OPINION

Toward a Woke Metaphysics.

The left’s secret affair with transcendent truth.

Among the old, white men ripe for cancellation is Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers of the last 500 years. Not only did Kant live a life of privilege, his work was a continuation of the existing tradition of western philosophy, which is now widely dismissed as oppressive, exclusionary, and generally Part of the Problem®. Perhaps most damning, though, on the scorecards of our contemporary Jacobins, is that Kant was deeply committed to moral philosophy—the use of reasoning to demonstrate the reality of moral truths.

The central task of the left-progressive attack on metaphysical reasoning can be said to be a delegitimization of longstanding sources of cultural power.

In a world where modern science was redefining truth as including only realities that could be observed and measured in space and time, ideas like the existence of a universal morality were open to new forms of contestation. But rather than reject faith and morality as irrational, Kant’s 1785 tract, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, argued that the inability of science to demonstrate moral truths was a sign of the limitations of science, not morality. He affirmed the legitimacy of universal moral claims, and argued that their truth was metaphysical—meaning they partially transcend the natural world. In short, metaphysics contemplates all the realities that do not conform to the rigid materialist criteria that science imposes on truth.

It took barely a century for the philosophical tide to turn against Kant. In his short work “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche (a philosopher as deeply influenced by Kantian thought as he was critical of it) expressed a radical skepticism of truth-seeking, a skepticism that has become increasingly fashionable with intellectuals since Kant’s death. Whereas the eighteenth-century philosophers of the Enlightenment revised conceptions about what counted as truth, the modern era gave rise to a generation who questioned both the existence and the utility of truth as an idea. Nietzsche writes: 

“What, then, is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions that we have forgotten are illusions[.]” 

Nietzsche’s skepticism about truth came in part from his recognition that it pushed believers toward forms of moralism that he found limiting to both human potential and culture at large. Further, he correctly discerned that morality is justified through appeal to ideas and concepts that cannot be “proven” in the strict sense (i.e., metaphysical or transcendental forms of thinking). In proving that a particular moral law is universally-binding, one must justify it on the grounds of something higher—the will of a higher power, a higher abstract principle, a higher order, or a higher authority. This transcendence is what is referenced by the term metaphysics, which might be loosely translated as “that which exists on a higher plane of our reality.” Metaphysics transcends the empirical understanding of the physical world because it transcends the physical world; it cannot be demonstrated scientifically.

There is a lot of evidence that contemporary American society has rejected metaphysics. The forms of left activism loosely referred to as “wokeism” are deeply informed by traditions of thought that reject assertions of universal truth. Today, the institutional left embraces subjectivist, relativist, and constructivist understandings of the world. 

The central task of the left-progressive attack on metaphysical reasoning can be said to be a delegitimization of longstanding sources of cultural power. Defenses of our society tend to be grounded in arguments about the transcendent value of history, authority, and tradition—ideas which maintain the existing social order. And yet, paradoxically, the leftist critique of the metaphysical notions of history, authority, and tradition is itself grounded in forms of metaphysical reasoning. Challenging this hypocrisy will be essential if we are to effectively resist the left’s tightening grip on our culture.  

Howard Zinn.

Howard Zinn.

HISTORY AND THE PARADOX OF WOKE METAPHYSICS

History is often derided by the left as an invented story told by the victors. This view is evidenced in popular works like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, which argues that the traditional understanding of history is actually a false “narrative” that deliberately misrepresents the truth in an effort to justify political oppression. This belief in the coercive, ideological function of history is a hallmark of wokeness.

I am confident that we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.

Americans today hear claims about being on the “right side of history.” Obama frequently used the term. In one Oval Office address on terrorism, he said “I am confident that we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.” Not surprisingly, it is typically progressives who make use of the phrase. They routinely characterize any policy proposals that do not conform to their vision for society as being on the “wrong side of history,” which serves to delegitimize those proposals as immoral on some metaphysical, cosmic register. 

The saying itself, “the right (or wrong) side of history,” implicitly acknowledges the Marxist idea that history is the movement of society toward a pre-defined end, which progressives have a unique ability to intuit. The unquestionable goodness of the end of history allows us to separate the good guys from the bad: the ones who seek to “turn back the clock” on this progression are bad, and those who inch us closer to the inevitable utopia are righteous. Not coincidentally, “the good” neatly conforms to the policy objectives of the left.

The contradiction is evident. When countering politically undesirable accounts of history, the left seeks to delegitimize history itself, saying that historical narratives are ideological falsehoods that are deliberately constructed to maintain unjust power structures via metaphysical appeals. But when it justifies the political program of the left, history is a knowable, material reality which points toward an irresistible set of outcomes, the moral status of which is defended on decidedly metaphysical grounds.

Immanuel Kant.

Immanuel Kant.

AUTHORITY AND THE PARADOX OF WOKE METAPHYSICS

Authority, as an extension of historical arrangements of social power, is seen by leftists as illegitimate as history itself. The last half-century of American life can be understood as a progressive dismantling of various forms of authority. Current trends in American education serve as an example. Since the ‘70s, it has grown increasingly fashionable for teachers to “decenter” their authority in classrooms, a practice which is meant to acknowledge that the students have as much authority as the teachers. The value of this arrangement derives from the (metaphysical) claim that students’ “lived experiences” have status as forms of truth and knowledge.

The large-scale movement away from teaching content and towards teaching skills (as documented in the work of E.D. Hirsch) stems from a belief that determining curricular content is an unjustified act of authority by which teachers unfairly decide which knowledge “matters.” Skills-based education allows educators to remain ideologically neutral—everyone wants their children to learn how to read, how to write, how to think critically. But what they should be reading, writing, or thinking critically about are much more contentious topics.

Consider: from where does the hallowed authority of the individual to determine the course of his life derive?

Thus, to counter authority as based in transcendent and metaphysical thinking, progressives assert that most forms of authority are merely “social constructs” that unjustly usurp individual agency. And yet, there are certain authorities favored by the left that are defended on wholly metaphysical grounds. 

Consider: from where does the hallowed authority of the individual to determine the course of his life derive? From the transcendent value accorded to the individual rights under natural law, the political reality of which used to be supported by a metaphysical and religious worldview. The essential link between individualism, natural law, and religion is stated most memorable in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness.” 

Today, these rights are still celebrated in America, but their transcendent status (which had been justified by appeal to religious ideas) now apparently derives from nowhere in the context of modern secularism. At best, the left implies that individual rights derive from civil law, which means that “rights” are bestowed upon us by the legislating state. How else can we explain that activists and the judiciary keep discovering new ones, like the right to an abortion, or the right to health care, or the right to higher education?

The left’s attitude toward disciplinary expertise and intellectual authority reveals the same contradictory two-step. On one hand, intellectual authority is inviolable and unquestionable—at least when it comes to topics like climate change or the coronavirus pandemic. But this deep respect for expertise and authority is tossed out the window the moment it undermines progressives’ metaphysical understanding of reality. For example, various truths of the theory of gender fluidity cannot seem to be proven on scientific grounds. But this does not deter left activists from insisting upon them as irrefutable truths. 

The woke contradictions on authority can also be observed in the New York Times’ thoroughly debunked 1619 Project. It consists of a series of essays that claim the authoritative account of America’s founding in 1776 was an ideological fiction, constructed to maintain racial injustices that were (and supposedly remain) fundamental to our society. Instead, the Project argues, the true founding was in 1619, when the first African slaves arrived in the colonies. Initially, the writers posited the 1619 marker as a higher, deeper truth than the 1776 “narrative,” despite that their evidence was mostly conjecture and anecdote.

When confronted with criticism from some of the foremost scholars and intellectual authorities on the American Revolution, who asserted that the claims of the 1619 Project were untrue, its architects did not concede their fault. Instead, they adopted the relativist view of history that argues there are many “histories” because the truth is a function of the individual’s perspective. And besides, they said, the whole 1619 thing was never meant to be received as truth anyway—it was just some kind of woke thought experiment. Of course, when it comes to “fact-checking” the President, the New York Times is perfectly happy to acknowledge the reality of objective truth, and perfectly comfortable with journalists serving as its final arbiters.

Woke metaphysical hypocrisy rears its head again. When various forms of authority (whether scientific, moral, or cultural) are conducive to the political designs of the left, they take on a transcendent aura of truth. But when authorities undermine that agenda, then authority itself is characterized as an unjustifiable, immoral exercise of power that seeks to cover up the subjective, relativistic character of reality.

United States Supreme Court.

United States Supreme Court.

TRADITION AND THE PARADOX OF WOKE METAPHYSICS

The left dismisses tradition as a mere product of the interaction between history and authority. This view is what motivates the people who love to remind you around Christmas that the celebration doesn’t actually fall on the date of Jesus’s birth (if, as they note, we grant the naïve metaphysical assumption that Jesus was a historical reality). Then, they often proceed to inform you that most aspects of the Christmas celebration are drawn from European paganism anyway. You know: colonizing Christians who entered northern Europe from the south adapted Christian traditions to local pagan practices in order to more easily assert their authority over the tribal peoples they victimized.

The left dismisses tradition as a mere product of the interaction between history and authority.

By saying that “things have always been this way,” people imbue tradition with a metaphysical morality that undermines individuals’ ability to direct the course of their own lives. Because it works to constrain individual autonomy through an appeal to external forms of authority, the concept of tradition itself is attacked for its dependence on the idea that the ways of the past have some inherent value and virtue. Why, after all, should someone observe the tradition of marriage? Just because that is “what people do”? Why should we continue the tradition of assigning sex at birth? Just because it has always been that way? Why should American schoolchildren be expected to uncritically recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Just because authorities justify it on the metaphysical grounds of “traditional” civics? Why should the Supreme Court only have 9 justices?

And yet, the left has a deep metaphysical devotion to certain traditions. No one bothers to ask “But why should people vote?” Or “Why should Christians have a reverence for the rich cultural tradition of Ramadan?” Or “Why should the United States continue to offer most of the world’s foreign aid?” 

In these cases, cultural and political traditions are sacred, metaphysically-meaningful expressions of a transcendent history, and thus are beyond reproach, so long as they are viewed as desirable by the left. But when the traditions in question deviate from progressive orthodoxy? Well, then tradition is (at best) a historically-arbitrary irrelevance, or (at worst) a calculated, ideologically-motivated effort to subvert individual agency over a period of centuries or millennia. 

Friedrich Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche.

TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN: ANTIFOUNDATIONALISM’S SHAKY FOUNDATIONS

Today, the left’s skepticism of metaphysics is a byproduct of secularization. When scientific demonstration is the sole criterion of truth and reality, metaphysics itself is dismissed for being unscientific. But as I have shown, modern progressives routinely advance truth claims that rest entirely on metaphysical grounds. This begs the question—if they do not anchor their metaphysical beliefs in God, or history, or nature, or tradition, authority, then what is the anchor for progressive metaphysics? Providing an answer requires a return to Nietzsche.

This self-creating man is able to construct his own “table of values” independent of society—a feat that is accomplished in large part by transcending any externally-imposed moral dictates. In short, the thing that he transcends is metaphysics itself.

The left’s love of Nietzsche comes from his vision of self-actualization as liberation. His idea of the ubermensch (or “Super Man”) imagines the individual who is able to maximize human potential by overcoming any outside forces that work to limit personal autonomy. This self-creating man is able to construct his own “table of values” independent of society—a feat that is accomplished in large part by transcending any externally-imposed moral dictates. In short, the thing that he transcends is metaphysics itself.

Progressives seem to believe they have nearly achieved this transcendence. At bottom, the leftist pursuit of liberation seeks to achieve the material conditions for the birth of the ubermensch who is free because he is free from metaphysical delusions of morality. Nevertheless, the left is unable to abandon moralism. After all, the rationale for the left’s vision of society is that it is better, truer, good, and inevitable. One of the tragedies of the ubermensch is that his break from any external forms of authority is also a break with society—the fully autonomous man is an island. 

Thus, the paradox: woke metaphysics are grounded in a view of the individual as a law unto himself (an ubermensch), but they cannot abandon morality in the way that Nietzsche’s Super Man could—if only because (unlike him) they seek power over the collective rather than liberation from it. 

For the left, morality is strictly a rhetorical and instrumental means to coerce individual compliance as they build their new woke world, a world in which Truth reigns supreme, so long as it aligns with the left’s imagined future. Ultimately though, that bright future is undergirded by a superstructure of metaphysical commitments that they cannot possibly acknowledge without conceding the hypocritical relation to truth that lies at the burning heart of the woke political enterprise. 

Written By:

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston–Downtown, where he studies rhetoric, writing, and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, is available now. Reach him at adamellwanger@gmail.com, on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger, or @TheHereticalTruth on Parler.