Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Owl of Minerva

Here's an enlightening quote, from the "Blowback" section of Doonesbury, commenting on this recent strip:
The quote in the first panel of today's strip comes from "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," Ron Suskind's terrifying article in the NYT Magazine of October 17, 2004. Here's the full quote, which reveals just how delusional that administration was: "In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'" My guess is that the senior aide was Karl Rove, but who knows? They were all crazy.
Scary, or what? It seems post-modernism has been driving the policies of the most powerful nation on earth. On the other hand, if you think about it, is post-modernism as a creed any more scary than fundamentalist or "End Times" Christianity? And, if you think about it a little further, Rove (or whoever it was) is pretty much stating a reality. Here is Hegel, that exemplar of clearly-expressed common sense, writing in 1820:
One more word about teaching what the world ought to be: Philosophy always arrives too late to do any such teaching. As the thought of the world, philosophy appears only in the period after actuality has been achieved and has completed its formative process. The lesson of the concept, which necessarily is also taught by history, is that only in the ripeness of actuality does the ideal appear over against the real, and that only then does this ideal comprehend this same real world in its substance and build it up for itself into the configuration of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then a configuration of life has grown old, and cannot be rejuvenated by this grey in grey, but only understood; the Owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall.

Preface to The Philosophy of Right
Basically, what he is saying -- trust me -- is what everyone (except experts) knows to be true about complex social events: that experts always get them wrong, until they've become history. But lack of understanding never prevented a politician from acting, and acts, however stupid, always have consequences. What those consequences are, we only discover afterwards. Sometimes, long afterwards.

In 1972 Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked about the consequences of the French Revolution and, famously, he confused the events of 1789 with Les √Čv√©nements of May 1968 and, as a consequence, delivered up an unintended but much quoted bon mot: "Too soon to tell", he replied.

Delicious. It seems that sometimes the Owl of Minerva can be knocked out of its tree prematurely, but usually only by accident...


Martyn Cornell said...

The problem with political action – and it's one much discussed by management theorists – is that while it's almost impossible to predict successfully from your understanding of the present how events (of any sort) are going to pan out in the future, you still have to draw up some sort of plan for going forward into the mist: being frozen into immobility because you don't and can't know what's coming around the corner is not an option.

Helmuth von Moltke said that no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, but he didn't meant you shouldn't have any plan at all, that it wasn't worth drawing up a plan: he meant that you had to be able to adapt your plans to cope with reality as it developed and as you found out more about it, and those plans – and your own vision and understanding – had to be flexible enough to allow that.

What was particularly loopy about the Karl Roves, who, you might have thought, would have studied Moltke, was that they clearly didn't understand this: or maybe they HAD read him, and still believed the US was now so big it COULD create its own reality.

Strangely, it was another of George W's right-hand men, Donald Rumsfeld, who had it right: the unknown unknowns, the things you don't know you don't know, will get you every time. Wise owls can turn their heads right round, and get a 360-degree view of the world. Humans have a much more blinkered vision: and (to stretch my metaphor to its snapping-point) we're moving forward while only able to see behind us.

Mike C. said...


At the back of your mind, you may have this, one of my favourite quots from Walter Benjamin:

"There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm."

Worth quoting in full.


Martyn Cornell said...

Well, if I'd read any Walter Benjamin, probably … (still, I can do a good "six degrees of separation" with him: my wife was once PA to a man called Jonathan Arendt. He was Hannah Arendt's nephew. Hannah Arendt was a friend of Walter Benjamin when both were in exile in Paris.)

Mike C. said...

Blimey! Auntie Hannah... Lover of Heidegger and coiner of the phrase "the banana of evil"!