The surplus of sarcasm, of critics, should suggest to us how much easier it is to deny something than affirm. Understanding by means of negating can be helpful, but I want to look at both how it is good, and how it is not the only way to knowledge that can be used politically.
Negative dialectic is about chipping away the things that must not be true. It’s been an important force in philosophy and science for hundreds of years. But (here goes a thesis) I would say politics as well. Once we understand this, a theory of negative and positive political philosophy might start to help work through certain ideological stalemates.
Negative politics underlie theories of nonviolence, noninterference – in short, rights not to be taken away. This is by no means purely modern. However, one of the sources of thinking about rights, it should be mentioned, was feudalism, in which rights were part of a system of mutual obligation. For example, Parliament was originally an assembly of the king’s vassals, part of whose feudal duty was to provide the king with advice. Much of the modern advance in the politics, however, took place in a wholly negative conception of rights (absolute rights). One benefit of this movement in history was that rights were granted to a wider array of audience, due to the negative critique of how a person could legitimately be imposed upon.
Positive Political Philosophy
BUT people sometimes do agree about positive statements about the good – community, family, etc. They want to achieve these goods, and think it can only be done by common agreement. Not that this is always a conscious agreement – it is usually communicated viscerally, in disgust, shame, celebration, condemnation. What this means is that the communication about Goodness is itself part of the experience of that Goodness. It often seems, in fact, that someone simply needs to experience what other people are experiencing in order to be drawn into the kind of Good they are enjoying, seeking, and protecting. Intellectual rationalization (the primary form of negative dialectic) is a powerful means of communication, but is itself not the same experience as the good of, say, family loyalty, or a consistent and safe home.
Verbalized, intellectualized rationalization – i.e. conversation and persuasion – can never, then, convince you of a positive conception of the good at an airtight, 100%, theoretical level. The form of communication will never convey the experience itself – therefore, the argument rests, partially, on shared experience. The only airtight case would be from the absoluteness of revelation.
This should help us understand why the strongest “acids of modernity” have been the negative dialectics – the intellectual ability to shave away inconsistencies and tell people what they can’t say. Typically, then, the strongest intellectual approaches, in search for the strongest argument, and the hardest to resist, have been the negative politics of (1) noninterference (liberalism) or (2) nihilism. The strong argument has a powerful draw. It is one of the few things that can entice people away from their experience and enter the world of sheer mind. In other words, the desire to be consistent can overwhelm the good you have experienced for yourself.
This might also help us understand why uneducated people tend to have a more conservative disposition (forget national politics for a minute, which are purely abstract). They are more reliant on their experience than on theory.
If intellectualization is actually a part of articulating and verbalizing, then I’m certainly not saying we should get away from it. But these can only augment or refine/correct that experience. The latter function, by nature, limits or rebukes experience.
Commerce between Negative and Positive, Dialectic and Experience
What then is the consensus? According to the modern liberal theorists, such as Rawls, the only thing left is the secular consensus – based on the negative dialectic and noninterference. This we must reject if we recognize that the only worthwhile experience is still experience. You cannot correct it without a reference to it. This process of agreeing, refining the agreement, refining one’s experience, communicating that synthesis, understanding the argument and entering into the experience of others – this is all going to continue, regardless. Perhaps the argument for a positive politics is not substantive in itself, but this existence of a continual conversation of experience, both verbal and non-, is too common not to be incorporated into our most explicitly common activity: politics. Not only intellect but experience constitutes the commonwealth. The political philosophy must be both negative and positive.
Experience can be taught intellectualization (though it will resist, initially). And intellect can be led back into experience (though the humility needed for this task can seem insurmountable). Either direction, there can be commerce – which automatically disproves the necessity of a libertarian consensus state and keeps us from organizing a dream polity that is a moral whole – the Platonic or communist state of the fully realized good.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.