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A Short Introduction to the Proceedings of the Conference “The Reason of Passions: Emotion and Rationality in the Landscape of (Contemporary) Politics”

We are well aware that political life has always dealt with passions. But today it seems, in fact, that the liberal, rationalistic approach to politics has been almost completely replaced by its emotional dimension. Therefore, it seems necessary to explore the changing ways in which thought and feeling, rationality and passion, reason and sentiments, have been understood both in practice and in theoretical discussions, focusing on their public standing.

This issue contains the refined version of the papers presented at the conference on this topic, held in a period of two days at the University of Bergen in November 2019. The conference was organised as a joint effort by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Bergen (UiB), Norway, and the Department of Antiquity, Philosophy and History (DAFIST) of the University of Genoa, Italy.

The purpose of this conference was to approach the topic of the relations between rationality and emotions, wondering which part do they actually play in politics. In many ways, politics is the art of persuasion and often people are indeed persuaded to position  themselves on a given subject by emotional appeals rather than reasonable arguments. Within the political sphere, both past and present, one can actually find a complex mixture of rational arguments and emotional discourses.

In the dominant Western philosophical tradition, the relationship between reason and emotions has been marked by a conflict between various contrasting models of rationality and emotions. The sphere of rationality and that of passions have been often categorized according to a fundamental dichotomy: either the triumph of reason against the weakness of sentiments or, in the popular interpretation of Hume, the triumph of passions over reason. This dichotomy has also served as a starting base for conceptualizing politics, where already early-modern political theorists defined political autonomy as reason dominating the emotions and passions.

In The Passions and the Interests (1977), Albert Hirschman described how, in the process of modernization, the “passions”, motivating social and political behavior were transformed into modern “interests” and they were thereby assigned the role of containing the social and political destructive passions.

Until recent times, theorists have described both political movements and political affiliation as based on beliefs, ethics, and sentiments. In the last years, though, an “Affective Turn” has taken place both in analytic and continental philosophy, and in contemporary political studies. Emotions and affects are now becoming the object of extensive, multidisciplinary studies that challenge political liberalism’s idea that the emotions must be relegated to the private sphere. This “turn” highlights that the political cannot be understood without reference to human feelings.

However, the fundamental dichotomy between emotions and reason has not at all been overcome in the forms of current politics. While it is true that, today, emotions and passions are returning to the centre of the political scene, they often do so in a passive form. Contemporary politics consists more and more in an abuse and manipulation of the passions. Social media, for instance, has redefined the public sphere in ways that allow charismatic, intimidating and even hateful rhetoric to stand unchecked by editorial control. The space of public discussion has also increased to the point where quick “instinctive reactions” replace careful reasoning. One could ask if the “affective” political change consists in an increasingly oppressive use of the passions as forms of domination. The active function of passions and the way they can contribute to the processes of political democratisation and the conscious involvement of citizens need to be duly analysed; albeit always keeping in mind that  passions are ambiguous, for any feeling within a given political context, even the noblest – compassion and love, inter alia –, holds its limits and presupposes dangers.

This motivates the following questions: Do emotions, of any kind, pose a dangerous threat to rationality and political life? What, for instance, becomes of democracy when a rigorous and rational language in political debates is replaced by one that focuses on emotions, like hope or fear? Is it possible to build  up a democratic society with no recourse to passions, mutual trust and a belief in the right of every individual to participate in the social and political debates? If so, what kind of emotions are positive and what kind of emotions do hinder this development?

A key aim of the conference was seeking to define the possible paths of reflection on this topic and study the relationships between reason and emotions, concepts of rationality and “structures of feelings” as a marker of the political arena.

The European research team that has long been engaged in social and ethical reflection about cultural changes in the modern and contemporary epoch chose to address these questions by a variety of approaches.

At the opening of the conference Anat Biletzki questions populism in the light of the relationship between reasons and passions, and wonders if it is an ideology or a tool. Retracing different definitions given by political scholars, Biletzki notes how some such as Kazin and Urbinati define populism as an instrument while others, such as Mudde, Kaltwasser and Pappas, consider it as an ideology. Through an in-depth analysis of the different forms of populism, the article highlights how, understood as a rhetorical tool, it can be used for the most different and contrasting ideologies of the right or left. If populism is an ideology, that is to say, a vision of the world that has people as the highest value, it implies a form of politics that combines reason and passion. And although on the right it can deteriorate into fascism, it can work on the left to extend democracy, as it requires to overcome a purely rationalist idea of ​​politics.

Some of articles have a common starting point in our time politics, that sees the advance of populism even in democratic countries; a populism characterized and also empowered by an emotional rhetoric, focused on what we could call negative passions such as hatred and anger.

Many papers try to understand this phenomenon and propose politically positive emotions, not without critical remarks. As Anne Granberg does: faced with Marta Nussbaum’s proposal to encourage socially positive emotions including compassion, she detects the limits of this suggestion and takes up Hanna Arendt’s observation that compassion is essentially an apolitical emotion.

After recalling several scholars, from Walter Lippmann to Edward Bernays and, closer to us, William Davies, according to whom politics was increasingly connected and based on both individual and collective emotions, Alberto Giordano highlights how post-truth and polarization threaten liberal democracy, since they persuade people to rely more on feelings rather than facts, in such a way as to manipulate collective decision-making. Recent suggestions to limit the influence of political emotions, such as epistocracy and e-democracy, seem not sufficiently sound both theoretically and practically. Giordano thus proposes an intergenerational republican compact as a possible and provisional solution to post-truth dilemmas.

More oriented towards overcoming the rigid dualism of reason and passions, Juliette Grange tries to define the “reasoned feeling”. After highlighting the convergence of the “affective sciences”, and the philosophical attention to emotions delivered by populism, Grange argues that the “reasoned feeling” is embodied by the republican passion for certain political ideals. Enthusiasm for an idea or an ideal, altruism and a culture based on knowledge and science, are basic traits of this feeling. The reasoned feeling is the founder of a civilization and a social morality proper to scientific and technical modernity. In order to be realized, this feeling must be combined with political rationality understood as a form of rationalism that allows “a plurality of axiological and social choices and the public space of their confrontation”.

The solution to the emotional dangers inherent in political options, regimes, opinions given by classical utopias is analysed by Jean Christophe Merle and compared with the imaginary dystopias of the 20th century. The utopias of the early modern times were proposed as a solution to the absolute political evil, namely discord, rivalry, desire to possess, domination and glory; and as an alternative to the classical theories of social contract. Dystopias, in so far as they constitute the opposite of the democratic and liberal rule of law, are based on the eradication of its members’ ability to think and act rationally. The failure of both shows the human inability to live without confronting the evil and the extreme difficulty in which attempts to resist the dystopian order often occur.

New signs of kindness and politeness to follow in social relations can help counteract the increase in passions and violent reaction in our democratic societies: here is Mirella Pasini’s proposal. After going over the old Galateo of Monsignor Della Casa and the new one by Melchiorre Gioia, she wonders if Gioia’s prescriptive goal of spreading civil education as part of the process of training citizens of a democratic nation could be a suggestion for our time. Almost the same proposal is virtually opposed by the agonistic and competitive rhetoric of the Norwegian public intellectual and author Georg Johannesen (1931-2005), illustrated by Hans Marius Hansteen, and proposed as a way to promote peace.

The speeches by Giorgio Baruchello and Pascal Nouvel, respectively, open to the epistemological dimension and the positive and negative role of emotions in the construction of knowledge, with its obvious ethical and political consequences.

Baruchello addresses the prejudice issue, whose area ranges from the cognitive sphere to the social dimension, according to a plurality and multiplicity of meanings that cannot be reduced to a single negative level. Faced with the inevitability of prejudice or the not-so-argued need to overcome it as a “poorly formed opinion, an unreasonable belief, an unjustified false assumption, a negative feeling”, Baruchello affirms the need to investigate its polysemy, also in the history of philosophical thought. By following this path, we could overcome prejudice as a source of error and bad behaviour.

Pascal Nouvel, on his side, questions the nature of political errors; because, if emotions and affects play a key role in politics, they can also play a role in political errors. A better knowledge of what is specific in political errors could therefore help to understand the relationships between reason and emotions, between rationality and “structures of feelings”. His starting point is the modern distinction – laid down by Machiavelli – between political errors and other fashions, with which they have long been mixed. In a brief “history of error”, Nouvel distinguishes four types, that is: perceptual error, conceptual error, moral error and, finally, political error, still not well defined. A key point is the distinction between moral error and political error, which appears to be speculative rather than factual. Understanding the nature of the political error can be useful in order to modify the affects: this is the basic thesis. As for the method, the narrative approach is in Nouvel’s intention a powerful way to manage political issues and, in some cases, avoid political errors.

The importance of political affections in contemporary European society is underlined by Paola de Cuzzani, who remembers at the beginning of her paper the rapid spread of growing xenophobic and racist sentiments, anti-Semitism, discrimination and violence against migrants, blacks and Muslims. For de Cuzzani the implications of these sentiments for the stability of our liberal democratic societies are evident. Spinoza’s theory of imitation of affects can help us in our attempt to understand the ease with which negative feelings come to be diffused even in the most civilized and democratic societies. It also clarifies the dangers that these negative feelings pose for the stability of the body politic.

It remains to be asked whether Spinoza’s lesson can also be useful in a positive way, in order to provide us with tools to fight negative affects, while not running the risk to erase affectivity but rather promoting a positive one.

Such is the legacy that this rich selection of papers offers for future studies and meetings of the research group.

Post-Truth, Polarization and Other Emotional Threats to Democracy

On a cold pre-winter evening in London, November 23, 2019, the celebrated comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was awarded a prize by the Anti-Diffamation League. During the ceremony, he delivered a passionate speech focused on the threats posed by fake news, new media and their intensive stimulation of the emotive sphere of individual citizens, linking it all to the crisis presently hitting Western democracies:

Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat; and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Today, around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. Hate crimes are surging as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history (Baron Cohen 2019).

As long as it goes, the speech raises many questions which deserve to be dealt with in academic debates as well. Why do emotions shape the arena of contemporary politics? Are post-truth and polarization the most powerful tools of the populist approach to politics? Do they pose a challenge to liberal democracy? How can we bring back rationality in public deliberation and political discourse?

In this short paper I will try to show how intellectuals are treating these issues, at first sketching briefly the role of emotions both in classical propaganda and contemporary analyses; secondly, I will focus on the dispute regarding post-truth and polarization by connecting these issues to the spread of populism. Additionally I will offer a critical survey of some up-to-date theoretical solutions to those dilemmas and finally try to assess a partial and provisional proposal, hopefully useful to build a working paradigm to take hold of passions and bind politics to a more rational and prospective approach.

 

Propaganda and Emotions

There is nothing new in the attempt to get rid of rationality and strike the emotional side of our perceptions. Walter Lippmann, in his classical study on public opinion, insisted on the gnoseological weakness of mankind and the persistence of stereotypes which, for a great number of individuals, were nothing but «an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 95). This is why war propaganda, in the years of WWI, had revealed so effective, since it was targeted to stimulate an emotional answer through a more or less overt appeal to stereotypes and prejudices.

But it was Edward Bernays to make clear, in some astonishingly explicit statements, that commercial and political communication was increasingly connected and grounded on both individual and collective emotions, shaped by a bunch of professionals:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. […] Trotter and Le Bon concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits and emotions. […] By playing upon an old cliché, or manipulating a new one, the propagandist can sometimes swing a whole mass of group emotions. […] Men are rarely aware of the main reasons which motivate their actions. A man may believe that he buys a motor car because, after careful study of the technical features of all makes on the market, he has concluded that this is the best. He is almost certainly fooling himself (Bernays 1928: 9, 50, 51).

Bernays had learned much from his participation to the celebrated Committee on Public Information, created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to persuade American public opinion of the necessity to enter the war. The head himself of the Committee, the journalist George Creel, described its proceedings in terms of an attempt to convey public emotions in an effort to sell a product: the American commitment in WWI (Creel 1920). In fact it was precisely the industry of advertising, both commercial and political, to benefit more and more from the growing challenge to bypass the threshold of rationality.

It was precisely this phenomenon to be denounced by Vance Packard in his well-known book The Hidden Persuaders, where he spoke with the loudest voice against «the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions and our thought processes» (Packard 1957: 1). The pattern is still valid; something more needs to be added, though.

In the last decades, according to William Davies, the building blocks of modernity have fallen apart. And what we see is a widespread decline of reason in favour of a concrete state of public and private phrenzy:

The modern world was founded upon two fundamental distinctions, both inaugurated in the mid-seventeenth century: between mind and body and between war and peace. These two distinctions appear to have lost credibility altogether, with the result that we now experience conflict intruding into everyday life [] As society has been flooded by digital technology, it has grown harder to specify what belongs to the mind and what to the body, what is peaceful dialogue and what is conflict. In the murky space between body and mind, between war and peace, lie nervous states: individuals and governments living in a state of constant and heightened alertness, relying increasingly on feelings rather than facts (Davies 2019: xi-xii).

But if emotions rule the world, the political impact of this very fact cannot but be huge. Davies explicitly states that «feelings of nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear» were involved in «populist uprisings, as manifest in the victories of Donald Trump, the Brexit campaign and a wave of nationalist surges across Europe» (Davies 2019: xiv). And even though he is prudent and honest in admitting that these are mere symptoms, not the cause of nervous states, he nonetheless depicts a scenario which deserves to be fully appreciated:

Since the late nineteenth century, nationalists have sought to manufacture popular mobilizations by conjuring up memories of past wars and enthusiasm for future ones. But something else has happened more recently, which has quietly fed the spirit of warfare into civilian life, making us increasingly combative. The emphasis on “real time” knowledge that was originally privileged in war has become a feature of the business world, of Silicon Valley in particular. The speed of knowledge and decision making becomes crucial, and consensus is sidelined in the process. Rather than trusting experts, on the basis that they are neutral and outside the fray, we have come to rely on services that are fast, but whose public status is unclear (Davies 2019: xvi).

Therefore, we should address the following question: are post-truth and polarization somehow connected with contemporary populism and fostered by new media?

 

Post-truth, Populism and Polarization  

The phenomenon called ‘post-truth’ has been defined as «relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief» (Oxford Dictionaries 2016). Quite a controversial definition, indeed, since contemporary philosophy has been teaching us that “facts” and “truth” are very contested concepts (Schantz [ed.] 2002). Aside from the epistemological quarrels, however, Lee McIntyre has correctly suggested that «what is striking about the idea of post-truth is not just that truth is been challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance». But it’s not just that: «what seems new in the post-truth era is a challenge just not to the idea of knowing reality but to the existence of reality itself» (McIntyre 2018: xiv, 10).

Both points are essential in order to understand why the most relevant political events of the last 5 years are somehow connected to the post-truth paradigm. Quoting again from McIntyre’s brilliant research:

With the largely fact-free campaign over Brexit in Great Britain – where hundreds of buses advertised the bogus statistic that the UK was sending 350 millions euros a week to the EU – and the growing use of disinformation campaigns by politicians against their own people in Hungary, Russia, and Turkey, many see post-truth as part of a growing international trend where some feel emboldened to try to bend reality to fit their opinions, rather than the other way around. This is not a campaign to say that facts do not matter, but instead a conviction that facts can always be shaded, selected and presented within a political context that favors one interpretation of truth over another (McIntyre 2018: 5-6).

No surprise that Donald Trump revealed himself a champion of this trend. The day after his inaugural address the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told journalists that «this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe» (Spicer 2017). What’s the reason behind such a harsh statement? The fact that many international newspapers published a photograph which portrayed the not-so-exciting popular attendance to Trump’s inaugural compared to Obama’s 2009 (the most attended inaugural so far). The press reacted with both irony and dismay, criticizing the White House’s improbable strategy; so that the senior aide to the President, Kellyanne Conway, felt compelled to address the astonished NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd with a sentence that soon became considerably popular: «don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood…Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that» (Conway 2017).

It is common knowledge that populism plays with a wide range of emotions, in order to flatter ‘the people’: anger, pride, loyalty, hate, mistrust, insecurity and so many more. Populists, though, deal especially with fear: Ruth Wodak correctly wrote, in her most relevant book, that «currently we observe a normalization of nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and antisemitic rhetoric, which primarily works with fear» (Wodak 2015: x). And yet something new happened in the last few years: populism dances systematically with the denial of facts and dismiss the search for truth as a shared social goal. Why? The Australian scholar Silvio Waisbord recently offered a persuading response:

Populism rejects the possibility of truth as a common normative horizon and collective endeavour in democratic life. […] The root of populism’s opposition to truth is its binary vision of politics. For populism, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ hold their own version of truth. All truths are necessarily partial and anchored social interests. Truth does not exist as collective, common goal. A common truth is impossible given the essential nature of agonistic, conflict-centred politics. Instead, truth-seeking politics entails the reaffirmation of ‘popular’ truths against ‘elite’ lies. […] Facts never change the unfalsifiable premise of populism – the eternal division of ‘pure people’ and ‘evil elites’. This conception of politics turns into a political fantasy that cannot ever be proven wrong. Populism dismisses facts that challenge overriding narratives. No matter what happens, populism obstinately clings to the notion that elites are always in power and continue to distort the truth through their institutions. Populism can never be corrected by its critics. […] Preserving a populist, fact-proof narrative is necessary to safeguard the vision that truth is always on one the side and that lies are inevitably on the other side. Facts belong to one or other camp. Facts are not neutral, but they are political owned and produced. Post-truth communication is exactly where populism wants politics to be – the realm of divided truth, binary thinking, and broken-up communication (Waisbord 2018: 25-26, 30).

This being true, we’d find it easier to understand why populists foster polarization, mostly by means of social media. According to Cass Sunstein, polarization occurs «when members of a deliberating group move toward a more extreme point in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ pre-deliberation tendency» (Sunstein 1999: 3-4). Because of polarization a free and fair public debate becomes virtually impossible since citizens are trapped inside the so-called ‘echo-chambers’. This is particularly valid when applied to many political communities online, most notably belonging to the alt-right (Neiwert 2017: 213-261). Polarization, of course, shouldn’t be confused with partisanship, which Jonathan White and Lea Ypi defined as «a practice that involves citizens acting to promote certain shared normative commitments according to a distinctive interpretation of the public good» and whose goal «is to make their concerns heard in the public sphere so that they may be brought to bear on the course of collective decision making» (White and Ypi 2011: 382). What is more, social media play a significant role in a wide series of collateral phenomena connected with polarization and the poisoning of public debate itself:

How might social media, the explosion of communication options, machine learning, and artificial intelligence alter the capacity of citizens to govern themselves? To the extent that social media allow us to create our very own feeds, and essentially live in them, they create serious problems. Self-insulation and personalization are solutions to some genuine problems, but they also spread falsehood, and promote polarization and fragmentation (Sunstein 2017: 5).

A recent report produced by the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS 2019) set forth a distinction between two types of polarization:

1) polarization by design;

2) polarization by manipulation.

The first is focused on the inner structure of social media and suggest that they «could be driving citizens apart by encouraging the dissemination of increasingly partisan and emotionally-charged content». But the second is even worse, since social media not only «have proven susceptible to amplifying the reach of polarising and conspiratorial content and spreading it into the public mainstream» but they host «influence campaigns designed to sow division and manipulate the public thrive» by means of «bots, junk news and propaganda». The result is that «these tactics have become entrenched in political discourse where foreign and domestic actors rely on them to influence political life» (EPRS 2019: 17, 24).

Post-truth and polarization, in sum, threaten democracy in so far as they emphasize disruptive emotions in order to manipulate procedures of collective (as well as individual) opinion and decision-making. The question thus now being: how can we anchor politics to a more rational pattern and minimize both the explosion of manipulated emotiveness and the dangers of authoritarian populism?

 

Two Alleged Remedies: A Critical Survey

Aside from ‘technical’ interventions (social media self-regulation, anti-fake news/hate speech laws, digital literacy etc.) we can find on the marketplace of ideas a bunch of normative approaches which aim to bring back rationality by means of two principles: knowledge and participation. In this paragraph I will offer a quick but (hopefully) consistent critical survey of the most relevant two: epistocracy and e-democracy.

In his ground-breaking book Against Democracy, the American philosopher Jason Brennan argues that we should give epistocracy a try given the (low) epistemic skills of the citizenry. In fact, he distinguishes between three categories of citizens, conceived as ideal types in Max Weber’s terms:

1) Hobbits: individuals who do not care about politics nor know anything about it. They may sometimes vote but their behaviour is irrational, and their ignorance certified.

2) Hooligans: deeply polarized and biased voters. They seek information only in so far as it confirms their political beliefs and «tend to despise people who disagree with them, holding that people with alternative worldviews are stupid, evil, selfish, or at best, deeply misguided».

3) Vulcans: a restricted minority of citizens who «think scientifically and rationally about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They are interested in politics, but at the same time, dispassionate, in part because they actively try to avoid being biased and irrational» (Brennan 2016a: 4-5).

Though admitting that the majority of democratic citizens belong to the first two groups, Brennan points out that the final destination of a political regime shouldn’t consist in investing Vulcans with power, given the fact that «no one manages to be a true vulcan; everyone is at least a little biased». But he is pretty sure that democratic participation doesn’t make us better: quite the reverse, the «most common forms of political engagements are more likely to corrupt and stultify than to ennoble and educate people» (Brennan 2016a: 6, 55), turning most citizens into hooligans. Therefore, we could and should put a strict limit to the damages caused by polarization, the rule of emotions and incompetence:

Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence. The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent (Brennan 2016b).

Epistocracy, then, would put a brake to the disruptiveness of emotions by giving priority, in the participation to decision-making processes, to those individuals deemed rational and competent. Practical solutions may vary – restricted suffrage, plural voting, enfranchisement lottery, epistocratic veto or weighted voting (Brennan 2016a: 15) – but the inner logic is always the same.

On the opposite side of the political and theoretical spectrum, e-democracy theorists clam that digital technologies, and most notably the internet, may help us in re-shaping democracy as a shared practice grounded on the participation of any citizen to debate and decision-making. These beliefs have been cherished since the first days of the digital revolution; so that, for instance, Nicholas Negroponte claimed that «the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable» and that «computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living» (Negroponte 1995: 4, 6). Besides, being digital would have changed the face of politics like never before:

As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighbourhoods in which digital space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role. […] While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices. These kids are released from the limitation of geographic proximity as the sole basis of friendship, collaboration, play and neighbourhood. Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony (Negroponte 1995: 7, 230).

The last fifteen years have witnessed a strong and unprecedented «deployment of online decision-making platforms» that «has a clear utopian element» since it is «presented as the means of making politics more democratic and direct» (Gerbaudo 2018: 5). Of course we may find more technical and neutral approaches that focus on a new type of citizen, «surrounded by public administration digital services» and «the transition from his traditional role and behaviour to the new ones» (Ronchi 2019: 2). But the most relevant contributions to the e-democracy paradigm come from the recognition of the highly positive role of «the flexible organizational affordances and mass outreach potential of social media» (Gerbaudo 2018: 6) and digital technology in fostering popular participation both at a party level (such is the case of the platforms provided by Podemos, the Five Star Movement or the German Pirates) and, more broadly, in the realm of direct democracy, all over the world and particularly in Europe (Hennen et al. [ed.], 2020). Online participatory procedures, it is thought, not only will reduce the distance between the people and the establishment, but contribute to the attempt of neutering the emotion-led propaganda practices and bring the voice of public opinion inside the most sacred palaces of power – a reason very close to the one shared by those who support sortition as a means of selecting representatives (Van Reybrouck 2016).

Unfortunately enough, both epistocracy and e-democracy seem marked by a number of contradictions which would render them unable to stand as useful solutions to the dilemmas above mentioned. As to epistocracy, there is no serious guarantee – like many critics of Brennan’s account have duly noted (Christiano 2018: 68-72) – that superior knowledge necessarily imply more rational and less biased decisions, particularly if we forget to consider socio-economic cleavages and their effect on public opinion. What is more, granting every citizen equal political rights might help institutions to ‘sterilize’ emotions: that’s why Hans Kelsen classically praised proceduralism and mutual recognition between majority and minorities as the basis for constitutional democracy (Kelsen 2013 [1920]).

When it comes to e-democracy, we cannot but put forward the obvious reflection that, in absence of any instrument to lead individuals avoiding post-truth communication and polarization fuelled by social media, political participation by means of online platforms will not likely reduce personal and collective biases. This is why some authors have warned that «despite the promise to allow for a more bottom-up involvement in the political process, with authentic engagement from the base of participants in important decisions», it is «more top-down forms of democracy of the representative and plebiscitary kind that have ultimately prevailed in terms of the participation they have attracted and of the political impact they have produced» (Gerbaudo 2018: 127).

What do we need, then, to minimize the influence of post-truth, polarization and any other threat posed to liberal democracy by the predominance of unchecked emotions? In my view, we should try to implement a threefold strategy:

  • a long-term perspective embodied in an intergenerational constitutional compact;
  • the spread of informed and reasoned participation to decision-making;
  • the right to rational and discursive dissent within a democratic institutional arrangement.

 

A Modest Proposal: The Road Towards Intergenerational Republican Democracy

It is not my aim, in this brief, final section of the paper, to outline a plan able to translate into a comprehensive normative theory, but also to put into practice, the three aforementioned pillars. Rather, I will try to submit some modest suggestions for future attempts to sketch such a model, that I would provisionally label Intergenerational Republican Democracy.

As to the first point, it seems to me that the first step towards a more rational approach to politics must include the implementation of an intergenerational perspective in any field of the decision-making process. Intergenerational justice, we should recall, has made a significant comeback in the last decade (Gosseries and Meyer [eds.] 2012; Thompson 2013), substantially driven by the urgency to address environmental issues; but its scope goes even beyond this fundamental concern.

Even though we cannot accept the easy justification submitted by James Madison, according to whom «there seems then to be a foundation in the nature of things, in the relation which one generation bears to another, for the descent of obligations from one to another» since «equity requires it» and «mutual good is promoted by it» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 191), it wouldn’t be so hard to agree that an intergenerational, long-term view would suit the scope of rendering collective decisions less subject to manipulation, irrationality and haste. How? For instance, introducing into democratic constitutions the requirement for an intergenerational political compact, granting an equitable share to each generation’s future expectations in drafting the guidelines of public policy and law-making (even at a constitutional level) while binding every actor to the respect of fundamental human rights already enacted.

But how can each generation contribute to this complex procedure? By means, I would suggest, of a mechanism inspired by the so-called ‘deliberative opinion poll’ envisaged by James Fishkin (Fishkin 1991 and 1995), which consists in «exposing random samples to balanced information, encouraging them to weigh opposite arguments in discussions with heterogeneous interlocutors, and then harvesting their more considered opinions» (Fishkin and Luskin 2005: 287). The system would bear the advantages of rational deliberation – that is, being informed, balanced, conscientious, substantive and comprehensive – and political equality, since «every citizen has an equal chance of being chosen to participate» (Fishkin and Luskin 2005: 285, 286). This tool was conceived precisely in order to overcome polarization, misinformation and any other propaganda device, and seems particularly useful to supply policymakers with reasonable (in the Rawlsian sense) contributions, even from an intergenerational standpoint.

This all should be accompanied, in my view, by a series of special provisions which would grant a right to dissent very close to the model of ‘democratic contestability’ sketched by Philip Pettit, who maintained that «if a constitutionalist system of law is necessary for the promotion of freedom, then it should be clear that something else is needed too». This component may be represented by «the ideal of a democracy based, not on the alleged consent of the people, but rather on the contestability by the people of everything that government does», which practically means providing «systematic possibilities for ordinary people to contest the doings of government», in order «to ensure…that governmental doings are fit to survive popular contestation» (Pettit 1997: 183, 277). Institutionalizing dissent could possibly lead to freeze opposition conceived as a spread of polarized and biased hostility and foster constructive criticism within constitutional boundaries.

Are these approaches theoretically compatible? And will they suffice in establishing a working paradigm? I must confess I have no clear answers – not yet, at least. Likewise, it seems rather hard to make any serious forecast on the possible practical outcomes of the project, nor is this my main purpose right now. I just wanted to shed light on some troublesome challenges for each scholar in the realm of political sciences and start to add another little piece to the intricated puzzle of the long-debated connections between constitutional democracy, public opinion, populism and emotions in contemporary politics.

 

References

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Fishkin, J.S. (1991), Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform, New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Fishkin, J.S. (1995), The Voice of the People. Public Opinion and Democracy, New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Fishkin, J.S. and Luskin, R.C. (2005), Experimenting with a Democratic ideal: Deliberative Polling and Public Opinion, Acta Politica, 40: 284-298.

Gerbaudo, P. (2018), The Digital Party. Political Organisation and Online Democracy, London: Pluto Press.

Gosseries, A.P. and Meyer, L.H. (eds.)(2012), Intergenerational Justice, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Hennen, L. (et al. eds.)(2020), European E-Democracy in Practice, Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland.

Ignatieff, M. and. Roch, S. (eds.)(2018), Rethinking Open Society: New Adversaries and New Opportunities, Budapest and New York: Central European University Press.

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A Reasoned Feeling, beyond the Contrast between Reason and Emotion

Juliette Grange

University of Tours

A reasoned feeling, beyond the contrast between reason and emotion.

Abstract

The aims of this paper are 1) to quickly describe and analyze the criticims of rationalism in The Affective Sciences and above all, to formulate the hypothesis of an indirect but undeniable link with populist and neoconservative movements. 2) To clarify the status of republican rationalism. 3) To make a philosophical offer that goes beyond the emotion/reason dualism in the political field. Thus, attention will be paid to define a “reasoned feeling”. Passion towards certain political ideals can, in our opinion, be coupled with the coldness of rationalism, the informed consideration of legal needs or institutional complexities.

“Emotions”,“Populism”,“Illiberal democracy”, “Public reason”, “Republican debate”, “French Republicanism”, “Affective Sciences”, “Philosophy and political capacity”, “Freedom of Opinion”

Our time is marked by two important innovation. The first one concerns the spreading of illiberal democracies which, in many formerly democrat or republican countries (in a continental sense), set up populist leaderships as the United States, Poland, Brazil and Hungary.  United Kingdom and France aren’t definitively spared. In fact, in those countries, democracy is drained of its inner self, without military takeover or electoral manipulation. Political feelings such as virulent hatred for foreigners, enthusiasm for egocrats, rejection of elected representatives, academics and journalists, which characterized extremist or inconspicuous groups, are openly and violently expressed: these feelings are well established. As a result, Public Reason (Habermas), republican debate seems impossible in front of emotional rhetoric.

The second innovation is the enthusiasm for affective science supposed to be initiated in biology and neurology of emotions. A proliferation of philosophical or human sciences books or texts, describing the richness of beliefs and the impossibility to distinguish them from exact knowledge, goes together with direct or indirect questioning of rationalism and modernity. Cognitivism makes a clean sweep of the most classical philosophical references (Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Comte) and this, in part, within the universities themselves.

The affective and emotional Turn

The Director of the “Institute for the Neurological Study of Emotion and Creativity” (California) proclaims the “Descartes’Error”[1]. According to this brain specialist called Damasio, reasoning or thinking are not necessary for an effective action. On the contrary, “it is as if there were a passion founding reason, an impulse that originates from the depths of the brain, creeps into the other levels of the nervous system which finally translates itself into the perception of an emotion or an unconscious influence that is guiding decision making. [2]

Long neglected by Sciences and Philosophy, the new field of Affective Science includes Psychology of Emotions, Social Cognition, Computer Science (which would mould the emotional phenomena). These specialties can be found in many universities, for example in Geneva. “To do quickly, in the current studies, everything seems to begin with the improvement of a thematic field based on wide-ranging institutional and financial investments, as Damien Boquet points out when he contextualizes his EMMA project on its dedicated blog. These investments are based on the notion of “emotion” and not on those of “sensibility”, “affect” or “feelings”. And it is certainly not only a matter of a dominant English language, but also an epistemological matter that deserves attention. Because these enormous investments don’t testify to a new, disinterested taste, but also to a new political will that revives the aim to be able to deal with human subjects. Emotions constitute a strategic applied research field which benefits from war sector resources. Once again, psychological war looks for tools that would allow it’s unravelling the mysteries of “human nature”, in the sense of a human functioning that would not be restricted by cultural and historical determinations, but by anthropological and psychological invariants, a physiology. Thus understanding how human matter is constituted and how it works, in order to understand how to act on it. Actually, the major international institutes work with psychology that is rather close to cognitivism, neuroscience and history of science. There are certainly some means left for some other knowledges, but they are the margins of this renewed curiosity. Heavy investments are on the sides of the sciences that are the least suspected of literary lightness. [3]

It is not about giving a scientific basis to the modern transformation described by Hirschmann in The passions and the Interests[4]. From the 18th century onwards, for Hirschmann, the violence of passions was restricted by soft trade and the utilitarian search of interest. It is not a matter for the political scientist to affirm the existence of natural emotions base, which would be the basis of any action or decision, even in politics. Damasio[5] distinguishes passions, emotions and feelings. Emotions are close to the biological basis of behaviors, they escape from consciousness. Feelings would be subject to socio-historical variations. If it exists, the reasoned choice is always built on an emotional base, there can be choices and opinions that are opaque to any objective approach of legitimization.

Reason and emotions in French republicanism

Republicanism is a rare case in history; a concrete political practice that give way to philosophy[6]. This is not philosophy that would grant itself a political role. There is a role for philosophical ideas, individual reason of each citizen is claimed to be an instrument of decision. Because normative theory can’t establish a republican policy, it is not a question of finding an ultimate political foundation, a truth, nor is it a question of justifying practices (by an ideology), nor of breaking up the contradictions of reality. The role of ideas is specific.

The debate through the expression of opposition from two antagonistic points of view or political model is characteristic of modern political life. If the republic is a parti-pris (Alain), it is a constructed but revisable norm. Revisable because constructed and therefore questionable. Republic is the call for voluntarism through the discussion of an ideal.  If then, the “protest of the intellectual” [7] amplifies the “reign of criticism” inherited from the Enlightenment no longer exists, then consensualism and “emotionalism” testify that we are in the process of forgetting this form of politics that requires sharp divisions, public opposition of points of view, a dynamic emerging from the differences of opinion between citizens and the reasoned political debate that follows. Fear of conflict or the search for unanimity bring populism and violence internally[8], it is undoubtedly appropriate today to repoliticize the public debate and expose divergences and oppositions.

The aim of this debate will be precisely to « […] critically determine the definition and implementation of an idea[9]”. Because republicanism is not a doctrine, it can only find in itself, without transcendence, assumption of a natural right or its founding principles. It is based upon an incessant reasoning concerning the various aporias that it is made of (revolution/institutions, majority/minority, individualism/unitalism). This need for reasoned reflection is precisely due to the fact that the Idea of Republic is never completely and definitively constituted, and as a result is the subject of constant questioning.

Philosophy therefore does not provide a theory for republican practice. It is just one of his instruments. “This circumstance, so new in history, of all the political education of a great people entirely made by literary people was perhaps the most important contribution to the French Revolution, its own genius and to making it what we see […]. When we study the history of our Revolution, we see that it was conducted precisely in the same spirit that led to so many abstract books on government being written. Same attraction for general theories, complete systems of legislation and exact symmetry of laws; same disregard for existing facts, same confidence in theory […][10] ”.

It is therefore necessary to define a form of rationalism that allows a plurality of axiological and social choices, as well as the common space of their confrontation. The reason we are talking about is essentially the one that has the will to judge. “Using reason is always doing the same simple and individual act that we call judging[11]”. Doubt, confrontation, reflexion, dialogue, trial and error are the processes of political, individual and collective (but individual before being collective) reasonableness.

Reason is at the centre of a public space where the various conceptions of Good are not juxtaposed, but where the search for criterion of reasoned decision is staged. Without this rationalism, the idea of an indivisible and secular republic engraved in the 1958 Constitution makes no sense. Republican public opinion will therefore be the one in which public reasoning is engaged. It is mixed with ordinary reason (the one of any educated and autonomous subject in his choices – the one of any citizen) and more specific or learned knowledge. Republicanism is therefore optimistic about the ability of all citizens to make public use of their reason. It is conditioned on the work of instruction that will realize this capacity in everyone. This republican optimism is measured and is not confused with the belief in the spontaneous ability of the people for reasoning or of society to be democratic, nor to express their natural freedom through universal suffrage[12]. There is a tension between political rationalism and the idea of the sovereign will of the people. This tension is irreducible.

Historians of thought see French 19th century republicanism as a mixture of neo-kantism and positivism[13], but what really matter here is less the doctrinal content than the very role of philosophy. A rationalist philosophy, breaking with religion and its philosophical avatars, played an essential role in 1880s France. In the continuity of the philosophies of Condorcet, the “Ideologues”, Auguste Comte, Renouvier’s reading of Kant detached from the metaphysics kantism still contains, the reading of positive philosophy by the republican disciples of Comte, the claim for “reason as foundation of the Republic” (Alain), will serve as philosophical guarantee[14].

It should be noted that there are theories of knowledge and not political philosophies that most often serve as a basis for the indirect political role of philosophy. At that time in France, it was a question of “being a society” other than through Catholic rites and rhythms. If religions are accepted as individual beliefs, public space (the symbolic places of social and political identity) and knowledge in general can no longer proceed from them. Philosophies are therefore called upon as theories of knowledge or philosophy of science, less in their own content than as a vehicle for a possible social rupture, that of mentalities.

“French Republic ensures freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of worship under the sole restrictions set out below in the interest of public order[15]“. Pluralism of beliefs, religious or not, is thus legally guaranteed. Neither society nor institutions can refer to a single value system without debate. Reasoning and dissent require a specific use of convictions, (religious ones included) a use that relativizes them because they require confrontation on a background of neutrality. Neuter: ” Neither one nor the other “.

Public space is not the place where points of view are juxtaposed, nor is it the place of the absolute convictions clashing, but the place where individual points of view are confronted in order to reach a temporary agreement. Strictly speaking, this is a question of laicity (french version for secularism). Laos in Greek means “undivided population”. “Is secular, in this sense, what concerns all the people, regardless of the various beliefs that divide them” reminds us opportunely Henri Pena-Ruiz[16]. “Human diversity and the unity of the political and legal community, which makes it possible to ensure their coexistence, must be reconciled[17]“. Laicity concerns the very definition of public life, this balance between unitism and the expression of divergences. It should therefore not be considered only as just freedom of conscience or the separation between public and private.

It is important to consider that it is not a question of tolerance, in the sense of allowing private convictions to be expressed, but rather ensuring public confrontation of points of view, whether religious or not (there are idolatries other than religious). The despotism that republicanism fights is due to the absence of public relativization of convictions (whether they are theocracies or neo-liberalism, for instance). Therefore, strictly speaking, a secular education doesn’t promise any conviction, it exercises the necessary reasoning practices to confront points of view. Secular neutrality will therefore be the political guarantee for this space of confrontation of absolute convictions, which are thus obliged to change, to tend to relativize their positions. It can deal with the expression of convictions of any kind, because it is the acceptance of this public confrontation, the exercise of relativization of values and beliefs that constitutes laicity. This space must be politically and legally guaranteed even if it also has a social meaning.

This space of reasoned confrontation of opinions and convictions is an ideal, it is impossible because we are not a people of gods. It is possible as the ideal of reason, the political and spiritual ideal of peaceful intersubjectivity. It is an everyday plebiscite, a controlled conviction, a spiritual principle that leans on knowledge. “On what principles, especially since the Revolution, modern political societies have been founded, on what principles France rely on in particular rests, whose peril, as has often been said, but whose greatness it is to have, by its logical and intrepid spirit, pushed the very idea of Revolution to the extreme consequences? The idea, the principle of life which can be seen at work in modern societies, and in all institutions, is the act of faith in the moral and social efficiency of reason, in the value of the reasonable and teachable human person. [18]

Secularism therefore has to do with science, but in a particular way: “I do not want to speak of science as an institution, not only because it has public laboratories, but because it has such a profound impact on the children to whom it provides common data, and on the very course of social life, that it has indeed the value of an institution, an autonomous institution, an independent institution[19]“.

Neutrality (neither one nor the other), the recognition of diversity of convictions and dissensus do not lead to relativism (tolerance in the weak sense of the term). At the same time, secular Republic affirms the unity of the people despite the diversity of beliefs and convictions: the public space of their conciliation/confrontation. The existence of a regulator who is not attached to any conviction is also asserted: Sciences. While there are many convictions and beliefs, personal points of view and critical arguments, there is also a different kind of knowledge: scientific knowledge. By their questionable and collective nature, these don’t offer dogmas but verifiable certainties, although they are limited and temporary.

Republicanism is also linked to Human Sciences because it requires a renouncement of the absolute, not building castles in the air, avoiding partisan rhetoric, taking reality into account (and not from natural or divine norms or laws), an external referent, a social order already there which is somehow the material of politics: a system of opinion, an organization of production, techniques and a state of morals. This does not mean changing politics into a physics-style science, but simply involves giving up utopia and metaphysical idealism in order to confront ideas and social realities. It is not about giving power to scientists, but about basing political actions on precise knowledges. Scientists and philosophers exercise spiritual power in the manner in which, in the name of knowledge, they guarantee that plurality and complexity of social and political reality are taken into account. It is clearly about considering basic and applied research policy as an instrument for political decision-making.

The idea of founding a new city, according to a rational plan, is therefore not republican. Only utopians, revolutionaries, dreamers, philosophers, metaphysicians who despise or neglect the complexity of reality, especially in politics, could have this illusion. Everyone cannot in some way “rebuild the political world”, offer the fancy of his dreams to his fellow citizens. Republicanism, which is based on history and Human Sciences, provides the opportunity to draw on knowledge of the reality of the elements of political decision-making. But it is philosophy, not science, that is essential for republicanism: it is about will and judgment rather than knowledge, as said before. It is the bet of the possibility of individual autonomy, it is the bet of public freedom.

Republicanism therefore does not give on philosophy the leading role: it does not inform the political field. Its role is therefore more indirect and more essential: it creates the ability for autonomous judgment, it moulds the public mind. It does not transmit knowledge, therefore, it does not provide references, it does nor enlightens by the content of its proposals of its warnings. It makes the space for confrontations: between individual beliefs, between political ideals, between human sciences and hard sciences. Autonomy, the will to judge, the discipline of questioning, the consideration of divergent points of view, the courage to use one’s understanding essentially results from this.

An individual exercise towards the universal: is it therefore the discernment of individuals in facing error of the masses and crowds that is at stake? The role of intellectuals[20]? Republicanism stands on the following ground, which can be said to be both nuanced and precise: Democracy, which implies the search for collective judgment emerging from the addition of individual wills, is blinded by optimism. The tension mentioned above between the expectation of the gradual establishment of enlightened public opinion and the recognition of the population’s weak autonomy is specific to republicanism, which is both pessimistic about the people’s ability for discernment and optimistic on this point on principle. This tension leads to caution. Hope measured in the possibility of establishing peaceful relationships between men, ordered by greater equity, based on hope, which is also measured in fear and political capacity.

Freedom of opinion is the major political good, but the instrument for the existence of reasonable public opinion lays in the formation of individual judgments, a task that is never definitively accomplished. “In tendency, the republic allows the free game of reason. As a foundation, it feeds on it: it therefore produces its own basis in a virtuous circularity. Because it is the rule of reason, it allows reasons to be expressed, because it allows reasons to be expressed, it can be the rule of reason. From this point of view, the republic is justified less as a political “in itself”, than as a meeting place for a reasonable “in itself[21] ”

Social order can be changed by the will of the people and not by the one of the State. Secular neutrality is the common space of autonomous wills on which they depend in order to have the use of this autonomy of judgment. It is based on the desire to effectively consolidate political modernity which has seen the end of “the terrible absolute domination that man was able to exercise upon man during the childhood of humanity, in the name of unlimited power, applied to interests whose preponderance tended to prohibit any deliberation, is fortunately forever extinguished […][22] ”.

The power of public opinion itself will not be unlimited. Freed from traditions, modern opinion has a relative authority over individuals. “Public opinion generates itself. Individuals agree by noting the agreement of their inclinations[23]”. A civil religion of free examination and the critical use of knowledge does not leave individuals in the loneliness of a free will or judgment.

Is it a form of rationality developed in a « communicative” way? Nothing could be less certain. Rational deliberation is certainly particularly required in the republican system. “Wondering why I’m myself a Republican, isn’t it already being one yourself? Isn’t it in fact admitting that the form of power can be the object of a deliberate choice on the part of the citizen, that the community is therefore not imposed on man […][24] .”. However, information empowerment technologies, in their current dematerialized and global version, are transforming what can be called communication in its relationship to civic deliberation to such an extent that it requires consideration. The emotional aspect passions and instant representation seem more present than the courage to know and the individual exercise of reason towards the universal.

Political reason will therefore be the one which is slowly being formed through instruction and teaching (and more specifically through philosophy – which should be renewed and extended to all upper secondary school cycles – but also history, Human Sciences as a whole and the courses in popular universities). Civic behaviour can’t be prescribed, we can hope for its strengthening by the diffusion of knowledge, of a culture, in the classical acceptation of the definition of culture[25].

Republic is an Idea, an ability to propose and bring about, a secular faith. Marc Bloch, once again, puts it brilliantly: reality, not intellectual nuances (which inevitably lead to a questioning of one’s abilities) leads us to this bet, this bias for reason. “Deliberately – read Mein Kampf and the conversations with Rauschung – Hitlerism denies its crowds any access to the truth. It replaces persuasion by emotional suggestion. For us, a choice has to be made: on one hand, turn our people into a blindly vibrating keyboard with the magnetism of a few leaders (but which ones? Those of the present time lack waves), on the other hand, train them to be the conscious collaborator of the representatives they have chosen themselves. In the current disorder of our civilizations this dilemma no longer bears medium term plans. The masses no longer obey. They follow, because they have been put in a trance, or because they know[26].”

However, two forms of renouncement of knowledge and rationality can be identified. The one Marc Bloch refers to (single mass party, ethnic state, leader’s plebiscite, theocracy) seems to be replaced or synthesized with another more insidious form of despotism (the one of renouncement to reason through peaceful indifference to politics, that of conformist attachment to private happiness and consumer comfort). This synthesis takes place in the field of mass communication. It is this synthesis that the republican challenge must be confronted to by an active policy of education and culture.

In the republican context, ideas finally seem more likely to create dissensus than to aim for or foresee consensus. Social and political life remains unsteady, inalienable, oscillating from caution to criticism. This double regime (of questioning and/or approval) expresses the institutionalizing and revolutionary nature of the republican regime. The exercise of philosophy, if we understand it as the implementation of critical intelligence, therefore seems central and necessary. “French democracy has lost its luggage. She needs to rethink her whole set of ideas. [27] “. There Republicanism finds its revolutionary aim again and struggles to come will be difficult.

Sovereignty and political will do not depend on circumstances, organizations or incitements: they are acts. They are guided by an idea, but are not its strict and simple application. Sovereignty and political will overthrow the state of affairs, the state of fact, they are resistance to the facts, to the supposed naturalness, to the ineluctability of the state of affairs, to the constituted authorities, to the most anchored traditions.

What is a political idea? “Reason harbours in itself the principle of Ideas: by this I mean necessary concepts even though the object cannot be given in any experience[28] ”. Any idea thus understood is not immanent in any reality but is a pure possibility, it moves in an unconditioned field that does not refer to any fact or experience. Republic is a simple idea, it is not applicable in itself, it is a norm of action, an indication of a direction, a condition of possibility.

We cannot help but notice the convergence of antirationalism (and “affective sciences”), the philosophical focus on “Emotions”, with populisms. In this setting, citizens can vote and act against their interests, contest or ignore the most proven facts or knowledge. Authorities (lawyers, journalists, intellectuals), likely to provide elements of reasoning, obedient to the law of proof or contradictory debate, are delegitimized. Emotion, moral panic, real or supposed insecurity overwhelm all reasoning.

Illiberal democracy implies that leaders are elected by universal suffrage, but that individuals no longer benefit from fundamental civil rights (mainly freedom of speech, opinion, association, and privacy). The media and independent judges who are supposed to be the vectors of “political correctness” are excluded. Traditional values or national identity are emotionally promoted as the norms of a single fate, that disregards according to higher law, or pluralism of opinion. A substantial conception of the Political Good is promoted in a form that Claude Lefort describes as opposed to democracy: “the phantasm of the People as One, the quest for a substantial identity, a social body united by an embodiment of power, a state delivered from division. [29] »

Jozsef Szajer, Hungarian MEP, explains Fidesz’s strategy as such: “We are developing emotional politics. Politics goes hand in hand with the emotions that keep members of society together. It is in this prospect that we must understand our return to religion. In Europe as in Hungary, today, political parties are becoming too rational. They put emotions aside. They no longer talk about the nationality of their voters. However, it is not a policy of social redistribution that people identify with, but with the history of their country! »

Endnotes

[1] L’Erreur de Descartes, trad. Fr de Descartes’ error. Emotion, reason and the human brain, 1994.

[2] Op cit, 2010, p. 331.

[3] Sophie Wahnich, “Émotions et ambition démocratique : la contribution de l’approche historique”, in La politique à l’épreuve des émotions, s/d Alain Faure et Emmanuel Négrier, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2017, p. 251-252.Our translation.

[4] A. O. Hirschman, Princeton University Press, 1st ed., 1977.

[5] Looking for Spinoza:Joy,Sorrow and the feeling brain. 2003.

[6] The teaching of philosophy in French high schools is a survival of republicanism and the current crisis in this teaching expresses the lack of republican voluntarism in political institutions. The opponents of republicanism perceived this well. The character of the professor of philosophy, a Kantian rationalist in Maurice Barrès’ novel Roman de l’énergie nationale, (published in 1900), a professor who diverts young Lorrains from their family traditions and regional roots, is an anti-republican charge.

[7] The term is the one of Maurice Barrès and refers to the list of the first signatories who, on 14 January 1898, requested a review of the trial of Captain Dreyfus in the newspaper L’Aurore.

[8] Alain-Gérard Slama, “La peur du conflit” in Le Siècle de Monsieur Pétain, Perrin, 2005 about unrealistic procedures (concealment of reality).

[9] Umberto Eco, Cinq leçons de morale. Grasset, 2002.

[10] Tocqueville, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, , livre III, chap. 1.

[11] Alain, « Le culte de la Raison comme fondement de la République », Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 1901, pp. 111-118.

[12] This point is insufficiently established in Pierre Rosanvalon’s work, as for example in the conclusion “Un universalisme singulier” of  the Sacre du citoyen, Gallimard, 1992, pp. 447 et seq., a text in which he is surprised: “There is in France a problem of epistemology of democracy. Since good government can only proceed on the basis of reason, it is indeed difficult to make the sovereignty of numbers a condition for political progress.” (p. 449).

[13] Sudhir Hazareesingh, Intellectual Founders of the Republic. Oxford Un. Press, 2002.

[14] Marie-Claude Blais, Au Principe de la République. Gallimard, 2001 pp. 395ff.

[15] Loi de 1905.

[16] H. Pena-Ruiz, Histoire de la laïcité, genèse d’un idéal. Gallimard, 2005, pp.16-17. “The secular school will therefore be for all the people, through its audience but also through the content of the teaching.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] J. Jaurès, “Pour la laïque”, in L’esprit du socialisme. Denoël, 1964, pp. 127-128.

[19]  J. Jaurès, Pour la laïque, op. cit., pp. 130-131.

[20] The neologism of “intellectual” that emerged in the context of the Dreyfus Affair has since been misused: it is less a question of calling for universal principles in the face of the established order and accepting the consequences of this commitment, than of showing off one’s personal capacity to have an opinion on everything. The right denunciation of the media swelling of supposed intellectuals is unfortunately mixed with the desire to put an end to the public space and the reign of criticism, an obstacle to neo-liberal omnipotence.

[21] Thierry Leterne, La Raison politique, Alain et la démocratie. PUF, 2000, p. 156.

[22] Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, VI, p. 505.

[23] Stoetzel, Théorie des opinions. PUF, 1943, p.155.

[24] Marc Bloch, “Pourquoi je suis républicain”, Les cahiers politiques, Comité général d’études de la Résistance, n°2, juillet 1943. En exergue de L’Étrange défaite, ed. folio. Gallimard, 1990.

[25] “Culture, taken as a whole, can be seen as the process of man’s progressive liberation of himself. Language, art, religion, science are the various moments of trial. In each of them, man discovers and possesses a new power – the power to build his own world, an ‘ideal’ world”. Cassirer, Essai sur l’homme. Trad. Fr. Minuit, 1975, p. 317.

[26] Marc Bloch, L’Étrange défaite, op. cit., p.178. Author’s translation.

[27] Edgar Quinet, La Révolution, tome 1, p. 11, ed. 1868.

[28] Kant, Prolégomènes à toute métaphysique future qui pourra se présenter comme science, Vrin, 1986, p. 102.  “It is”[…] the State in general, that is, a State according to the Idea, as it is conceived to be, according to the pure principles of right, and it is this Idea which serves as a directive for any real association aimed at forming a State.”Our translation. Kant, Doctrine du droit, Vrin, p. 195. Author’s translation.

[29]“La question de la démocratie”, in Essai sur le politique. Seuil 1986, p. 31.

Errors in Politics: An analysis of the concept of political error

What is a political error? How can we distinguish a political error from other kinds of error? Is there any specificity of the kind of errors that can be made in politics? More precisely, if emotions and affects play a key role in politics, one shall suspect that they may also play a role in political errors. Is it possible to define more clearly the nature of this role and, hence, the nature of political error? Is it possible to depict phenomenologically the way through which rational arguments interfere with emotional motives and, conversely, the way through which emotions shape rationality in politics? A better knowledge of what is specific in political errors might thus help to understand the relationships between reason and emotions, concepts of rationality and “structures of feelings”.

Although political errors are likely to be as old as politics itself, it is only in modern times – and I will suggest that it is only with Machiavelli – that the notion of political error clearly emerged on the background of other kinds of errors with which it has long been mingled. In an article entitled Morality and the social sciences, Albert Hirschman analysed the connection between morality and politics[1]. He shows that there is a durable tension between the two. He writes: “modern political science owes a great deal to Machiavelli’s shocking claim that ordinary notions of moral behaviour for individual may not be suitable as rules for conduct for states.” Such an analysis invites to go back to the distinction between the different kinds of errors that can be done by humans with the goal of identifying the nature of those that can be specifically called “political errors”.

 

Outline of the article

I will proceed as follow: I will first make a brief “history of error”, if one can say so. More precisely, I will try to identify a few steps that have been gone through in the thinking about what an error can be in general. I will show that one can distinguish four kinds of error. Namely the perceptual error, the conceptual error, the moral error and, finally, the political error. The distinction is not controversial for the three first groups. The fourth kind of errors, however, is a controversial issue. Indeed, when it comes to political error, some commentators claim that it does not has to be confused with moral errors; others claim right the opposite, thus that political errors are only a certain variety of moral error. This is showing, at least, that the notion of political error is still not well characterized.

In a second moment, and in order to shed some light on the question, I will assume that the distinction between moral and political error is relevant and I will thus try to define more precisely what a political error is as opposed to other varieties of errors and, more specifically, as opposed to moral errors. Thus, I will try to assess the nature of political errors. I will exhibit a few distinctive features of political errors showing that their difference with other kinds of errors is not of a speculative sort but that it actually corresponds to facts.

Finally, I will turn to the question of why assessing the nature of political error can be helpful if one wonder to find ways of modifying affects. Narrating stories is, I will show, a powerful way of intervening into political issues. This is where phenomenology comes about: it will show how narratives matter when it comes to political passions. I will thus try to analyse how narratives and, more generally, history, can change the shape of affects of political significance and, in some cases, avoid political errors.

 

A history of error

So let me with the history of the notion of error. I speak here of notion of error as it has been conceptualized which I distinguish from the fact of simply making an error, the latter being probably as old as humanity itself. Identifying and expressing what is at stake in the making of an error is something different than making an error. It supposes to conceptualize accurately what an error is.

As far back as the fourth century BC, Heraclitus of Ephesus, the Ionian Greek philosopher, would claim that “those who are awake have a world one and common, but those who are asleep each turn aside into their private world”[2]. He seems to mean that humans can live either in illusion or in truth. Here, thus, error is taken as an equivalent of illusion; an interpretation that is confirmed by other fragments from Heraclitus. Under every error, one should be able to identify a corresponding illusion. Illusion, in turn, is conceived in a way that is very similar to what happens when one perceive something and interpret as something that does not correspond to what is actually perceived. The square tower that is perceived as a round tower from a distance would later become the canonical example that encapsulates this notion of perceptual error. Perceptual errors, however, are not be confused with conceptual errors, as Plato would show, a few decades after Heraclitus.

Indeed, the distinction between perceptual and conceptual errors can be traced back at least to Plato. In the Socratic dialogue entitled Meno, Socrates famously show how a young slave can be led to correct by himself his own errors by being guided only by questions[3]. When the young slave says that a square the side of which has been doubled will also have its surface doubled, he makes an error that is clearly not of a perceptual kind. One can thus distinguish at least two kinds of errors which can be called perceptual errors and conceptual errors. If a distinction has to be made between these two kinds of errors, other kinds of errors might have to be recognized as well.

Aristotle, in Nicomachean ethics and in the Politics would precisely identify a third kind of error which deals specifically, he would explain, with the consequence of having incorrectly anticipated the future. Someone who, by his attitude, provoke consequences that he was not expecting is making an error which cannot be qualified as perceptual. It cannot be qualified as a conceptual error either. Rather, it is again a new sort of error that is to be found both in moral and in politics, Aristotle would claim.

When I do something that I later regret, I make a moral error. When a politician or group of people decide something that would later lead to a catastrophe (a war for instance), one can call it a “political error”. At a first sight, such an error does not have a structure that differ from the moral error since it results from the failure to foresee the consequences of our actions. And that will be what Aristotle would conclude. In moral error, as well as in political error, the failure lie in the fact that the future has been incorrectly foreseen. In other terms, from Aristotle on, moral error and political will be characterised as being of the same sort.

Aristotle would, for instance write, in the Politics, that “governing is being able to see what the future will be”[4]. Therefore, not being able to see correctly what the future will be is making a political error. By the same token, not being able to anticipate the consequence of an act would constitute the basis of the moral error as it is analysed in the Nicomachean ethics. Thus, political and moral errors are here analysed in the same way. In fact, the two categories are considered as only one category.

This link between moral and political errors will have an enduring life. It will be reaffirmed from century to century up to Machiavelli who would disentangle the two notions, probably because he is more concerned with practical thinking (which he famously call verità effettuale de la cosa) than by conceptual analysis. In so doing, he is introducing a distinction into the third category of errors which would thus have, at least for those who accept the notions provided by Machiavelli, to be now split into moral errors and political errors instead of being grouped into a single category.

Although the nature of the difference between the two remains obscure at this stage, it appears clearly that the two notions of moral and political should be distinguished when Machiavelli exhorts, for instance, the Prince to keep giving the impression that he is acting with equanimity while he shall, occasionally, have to act otherwise[5]. Equanimity is thus, for Machiavelli, a moral notion that should not be confused with the political usefulness of having the reputation of being so. Being unjust could be a moral mistake, but it can also, sometimes, help to avoid a political mistake.

It is not before the twentieth century that what is at stake under the distinction between moral and political error will begin to be clarified. Hence the fact that from its first publication in 1532, The Prince has been considered as a sulphurous reading. Even Leo Strauss, in its Thoughts on Machiavelli, first published in 1958, considers that reading Machiavelli exposes to dangerous drawbacks. He would write, for instance: “We do not hesitate to assert, as very many have asserted before us, and we shall later on try to prove, that Machiavelli’s teaching is immoral and irreligious”[6]. By this he means that, at the end of the Middle Ages, claiming that moral and politics can be disentangled is, in itself, a moral error. This might be the reason that make the issue so controversial. Let’s turn back, for a minute, to the arguments that lead Machiavelli to separate the two notions.

The Prince is composed as advices to Lorenzo de Medici the second and is supposed to help him stay in power. The advises provided by Machiavelli are mainly, if not exclusively, oriented through one goal which is to answer a question that could be summed up as follow: “how should the Prince, the sovereign, act in order to avoid that his former friends turn into enemies?” Therefore, turning friend into enemies is also what would characterize a political error according to Machiavelli. One discovers that one has made a political mistake when someone who used to be a friend turn to be an enemy. Let us take this as a first definition of the political error.

Such a definition does not apply to moral error since in moral error, one possibly become the enemy of oneself, but one does not necessarily turn someone against oneself. Thus, although, as Aristotle already noticed, both moral and political errors share the failure to foresee the future, they do it in quiet different ways. In political errors, what is at stake is the risk, for any action, to make friends become enemies while in moral error, what is at stake is, so to say, the risk to become its own enemy by having to judge oneself with poor favour. A political error has to deal with the anticipation of how others would react to our initiatives.

From there on, two schools of thought would appear. One of them will stick to the Aristotelian idea that a political error is a kind of moral error. The other one, following Machiavelli, will try to identify more clearly what is specific in a political error.

 

Assessing political errors

By turning to two examples, I will try to define the specificity of political error more clearly, thus assuming that this last opinion makes sense.

The first example will deal with a stunning episode of the recent French political live. The former French president François Hollande, who was then finishing what would turn to be his unique mandate, published a book, that in fact had been written by two journalists, which title was: A president shouldn’t say this[7]. Indeed, the book could not have a better title since it was, as it would be mentioned by many observers as well as by policy makers including a large number of members of its own party, a great political mistake. In this book, he was, quite honestly, explaining what he did all along its mandate. Honesty could hardly be depicted as a moral mistake. But it could easily generate political mistakes. That was what happened in this occasion. The mistake was so great that his own first minister decided to run for presidency and that, finally, he himself, although President, would decide even not to try to run for presidency because, he declared “XXX”. That will open an avenue for his former minister of economy, a person whose name was Emmanuel Macron (who, by the way, did validate, a few years earlier, a degree on political sciences with a memoir on Machiavelli).

So what was the political mistake that François Hollande did with this book? The answer has been anticipated by Machiavelli: he turned many of his former friends into enemies. One should note that the nature of politics entailed by this notion of error is not the same as the one proposed by Carl Schmitt who, as it is well known, focuses on the distinction between friends and enemies[8]. Here, what is at stake is not to distinguish friends from enemies but rather to anticipate what would make the former turn into the latter. It is a different sort of distinction that also opens different perspectives.

Since affects circulate in friends in a way different than they circulate in enemies, turning friends into enemies is the equivalent of turning supporting feelings into destroying feelings. As one can see on the example of François Hollande, the effect that he obtained with his book turned to be right the opposite to what he was looking for. It was supposed to enhance the number of its supporters; it turned out that it decreased this number.

Similar mechanisms operate, although at a much higher rate, in the burst of a revolution. This is what happened, and this is the second example, in Iran a few decades ago leading to the resignation, in 1979, of the King of Iran, the so-called Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Palavhi[9].

A few years before the revolution, the Shah of Iran decided to organize a sumptuous celebration of its regime. The goal was to deepens its power by appearing at the top of an unchallenged legitimacy. He obtained, however, the directly opposite effect: his opponents infuriate while his proponents did not agree with such magnificent and expensive celebrations. The result was that the Islamic revolution, that arose a few years later, would push him away with the help of the citizen of Iran. He had accumulated a vast number of haters by the ways that, he thought, would be appropriate to consolidate his power.

Thus, we can now define more clearly what a political error is: it is an error made on evaluating the consequences of what others think about what one do or say. If I do or say something, I have also to deal with what people think about it. A political error will arise if I fail to anticipate correctly that reaction. Although it can be helpful to provide criteria to distinguish what a political error can be, it is again more helpful to provide some clue that could help to prevent political mistakes.

 

Correcting political error

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his Note on Machiavelli, published in Signes in 1960, did notice rightly that what exposes The Prince to error is that what he does or say is always seen in a plurality of ways[10]. Since the Prince is exposed to the judgment of a variety of persons, his action will also be judged in a variety of ways. Anticipating the reaction of a crowd must thus depend on a specific sense of evaluation which is not the same as the one that one can have in front of a single or of a few well identified persons. The politician is judged by a crowd of ways of seeing instead of by only a few. And each of them is affected differently by what he is doing. How to anticipate the variations that could arise in such a crowd?

To answer this question, Machiavelli uses essentially one a tool. This tool is history. He would provide advises to the Prince by looking back to what happened to others in various situation, as I just did with the example of François Hollande and of the Shah of Iran. This manner of reasoning is pointing to the nature not so much of history than of politics. Machiavelli was not an historian and did not pretend to be one. What he was doing with history is of a different kind.

Indeed, he is attempting to shape the affects of Lorenzo de Medici the second to help him avoiding some mistakes that would lead his reign to a catastrophe. That is the way through which, pragmatically, Machiavelli is seeing history. History, in other word, is, for him, a tool that is efficient to shape politically meaningful affects. And, as such, history can be useful to prevent political errors.

This is suggesting ways of using history to reshape the affects that are significant for politics which are love or, at least, respect and hate or, at least, disrespect. As I tried to show, there are ways to turn someone from respect to disrespect as with the case of Hollande) or, in the opposite way, from disrespect to respect. A political error can thus be analysed in terms of lack of historical culture. The historical culture, as Machiavelli means it, is a tool suitable to avoid political errors.

But is it possible to correct a political mistake with history and how does such a correction work? Most of the time, when one speaks about the use of history for political purposes, one has in mind the way through which one can learn things from the past by avoiding errors that were previously done.

For instance, in the financial crisis, in 2008, many commentators did suggest looking back at the Great Depression crisis of 1929 to avoid the mistakes that were then made. Policy makers claimed that they have “learned the lessons from the past”. Such examples can explain why people would act differently when similar circumstances arise. Of course, the circumstances are never exactly the same. Therefore, the historical relevance of a given reference will generally be subject to a critical evaluation. The American historian of economy Barry Eichengreen has shown convincingly, in a book on use and misuse of history, that although the lessons of 1929 have been taken into account, new errors were also made, presumably because the model of the 1929 crisis served too much as a basis for thinking about what should be decided[11]. This represent a conventional use of history in politics. It represents a part of what Machiavelli suggests when he turns to history. But only a part of it.

Machiavelli would indeed go one step farther in its investigation of the power of history and narration because he is not only concerned by right actions but also by affects. Could turning hatred into more pacific affects be achieved by history and by narration, as it should be expected if the analysis of Machiavelli turned out to be correct? I will give a single example showing how political affects, i.e. mainly hate and disrespect, can be modified through narration. A narration can therefore reshape affects and turn disrespect into respect.

To show this, I would like to narrate a story that took place in the XIXth century in the city of La Rochelle, on the Atlantic seaside in France. It shows the connections between narrating a story and triggering a change in the way affects are circulating. La Rochelle then harboured an important military place which was located right in the middle of the city. As it is usually the case for official buildings, one could find a national flag, thus a blue white and red flag, floating on the roof. A friend of the French historian Edgar Quinet who was living in the neighbourhood had an apartment the windows of which opened right in front of the flag in such a way that he was seeing the flag every time he was looking through its windows. He did not like this view because, he said, the flag has a military flavour he was disliking. Edgar Quinet told him the meaning of the flag, explaining that the French flag has its own history and meaning: his three colours, blue, white and red, were chosen to symbolized the people from Paris surrounding the king. Indeed, the colour of the king’s flag was the white, while the colour of the city of Paris is the blue and the red.

Once Edgar Quinet told the story to his friend, who was of Parisian origins, the feelings of the latter changed dramatically: “how nice, he said, I will love this flag now!” This is showing what narrating a story could do in political affects. Narrating a story is not something neutral which would only give information from the past. It is something that act in a much deeper fashion. It affects the way we are related to things. It should be noticed that it is not achieving this goal by preaching the goal it intends to reach but rather by exposing facts that are, in a sense, much more than simple facts. A story is made by the narration of facts, but it conveys affects (and effects) of political significance since it can turn hate into love.

This phenomenological analysis, provided by an historian, shows what can be achieved with the simple narration of an history. Narrating an history could, at a first sight, seem to be a very neutral process which deals with transmitting facts. But when one looks more phenomenologically at what is it at stake in narration and in the process of hearing a narration, one discovers that the it conveys the power to trigger new regimen of affects that can, in certain cases, make them useful to avoid political errors. Here, arguments and affects interact in such a way that they are tightly intertwined.

 

Conclusion

Since there are ways to shape political affects, it is still more important to distinguish political error from other kind of errors. Political affects can be efficiently changed by the narration of history, as I have tried to show. It means that beside history, there is another topic that deserve a close attention which the usage of history in politics. This should constitute a sub-discipline as such since it is an essential topic when it comes to political errors. In other terms, to investigate more thoroughly what a political error is, one should look carefully at how history is working when one listen to it.

 

References

Aristotle, The Politics, tr. en. T. Sinclair, Penguin classics, London, 1981.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragments, Penguin classics, London, 2003.

Hirschman, Albert, Morality and the social sciences : a durable tension, in The essential Hirschman, ed. J. Adelman, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013.

Hollande, François, Un président ne devrait pas dire ça…, avec G. Davet and F. Lhomme, Stock, Paris, 2016.

Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, tr. en. T. Parks, Penguin classics, London, 2014.

Milani, Mohsen, The Making Of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy To Islamic Republic, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2018.

Plato, The collected dialogues of Plato including letters, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1982.

Schmitt, Carl, The concept of the political, tr. en. by G. Schwab, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.

Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014.

 

Endnotes

[1] Albert Hirschman, Morality and the social sciences: a durable tension in The essential Hirschman, ed. J. Adelman, Princeton University Press, 2013.

[2] Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragments, fragment B89, Penguin classics, London, 2003.

[3] Plato, Meno, in The collected dialogues of Plato including letters, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1982.

[4] Aristotle, The Politics, tr. en. T. Sinclair, Penguin classics, London, 1981.

[5] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, tr. en. T. Parks, Penguin classics, London, 2014.

[6] Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014.

[7] François Hollande, Un président ne devrait pas dire ça…, avec G. Davet and F. Lhomme, Stock, Paris, 2016.

[8] Carl Schmitt, The concept of the political, tr. en. by G. Schwab, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.

[9] Mohsen Milani, The Making Of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy To Islamic Republic, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2018.

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signes, Gallimard, Paris, 1960.

[11] Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses-and Misuses-of History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014.