Inclusiveness and the ens realissimum

[The tenth in a series on inclusiveness.]

I’ve said that inclusiveness has a religious quality. To say it is a kind of religion is not to say it works well as one. Religion defines the place of man in the world, but inclusiveness reflects the modern outlook, which has difficulty dealing with such issues. It likes unitary theories that lead to clear conclusions, so it tries to dissolve the world into man or man into the world. Neither makes sense, so moderns—including liberals—oscillate between the two and settle on neither.
Cartesian egos

At bottom, liberalism views the individual person as the Cartesian ego—a disembodied subject with no qualities other than the ability to have experiences and make choices. If we accept that understanding, and view the external world from the radically subjective standpoint that results, it becomes something we construct from our sensations for the sake of our goals.

Such an understanding affects our attitude toward the world. It makes every particular tie to things outside ourselves seem an intrusion that has somehow gotten hold of us and is dragging us down. The result is a compulsion to destroy attachments that make claims on us. Hence the need for sexual liberation, abolition of social roles, mass third-world immigration, multiculturalism, and so on. Society must be destroyed as a network of particular persons and relationships in a particular setting and turned into an abstract neutral schema for the satisfaction of desire.

The role of the other

The matter cannot rest there, because the Cartesian ego is so odd philosophically. It is not part of the world of experience, and it is unclear how something with no positive qualities could be embodied. The result is difficulty understanding our place in the world. Am I the only reality, because the subjective outlook is so privileged, or am I not real at all, because I have no enduring tangible qualities or connections? With respect to ourselves, such difficulties lead to insecurity, narcissism, and identity crises. With respect to other people, they lead to an obsession with the non-Western other.

Non-Westerners are defined as such by the fact they do not have the free-floating Cartesian ego as their self-understanding. Since they do not view themselves in that way, they can be seen as embodied and part of the world of experience. That gives them a very special though ambiguous significance. From one perspective the Cartesian outlook turns whites into abstractions who hardly exist at all, while nonwhites remain vibrant concrete realities. From another, it makes nonwhites a colorful background—part of the Stuff White People Like—that accessorizes the narcissism of white liberal Cartesians. There is no way within the liberal outlook to choose between the two, so particular liberals flop back and forth depending on mood and circumstances.

Horizontal transcendence

The problem often takes a religious form. The absorption of traditional religion by inclusiveness reflects in part an effort to maintain religious values in a scientistic world. In such a world God is unthinkable, so people fall back on themselves. Their concerns and desires are what they know—indeed, they are That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived—so why not treat them as divine?

The problem is that radical self-centeredness is not a satisfactory religion. We need a moral and spiritual order beyond ourselves that enables us to place ourselves and make sense of our situation. One possible solution is horizontal transcendence: standing in awe before other people as ineffably and unclassifiably other, disclosing to us a reality that cannot be reduced to our own purposes and categories, and imposing peremptory moral obligations on us through their needs and desires.

On such a view, those most radically other than ourselves become natural exemplars of the holy. However, the solution is unstable because in fact the non-Western other is evidently no more holy than we are. One can respect someone’s good qualities and human dignity, but it is silly to overlook whatever flaws and limitations he has, or take him more seriously than ourselves or those to whom we have a more immediate connection.

Once again, the outcome is a messy compromise, this one between self-involvement and sentimentality about third-world peasants. Something of the sort is a very common solution among spiritually-inclined liberals, especially those among them who find it natural to express their souls in peasant-themed home decor, fashion accessories, and cooking styles.

[NOTE: this is an expanded and updated version of a post from a year ago. The comments on the earlier version should still be applicable so I’m leaving them.]

11 thoughts on “Inclusiveness and the ens realissimum”

  1. Bleeding heart liberals

    What happened to the term “bleeding-heart liberal” and how does what it was describing relate to your view of what liberalism is? Liberals seem to have an always bleeding heart for the other.

    • Bleeding hearts
      Radical universalism and individualism mean that particular duties and connections disappear and all men become interchangeable. As a result, people don’t look after those close to them, since no one is close to them any more. Instead, they either become indifferent to others, or else adopt an unsustainable and emotionally self-indulgent (i.e., sentimental) emphasis on the needs and sufferings of those who need and suffer most. They try to stabilize the situation by working toward a universal administrative scheme that’s supposed to look after everyone.

      There are other influences that heighten the result. In the entry I mention the liberal mood in which it seems that only the cultural other exists because it’s so hard to connect the Western liberal ego to concrete reality. There is also horizontal transcendence—from the point of view of a Cartesian atheist the existence of other minds becomes a stupendous mystery that substitutes for religion and leads to the deification of the other, the more “other” the better.

  2. blogging
    I’m really glad you’ve returned to blogging. This is meat and potatoes stuff – I love it, and could eat it all day and night. Thank you very much. Mike

  3. blogging
    Jim, you’re such a sound, organized, penetrating blogger. Is that habit difficult for you to get into, given what blogs and the internet are more typically—that is, settings where information gets severely disconnected and broken apart? There’s not really anything as coherent as coherent and carefully constructed as Turnabout elsewhere on the internet.

    • Free to be you and me
      The basic point of a blog is that the blogosphere isn’t particularly spherical so a blog can be anything at all. I puzzle over problems and write up what I think about them, other people like to mix it up with other bloggers. I’m sure there are others who publish sonnets or solutions to chess problems as a series of blog posts.

  4. natural law and liberalism
    I have something of a quandary—perhaps you can help me. It appears to me that a number of high profile conservative thinkers are trying to link natural law and liberalism in a direct way. That is, liberty is without a doubt the result of natural law thinking, and natural law thinking funds liberty and equality in a self-evident sort of way. In this scenario, something like opposition to abortion must be linked to political liberalism, for it alone explicitly provides for the “dignity of the person” in an enduring manner. In reverse, political liberalism must be pro-life or it has destroyed its title deeds.

    There are other spin-offs from this: civil rights and abolitionism are sacred; King and Mandela can wash their garments, and become unspotted, in the streams of liberty and equality (irrespective of any other concerns about them), etc., etc.

    Am I misconstuing this relation? If not, is it not the case that conservatism is simply “stuck” at present? And isn’t the whole project of a “proposition nation” linked to Catholicism simply a wish with a radically contingent mooring? And won’t this small synthesis pretty much fall apart in short order? Or, if it doesn’t for a long time, will the propagation of natural law thinking actually be enhanced in any way?


    • Catholic neocons
      I think some people want to say that true liberal democracy and true natural law and true Catholicism are all the same thing. You can certainly find some overlap, and maybe you could get some mileage out of saying that Catholicism likes natural law and natural law gives an important place to some forms of freedom and equality. I don’t think the project makes that much sense overall though. Liberalism has too strong and distinct a logic of its own, so if you make a habit of using its language and categories and only using arguments it accepts you’ll end up accepting its conclusions.

        • After ideology
          As current theories lose credibility I suppose we’re likely to see some reversion to more commonsensical (i.e., natural law) understandings.

          • Certainly true
            Right, I can see how that could be true. This hangs together, of course, with your emphasis on traditionalism. It is just . . . how to say this? In the gap between the loss of credibility of the theories and the moral actions of people more directed by the moral law, there could be much turmoil, strife, and unrest, because of the failure of the old plausibility structures. This makes the future murkier than ever. It is hard to know what to hope for, politically, at least. Now in Spe Salve the pope certainly has an idea about hope, but this is hope on the level of something transcendent like the natural law itself.

            A follow-up question might be: How, outside of the Catholic Church, are people supposed to ACT on the natural law and LEARN about it at the same time? Doesn’t the Church have the monopoly on both the chicken and the egg?


          • I’m as pessimistic as the
            I’m as pessimistic as the next guy with regard to the next few decades and very likely beyond. You never know though.

            On the second question, people do learn by doing to some degree. I do think though that the Church is basically in a strong position during a time of troubles. It may have problems but everybody else has even more problems.

Leave a Comment