch of an omnipotent State); ethical (one is morally obliged to take part in production- whether one needs to or not- and otherwise deemed contemptible and pathological); and social (the office is the only real public space for the average, viz. anomic and isolated, individual ).

    The various spheres of action interpenetrate to the point where it becomes difficult to sustain even an analytical distinction between them. E.g. one of the finest minds in the Marxist tradition came to the position that the modern State does not just maintain a presence in the modern economy, but from the start plays a constitutive role therein. And once it’s been admitted that the economy isn’t theoretically self-sufficient, even in abstraction, then it becomes very difficult at the level of theory to see why it is “determinant in the last instance”. Marx might say: well, you can’t eat philosophy. But that would be vestigial dualism. Truly consistent monism brings to light that you can’t eat without philosophy, either; neither the modern State nor the market would even be conceivable, let alone operable, absent certain secular-directed transformations of Christian ethical teaching and legal theory. I used to think, on those grounds, that the latter, not the economy, were “determinant in the last analysis”- until I realized that they aren’t self-sufficient, either, and need to be explained as much as they explain.

    Thus “determinance in the last analysis”, in a circular movement from sphere to sphere, gives way to something very much like what the guys in quant bring to light by statistical factor-analysis: a cluster of interrelated variables that together add up to so many traits of a unity. Althusser would sneer that this is “expressive causality”, so much mystical thought, the Hegelian Idea in its self-propelled teleology. But mystical causality (or, failing that, pure tautology) is kind of inescapable. E.g. Althusser himself had to turn to Spinoza’s pantheism for his “immanentist” conception of “structural causality” as “a cause immanent in its effects”- as though *that* somehow doesn’t amount to mystical tautology (!). One way or another, the M in monism stands for mysticism.

    Thus I think social science is better off descriptively discerning patterns in things, and identifying the unifying internal principle of the pattern, than trying to causally explain them.


    • Interesting. I agree with you that “Any form of social practice to some extent embodies all of the others”, and I go a certain way down the road with you as to the implications of that. Certainly I’ve never been fond of the notion of ‘determination in the last instance’. And I agree that causality is a problematic notion, especially in the analysis of complex systems. (I don’t have a problem with talking about causality, e.g., in a game of billiards I counter Humean skepticism with simple pragmatism: in certain contexts the concept of causality “works” just fine, even if we can’t justify it philosophically. But in complex systems simple causality cannot be isolated.)

      But at the same time I’m not ready to abandon the inquiry into constraint, even if the notion of causality no longer adequately accounts for that constraint. It seems to me that material forces operate differently over different scales of time and space. For instance, a mountain range constrains the weather around it in ways that can be observed over the course of days or hours, whereas to observe the effect of weather on mountains one needs years or millennia as one’s timeframe. I think we can make comparable claims about social forces.

      I would also concede, though, that any sufficiently complex system can be parsed in a number of mutually incompatible ways. For me this is one of the points on which realism gives way to relativism. One can parse everything as an expression of class relations, including the religious/ethical/legal transformation that enabled the rise of capitalism; but one could also parse everything, including the misery of the Lancashire mill workers or the rise and fall of the transatlantic slave trade, in terms of information theory (even in materialist terms).

      Either epistemic strategy, or any other, would have its strengths and its failings, the relations it makes visible and relations it hides, its pragmatic benefits and its unjustifiable assumptions, its elegant proofs and its encrustations of arbitrary ad-hoc hypotheses, and so on. Of course we evaluate these various benefits and limitations as being of greater or lesser importance, but I think that inevitably at least part of that evaluation is itself extra-scientific and even extra-rational.

      This is where social science and historical materialism come back together for me: the epistemic choices we make are pragmatically, therefore politically, loaded; science is not a bystander to but a participant in the social forces that it seeks to analyze.

      This isn’t to refute your position but just to describe (incompletely) how mine both resembles and differs from yours.


  4. One more item by way of a follow-up question: You are a historical materialist; does this mean that you accept the Marxist theory of economics in all its particularities (definition of social class in terms of relationship to the means of production, zero-sum labour theory of value and its corollaries (tendency of profits to fall, etc.); and the moral necessity and-or historical inevitability of collective ownership and allocation according to ability and need).
    Or are you part of the considerably looser schools, e.g. “political economy” as it used to be practiced in Canadian depts. of sociology?


    • I accept most of those points. I do adopt his definition of class in terms of relationship to the means of production, as opposed to Weberian and other liberal definitions which aggregate a plurality of factors. I accept the labour theory of value for its assumption that labour is the source of all value and its implication that all profit depends on exploitation, i.e. the unpaid appropriation of surplus labour from workers by capital. I don’t have enough economic training to pronounce confidently on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, but it at least seems plausible to me.

      My take on Marx’s moral views is complicated because I side with Althusser in reading Marx’s mature works as adopting or at least implying rejection of transcendental moral standards. Ollman gives a somewhat turgid explanation in his book Alienation which amounts to the claim that, for Marx, morals are an immanent feature of social relations (which is fairly directly implied by The German Ideology anyway), so the moral necessity of communism amounts either to (a) its necessity for workers, i.e. the concrete fact that alienated labour gives rise to a historical movement (experienced subjectively as desires) which can find its complete realization only in communism, and/or (b) its historical necessity in the sense that communism will inevitably happen. I agree with (a) but not (b). I don’t think there is any guarantee that capitalism will give way to communism (direct democratic control over social production) as opposed to, say, some terrible post-capitalist form of fascism.

      My most fundamental break with Marx concerns the singularity or multiplicity of radical social contradictions. Marx assumes everywhere that class relations (relations of production) operate as the most fundamentally determining force in social life and, therefore, that class contradictions drive all of society and history. So Marxist feminists attempt to reduce gender antagonisms to an expression of class conflict, for instance, whereas radical feminists theorize patriarchy and the sexual alienation of women as fulfilling the social function that Marx reserves for class, to the extent that class contradictions are an expression of sex-class rather than vice-versa. And dual-system feminists attempt to treat capitalism and patriarchy as mutually irreducible and, for the most part, mutually reinforcing systems.

      I parse the social world in terms of a multiplicity (not a plurality) of mutually irreducible radical contradictions. I think there are at least three: class, patriarchy, and sovereignty, each of which involves a different material relation: production, reproduction, and force. I see other forms of inequality such as race, sexuality, etc. as permutations of one or a combination of these. But I’m not dogmatic; there could be more than three. In this respect I’m not an orthodox Marxist, which is partly why I more often refer to myself as a Marxian theorist than a Marxist.

      Sorry for the long answer … What do you make of all that?


    • What about yourself? You identified as a neo-ultramontanist, by which I infer that you’re a Catholic and socially conservative (on balance at least). But you’re also conversant in left-wing social theory and skeptical of state authority. Let me see if I can guess approximately where you’re coming from:

      I was raised Anglican, and my impression is that there’s a strong streak in Christianity of skepticism towards any secular authority. This comes across in the books of Judges and Kings, which can be read as a kind of spiritual tragedy: as long as the Israelites are content to dwell without a state, under the spiritual authority of the judges, they exist in comparative grace and prosperity. When they ask for a king, God explicitly warns them that this will lead to suffering, which indeed turns out to be the case. It is no coincidence that Solomon, Israel’s greatest king, is also the one who allows the worship of false gods into the kingdom and that his downfall leaves the twelve tribes permanently divided. The clear message seems to be that any Earthly authority is prone to corruption. True authority resides only with God and, by extension, those whom God appoints as spiritual – not political – leaders.

      Hence the occasion for searching, sometimes radical, critique of all forms of secular authority. The point of this is not to realize the liberal Enlightenment ideal of autonomous self-determining individualism, but to fulfill a human nature that is at its root communitarian and spiritual, having its ultimate object a transcendence that can only be striven towards, but not grasped, within the limited confines of the material world.

      Am on I on the right track?


  5. “Neo-ultramontanism” is what you could call, variously, a thought experiment, an instrument of critique, a subject-position, or a mode of orientation to the facts. Don’t get the wrong idea: I don’t sit at my desk, flanked by a bust of the Pope and a faded photo of some long-dead Latin dictator, dreaming in my pipe of bringing back feudalism. I’m not even Catholic (yet), but I am Christian and a (very) reluctant cultural conservative.

    Yes, your guess is on the right track, with the following qualification: Secular power isn’t *intrinsically* illegitimate, neither in the Scriptural view, that of the Church, or mine. Man, as Aristotle said, is a State-forming animal (zoon politikon). The problem with the ancient kingdoms described in Scripture- and what’s described there is, sociologically, clearly homologous to what’s happening in Modernity- was that they came to neglect everything except for earthly power and wealth. Hence the corruption, extravagance, neglect for the public upkeep of religion (an extremely bad idea in pre-modern society), injustice, etc. for which the Prophets excoriated them. In social science jargon, they became anomic and dysregulated.

    In modern society, secularism is taken to the extreme where religion is not only neglected, but altogether abolished, practically criminalized; and every cognate of religion (morality, creative arts, philosophy, and even pure natural science (as opposed to “technology”) and social theory, no matter how secular) goes down with the religious mother-ship. Force and economics are the only things this society recognizes in right or fact; every sphere of life is assimilated either into the juridico-political or the commercial, and the norm of maximizing utility (i.e. inflating the power of the State and-or the capitalist bottom line) replaces every other (art for art’s sake, reverence for knowledge independently of pragmatic use-value, justice considered as more than mere policy, etc.).

    This state of affairs, on its face, is odious and utterly depraved from a moral point of view. Sociologically, it is potentially threatening- not least of all, to the State and commerce themselves. The great achievements in political and economic life were motivated by much more than maximizing utility. Anomic secularism has not unleashed some glorious Nietzschean master morality. On the contrary, both polity and economy wallow moribund in contemptible mediocrity, incompetence, corruption, pettiness and gridlock, etc- and thus underperform to the point of pathology. Meanwhile, moral discourse has been reduced to partisan abstractions used primarily as status-markers and political weapons, shorn from genuine human fellow-feeling; and culture descended into an abyss of anti-intellectualism, puerile Gong-show antics, and debased letters. I could continue.

    In order to get a critical grip on all this, it occurred to me some time back to try to look at it from the class position of the old Catholic clergy (or, for that matter, the First Estate of any society with the sort of tripartite social structure described by Dumezil). They would start from the proposition that there are, as Dumezil would say, two sovereignties; that there are therefore two forms of authority on Earth, to wit spiritual and temporal; that the spiritual power must circumscribe (but not *usurp*) the temporal power; and that temporal power otherwise degenerates into tyranny and totalitarianism. They would thus counter modern social monism (in which all life obeys one norm- the maximization of utility- under one, omnipotent secular authority) with a radical social and political pluralism not unlike the postmodern “celebration of difference”.


  6. P.S: To be sure, this pluralism organizes difference vertically, in a corporate hierarchy. But it guarantees each difference, each sphere activity, each vocation, and above all, each individual, a *right to exist as such*. The modern State makes no such guarantee (on the contrary). Even if it does decide to let you live, the living you will make will be, one way or another, as a commodity producer and-or consumer, a capitalist or proletarian- but never an artist, scholar, artisan, etc.


  7. P.P.S.: Just one more brief item: I think we are on pretty much the same page on social difference, and also plebiscitary decision-making. I would be in favour of radical devolution of decision-making to the smallest possible local unit wherever possible- although I do think that the Alinsky/USA Tea Party model is a better idea than street actions, seeing as how everybody over age 18 has a right to vote.


    • “Force and economics are the only things this society recognizes in right or fact; every sphere of life is assimilated either into the juridico-political or the commercial, and the norm of maximizing utility (i.e. inflating the power of the State and-or the capitalist bottom line) replaces every other” – Yes, we agree there. I suspect we disagree about the causes. But what matters is the solution.

      If I could say to you, with some degree of plausibility, that a movement towards worker-run cooperative production aimed at complete worker control, through direct participatory democracy, of all economic production would also foster creative,communitarian, and spiritual values, would you be on board with that? Even if I threw in the proviso that such a movement could only succeed if it gave women complete and unilateral control over their own sexuality including their capacity for conception and childbirth? And if it could make its decisions and resolve its differences without the need for either for genocide or for the state? There – I think that’s pretty much my manifesto. Except for the major problem I can’t demonstrate that this would work.

      For me the problem with the Tea Party model of devolution of decision-making is that it’s not informed by any challenge to the rights of capital and it seems pretty openly patriarchal. As I see it, in the present conjuncture the state, capital, and patriarchy overlap and complement each other substantially but also conflict with each other (contradict each other in a non-dialectical sense) just enough to generate opportunities for egalitarian politics. Sometimes workers movements have been able to use the state to constrain the rights of capital, and these successes, limited as they have been, still have important effects. The sort of devolution favoured by the Tea Party seems straightforwardly designed to intensify capitalist exploitation.

      I like the phrase “building the new world in the shell of the old”; I think we have to build the institutions that will supplant, e.g. welfare state redistributive mechanisms, slightly in advance of the devolution of state power (or rather, since that devolution is happening, we have to start building those now while doing what we can to slow down that devolution).

      Of course, how my own practice, writing about relativism and such, contributes to that, I don’t know yet. Precisely what I’m trying to work out.


    • ““Neo-ultramontanism” is what you could call, variously, a thought experiment, an instrument of critique, a subject-position, or a mode of orientation to the facts.” – My only knowledge of neo-ultramontanism comes from having a Catholic friend growing up, and from Wikipedia. So I’m intrigued: what do you mean by this?


  8. Re: the first of your two recent replies:

    Assuming hypothetical conditions of plausibility, I would be on board, if each worker were guaranteed the right to: a) something he could genuinely call his own, in the form of some baseline material wherewithal of independence (e.g. house, car, personal savings); b) a right to make a living, in the form of a positive legal right to work, and to make his own living if the community fails to find him one, or refuses to; c) a right to own ordinary small arms for self-defense. If you like, c) could be tied to communal militia duty. With respect to the sexuality proviso; yes, in exchange for: d) liberty of speech for those who oppose *abortion* to try to convince others to consensually abolish the practice for good; e) that the rights enumerated in a), b), and c) be formally predicated, in part, on the right of individuals to form families and the corresponding duty of care parents owe minor children. It goes without saying that I am in favour of anything that effectively prevents genocide. And finally, I’d like to remind that until well into the 20thcentury, the Church of your choice was the chief forum for dispute-resolution, with the law courts of the State being a venue of last resort.

    However- and as trollish as it may seem to point it out- your proposal to abolish the State in favour of a system of anarcho-syndicalist communes runs into problems in that, in order to collectivize ownership and keep it that way, the commune by definition needs the full complement of the present State’s police powers- in a word, sovereignty. And, as rascally old Hobbes pointed out, democracy does not alter the nature of sovereignty, only the conditions of its exercise. BTW this is one reason why Man is a “State-forming animal”; he forms States whether he intends to or not. But this is digression.

    Re: the US Tea Parties: they seem to advocate townhall-democratic participation a la Saul Alinsky by way of method, and gutting the central State apparatus by way of goals. I cited them here mainly for their methodology. But it’s interesting that they get charged with patriarchy when they, for their part, style themselves as foes of State paternalism. And there’s no gainsaying that the taxation and regulatory regimes they oppose directly trace their origins to arch-patriarchal theories of public policy that frankly styled themselves as e.g. “household prudence” and proceeded from the explicit premise that the ruler is the father of his people (a notion that even Hobbes thought unnatural and despotic). Not defending these guys, just saying it should be taken into account.


    • Hey, this looks like negotiation! I think that’s a success. Despite different assumptions about values, God, politics, and social theory, we’re able to negotiate the kind of society we’d like to build, in a mutually respectful and mutually intelligible dialogue – on the internet, no less. That’s kind of awesome, I think.

      “as trollish as it may seem to point it out- your proposal to abolish the State in favour of a system of anarcho-syndicalist communes runs into problems in that, in order to collectivize ownership and keep it that way, the commune by definition needs the full complement of the present State’s police powers- in a word, sovereignty” – Aye, there’s the rub. I’d like to find a way to truly dissolve sovereignty, instead of just replacing one form of sovereignty with another, but I have no idea how this might be done.


    • About the Tea Party’s anti-paternalism: That’s interesting too. I’ve often thought there is something paternalist about the left-liberal welfare state. From a socialist point of view that’s a problem because redistributing the means of consumption through an institutional relation that is still fundamentally alienated doesn’t seem to foster the working-class solidarity necessary to push for more radical changes. Indeed,that’s partly the point of liberal welfarism.

      But of course women’s shelters, anti-poverty measures, public education, etc. all benefit women disproportionately, helping them to oppose the patriarchal authority of the men in their lives. One can quite consistently oppose the paternalism of the state precisely in order to affirm patriarchal authority in the household and the local community.


  9. “a mutually respectful and mutually intelligible dialogue – on the internet, no less. That’s kind of awesome, I think.”

    Consider the ancestors of the modern intellectual, namely the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theologians in and around Spain in the late Middle Ages. Those guys disagreed on fundamentals to say the very least. But they agreed on enough to keep tabs on what they one another were doing, and even to cite each other as authorities. There’s no reason why we moderns can’t do the same.
    “One can quite consistently oppose the paternalism of the state precisely in order to affirm patriarchal authority in the household and the local community”

    George Lakoff and Mark Dubber have respectively drawn attention to this phenomenon. I think (on purely theoretical and not ethical grounds) that patriarchal power can’t be completely abolished in any conceivable human society. What you can do, though, is structurally re-distribute its component parts across the social system so as to thwart, or at least seriously complicate, its exercise. An adequate treatment of the problem would require at least a full book and can’t be addressed, only indicated, here. I’ll try to answer your earlier question about “neo-ultramontanism” later on.


    • Re. the Spanish theologians: Yes, I have a lot of respect for … I’m not sure it’s interfaith pluralism, exactly, but that willingness to engage with the Other.

      About patriarchy: I disagree that it can’t ultimately be abolished, but the more immediate point is whether this or that instantiation of it can and should be abolished or thwarted, and I’m generally willing to defer the ultimate point wherever agreement on the immediate point can be reached.


  10. “What is neo-ultramontanism?”

    It’s a word I made up (unaware that it was already in use) to denote the taking up, for certain analytical and critical purposes, of an ancient Catholic doctrine that the temporal power of the State ought to be limited by an institutionally autonomous spiritual power. It amounts to a sort of hermeneutic that seeks to reconstruct the class position of the old First Estate and look at the modern State and capitalist society from that particular class point of view.

    This move enables the modern person to analyze and critique the capitalist State on intellectual-philosophical grounds other than its own- something the modern Left has always wanted to do, and always failed to do. The mainstream of Leftist thought is in full agreement with its capitalist opponents that nothing exists except force and economics; that there is no legitimate form of authority save the political; that the latter encompasses every conceivable aspect of life (e.g. “the personal is political”); and that maximizing utility is the sole, or at least over-arching, end of human life.

    In short, after the Puritans, they declare war on the King in the name of the King. Modern intellectuals abuse themselves greatly by doing this. Marx defined the capitalist as one who sells the mob the rope with which he is to be hung; but the modern intellectual can be defined as one who makes an eloquent case to the mob that he himself ought to be hung. This is as true today as it was in the 20th c- although today the intelligentsia is simply left to wither on the academic vine, or mutated into a type of proletariat, as opposed to being gassed or sent to the Gulag for their trouble.

    Thus “neo-ultramontanism” is also a therapeutic designed to restore the modern, alienated intellectual to his own proper and original class-consciousness as a spiritual authority as opposed to a mere temporal adjunct of greater or lesser use-value to the State, the capitalist, or this or that interest group. (Part of this involves coming to grips with the fact that the modern intellectual, by nature, and as Marx knew, is a born cultural conservative).

    Ideally, it would also provide the philosophical grounds for a post-Leftist post-politics in which the spatial metaphor of Left and Right (as two wings of one and the same State eagle) is discarded and replaced with a radical social pluralism. The political aspect of the programme would see the existing monopoly-State broken up into two institutionally autonomous divisions: a (strictly non-denominational) spiritual power, responsible for spiritual and cultural ends, and also for protecting the natural rights of the people against the temporal power, which would be responsible for force and economics. The premises of natural right would be: a) that there can be no legitimate sole and indivisible territorial sovereign power anywhere on Earth; b) that spiritual ends are higher than political and economic ends, and that the spiritual power therefore trumps the temporal power; c) that every individual has the right to exist in his calling.

    This isn’t as crack-brained as it sounds. The idea of dual sovereignty, and of limits to the power of the State not given in the political instance itself, today seems tantamount to treason (“theocracy”). Then again, the liberal notions of the political separation of powers, of inalienable natural rights of Man, and the relative autonomy of civil society seemed equally treasonous once. The same goes for the more recent idea of trans-national human-rights conventions and so on. It is well-known that all of these ideas are secular transformations of ancient religious institutes; neo-ultramontanism would only expand on them, and moreover give them the real institutional teeth they necessarily lack in purely secular form.

    The chances of any of this actually happening, though, are slim to none, and no doubt the scheme embodies the same flaws as Marxist and other Utopian programmes. “Neo-ultramontanism” will have to remain a thought experiment and theoretical fiction, an instrument for measuring the difference between the “is” and the “ought”.


    • That’s very interesting. There’s a lot in it that speaks to my preoccupations, even as there are aspects of your vision that differ fundamentally from my own. You can probably already infer what those differences are by this point; they can loosely be summed up in the terms “monist materialism” and “anti-authoritarianism”.

      With respect to the former, I don’t deny the exigency of spiritual experience or treat it as an illusion, but I prefer to understand it as an expression of social practice and, consequently, as trapped within the contradictions of class, sovereignty, and patriarchy.

      Notice I say “prefer to”. I recognize this orientation as an expression of agency my part and not a mechanical product of my correct application of universal human Reason to an impersonal objective Nature. Accordingly I try to take responsibility for this disposition and, whenever feasible, to not only accept but respect the differing dispositions of others.

      On a more affirmative note, I appreciate your observation about the anti-intellectualism of modern intellectuals. I think your point about the Puritanism of the Left hits a few targets, although I think you overgeneralize (how do the Frankfurt School critique of instrumental rationality and Habermas’s notion of communicative ethics fit into the picture, for instance? or Liberation Theology? or eco-feminism?). But although I don’t want to see intellectuals set up as spiritual *authorities* per se, I do appreciate, more so as I get older, the benefits of recognizing the spiritual as a distinct and authentic field of human experience.

      Some time soon I’ll write a post on how I think relativism can help overcome the antagonism between theism and atheism.

      As an aside. I wonder if you might want to call your position by the term “critical ultramontanism” (taking inspiration from Friere’s “critical pedagogy” or Bhaskar’s “critical realism”, both of which are pretty friendly to theism) or something, given that “neo-ultramontanism” already has a specific established meaning.


  11. Re: Critical ultramontanism: As luck would have it, just before I saw that I came up with the term, “postmodern ultramontanism”, to denote where I go after having deconstructed everything.

    Where does the Frankfurt school et into the picture- I discern, in the critique of instrumental rationality, and in the eco-feminists, a voice speaking in a language that was not made for it, and moreover designed to silence it. Habermas could rigorously call it “systematically distorted communication”. Whence does the cult of instrumental rationality derive? Why venerate Creation, but not its Creator? The critique of instrumental rationality was brilliant and game-changing, and the spirit of care of the eco-feminists deeply admirable- but the silences of these discourses are both symptomatic and frustrating.

    But I digress. Any chance of you addressing the problem of natural right in relation to relativism in a future post?


  12. Pingback: Some Arguments for Irrealism « The Practical Theorist

  13. I’m broadly in agreement about “monist materialism” but I’d want to nuance it in one way. This is from a paper in progress (rather, it was in progress til the end of August):

    It does not merely invert an idealist elevation of ideas (or discourse) over matter in the manner of earlier and latter mechanical materialist philosophies (including many Marxisms). Rather, it rejects the dualism of material and ideal altogether and asserts the unity of consciousness and human individuals. Social existence and social consciousness are seen as an internally related ensemble. Within that unity, there is a hierarchy of determination: bodies are prior to or determinate of thought. “Starting from the standpoint of objects, of the non-conceptual, materialist critique resists all idealist moves to absorb the object into concepts” (McNally, 2001, p. 74). This does not entail the dominance of ahistorical materiality, since “The world of objects is the world of objective human activity,” although “the objective world” is not reducible to “humankind and its history” (p. 74).


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