An Archaeology of the Liberal Episteme

Liberalism is generally thought to be first and foremost a political theory. In a specifically historical sense this is correct. Liberalism arrives on the scene in the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, with the aim of making societies dependent on social contract theory. Yet, today liberalism has become much more than that. We can see this in the way we use the term. For example, even a century and a half ago John Henry Newman could speak of “liberalism in religion.” We all know what this means—and it has little to do with social contracts. It refers to some blend of subjectivism, individualism, and relativism—all contained within a broader framework of so-called tolerance. So, what is this “liberalism?”

I want to make the case that liberalism is, at the deepest level, the meta-episteme of our age. In using the term “episteme” I follow the work of Michel Foucault who defined it as follows:

The strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the “apparatus” which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterized as scientific.[1]

An episteme is a set of presuppositions, of implicit premises, that structure the field of discourse in such a way that they determine the truth or falsehood of any given claim. Different epistemes give rise to entirely different fields of truth. A statement that is true in one epistemic field may be untrue in another and even incoherent in another again.

The radical nature of epistemes can be made manifest by example. Operating under our own hyper-liberal episteme, it makes sense to many people today to say: “A man indulging his passion for pornography should be allowed to do so because in doing so he is exercising his freedom of choice.” Yet, if we switch to an orthodox Catholic or Augustinean episteme this statement immediately becomes incoherent due to self-contradiction: since a man is enslaved by his passions in using pornography, he is, by definition, not exercising his freedom of choice when he uses it. We can even hack the liberal episteme and force this observation to be recognized as true by appealing to pseudoscience: “Since pornography has been shown to be addictive, a man may not necessarily be exercising his freedom of choice when he uses it due to his addiction.” All of this shows how strong epistemic fields are and how much force they exert on the statements articulated within them.

Now that we have a sense of what we are looking for, being good Focauldians, let us engage in a little bit of archaeology to find where the liberal espisteme originated from, thereby to better understand its nature.

An Archaeology of the Liberal Episteme

As previously stated, liberalism did arise first as a political theory. But it was only later that it became operationalized and was thereby transformed into a series of presuppositions structuring the field of knowledge. This was a long and gradual process, as we shall see. But it appears to have begun in the early economic work of David Hume, specifically in his essay On Commerce.[2]

In this essay, Hume was concerned to counter the dominant economic theory of his time: mercantilism. The mercantilists were effectively statist economists who were concerned with the accumulation of treasure through trade for the purpose of then deploying this wealth to engage in warfare with rival nations. This was done by maximizing the export of domestic goods and minimizing the import of foreign goods. Hume was concerned to channel the competitive forces of war into the competitive forces of national economic competition. Partly this was a noble attempt to channel violent competitive urges into industry rather than war, but Hume also thought that wealth would increase if nations traded freely with one another. If France has good wine and England has good cotton, then allowing them to do business with each other would increase the wine quality in England and the cotton quality in France. Economists would later refer to this as a nation’s “comparative advantage.”

From Hume’s argument came some of the core planks of the liberal episteme. Firstly, the notion of “freedom” as being associated with individual agency free from supervision—in this case, international merchants unfettered from government tariffs. Secondly, the notion that competition between these free agents generates an optimal order. In Hume’s framework the individual agents were nations trading on the international stage, but Hume’s protégé Adam Smith would soon translate the emerging liberal episteme into a domestic project.

In his Wealth of Nations, Smith channeled the liberal episteme to apply at what we would now call the microeconomic level. He replaced the nations in Hume’s macroeconomic analysis with individual producers and consumers. The comparative advantage of nations was thereby transformed seamlessly into the division of domestic labor. If I am a skilled farmer and you are a skilled shoemaker, we should be allowed to engage in free commerce to ensure that you have good food and I have good shoes. Crucially, as the liberal episteme metastasized in Smith’s hands a third core plank became manifest: that of self-interest. Hume’s competition between free agents, translated to an individual level, was shown by Smith to be purely motivated by self-interest. He writes in his now famous passage:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.[3]

Today we are told that these shifts in our episteme were merely a progress in the sciences. We are told that what we are watching in the transition from Hume to Smith is the development of economics as queen of the social sciences. But this is very far from the truth of the matter. The liberal episteme was not only developed independently of the revolutions in the sciences taking place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it was also contrary to it in its most basic premises.

The scientific revolution was facilitated by the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and although this is now regularly said to be a break from medieval scholasticism, Newton’s work had far more in common with medieval thought than it had with the liberal episteme that would emerge the next century. Newton’s work was fundamentally based on deep underlying laws embedded in the universe that could be given mathematical expression. The most famous of these being the inverse squares law, which determines the universal law of gravitation. Since these laws were thought to be immutable, Newton conceived of a universe with a predetermined order—a universe subject to an overarching Law. In his General Scholium to the second edition, Newton articulated his vision clearly:

This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these, being form'd by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One.[4]

Here we see a vision of the universe-as-multiplicity structured according to the order of set laws laid down by “the One.” For Newton, “the One” was the Christian God, an active God consistently holding the laws of the universe constant—albeit Arianized significantly, as we now know from Newton’s uncovered theological writings. But this One would later go through other iterations—from the deist clockmaker God of the Enlightenment ideologues, to the pantheistic, everlasting universe theorized by Spinoza and implicitly accepted by most secular nineteenth and twentieth century physicists. None of this changed the basic structure of the scientific revolution, however. It was based on subjecting vast chaotic multiplicities to simple, expressible laws that were embodied into the metaphysical Being of the universe itself. Out of the One, Many.

Contrast this with the opposite movement of the liberal episteme. The liberals saw order as arising out of the chaotic interaction of individual agents operating, à la Smith, in line with their own self-interest and without reference to the good of the Whole. In the liberal episteme order emerges as if by magic. There are no set, predetermined laws guiding the agents. Rather they interact spontaneously and generate what appears to the untrained eye as lawlike behaviour. Such a vision would have horrified the ever-judicial Newton attuned as he was to the Law. Out of the Many, the mere appearance of the One. E Pluribus Species Unius—as we might say in a nod to that most liberal of nations.

From the early steps taken by Smith and Hume in the eighteenth century, the liberal episteme would harden in the nineteenth into increasingly dogmatic doctrines. Perhaps the best example of the new “hard” variant of the liberal episteme was the work of Herbert Spencer. In his book Social Statics, Spencer would apply Smith’s economic ideas to the biological characteristics of Man. Looking at the devastation of the industrial revolution around him, Spencer justified the horrors wrought on the working classes by subjecting their flesh to the dictates of the liberal episteme’s competition principle. In doing so, he argued that flesh that did not thrive in the furnaces of the industrial revolution did not deserve to survive:

Consumptive patients, with lungs incompetent to perform the duties of lungs, people with defective hearts that break down under excitement of the circulation, people with any constitutional flaw preventing the due fulfillment of the conditions of life are continually dying out and leaving behind those fit for the climate, food, and habits to which they are born . . . And thus is the race kept free from vitiation.[5]

Here we have the early seeds of eugenics, the ultimate expression of the liberal episteme—the liberal episteme made flesh. Though this is undoubtedly the ultimate expression of the liberal episteme, and almost certainly its implicit telos, it is an expression that has been partially buried in recent times due to the horrors it created in the twentieth century.

Admittedly, this is a rather glib overview of the development and articulation of the liberal episteme. It skips Bentham, the two Mills, the rise of utilitarianism and so on. Nor does it follow the more radical strain of liberalism that fused with Romanticism in the work of Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and others.[6] But the reader can fill in the blanks. For now, we should have a better comprehension of what the liberal episteme is. It is a framework of thought that attempts to describe complex processes in the world as being the result of a non-teleological, undirected processes. Unlike the scientific method proper, it does not posit laws that are naturally and metaphysically grounded to explain order. Rather order is thought to emerge out of the interaction of atomized units interacting in a competitive framework and engaging in a “trial and error” process until the optimal result is achieved. Spontaneous order—magic beans.

Introducing, the “Science”

In the twentieth century the liberal episteme truly took over. It colonized many fields and became the basic episteme structuring everything from university seminars to barroom political conversation. We could survey as many academic fields as we would like to detect and expose the beating heart of the liberal episteme. Anything with a whiff of utilitarianism in philosophy and its offshoots, for example, is almost certainly a barely disguised liberal episteme parading itself proudly. In psychology, sociology, moral philosophy, political science, game theory, law, it has colonized these disciplines at the deepest of levels.

But here we will try to stick to some of the supposedly “scientific” manifestations. We do this because, in the twentieth century, the liberal episteme has tended to justify itself with reference to science. As we have already seen, the liberal episteme is diametrically opposed to the scientific method proper which makes this masquerading at once amusing, infuriating, and curious. Let us take as our core example a lesser-known field amongst the general public: linguistics. The field of linguistics offers us a fantastic example of the liberal episteme running amok and then being ferreted out using true scientific methodology and exposed for the fraud that it is.

For many years linguistics was concerned with the study of semiotics. But in the mid-twentieth century it started to be scrutinized as a more scientific field of inquiry. The core question was simple: where did language come from? The earliest attempts to explain this were done by deploying the liberal episteme. This was done with reference to the psychological theory of “behaviorism” and was undertaken by that theory’s foremost practitioner, B.F. Skinner.

Skinner’s version of the theory rests on the core concept of reinforcement. The easiest way to explain this is with reference to Skinner’s early experiments with pigeons. He would place these poor animals in what are now called “Skinner boxes.” The boxes contained two levers. One was connected to a food dispensary unit, the other to an electrified floor. If the pigeon hit the “correct” lever it would get a tasty treat. If it hit the “incorrect” lever it would get a shock. Skinner reasoned, correctly, that the pigeon learned from experience when it stopped pecking the lever connected to the electrified floor. But he then took the enormous step in assuming that this is how all behavior in all biological species is determined. He called this process “reinforcement.”

That this is manifestation of the liberal episteme in the field of psychology should be obvious. When we replace the pigeon in the box with the human being in the world, we see an atomized agent free to behave as he likes, but then subject to obstacles. The capacity for “right” behavior emerges through a trial and error and, ultimately, a competitive process. No inbuilt laws of behavior are required. All behavior is determined by the external environment imposing shocks and rewards and the human being is merely a calculating machine seeking to maximize rewards and minimize shocks. The better the human calculates, the better he competes, the better he thrives. Humans that are better at calculating outlive those that are worse and thus is the social machine determined.

Skinner then transferred this framework into the field of linguistics. He viewed human children as blank slates upon whom the social machine makes its linguistic imprint. “Verbal behavior,” he wrote, “is operant behavior whose properties are selected by the reinforcing action of a mediator on the basis of their correspondence to the conventions of a community.”[7] Immediately, this explanation should strike us as odd. It begs the question. If the child learns the language through the shocks and rewards imposed by the community on the child, then where does the language come from in the first place? We can discern the structure clearly enough, but what of the genesis? Skinner seems to have in mind that language develops over time through a similar competitive process. Humans grunt and shriek at first, then gradually their linguistic expression becomes more refined through time. The regulating agency for this, one assumes, is the liberal episteme’s meta-principle: competition.

The problem with Skinner’s theory was that it simply could not be used to account for the structures of grammar we find in actual language. Grammar is a funny thing. It is one of the most amazingly complex of intellectual formations, yet most of the time—that is, outside of linguistic study and grammar classes—speakers are not consciously aware of these strict rules governing their speech. Despite being unconscious of the formal rules, speakers will correct themselves if they make a grammatical fumble without thinking twice.

Grammar also does not seem to be lacking even in the least intelligent of humans, nor in those with severe illnesses that otherwise impair linguistic expression (like schizophrenia). And this does not even consider how quickly children learn human language relative to the sheer number of words, structures, and potential sentences that would need to be encountered if language were externally imposed. Language and grammar do not, in short, seem learned and conscious; rather, they seem innate and unconscious. In his review of Skinner’s work, Noam Chomsky summarizes this aptly:

It is not easy to accept the view that a child is capable of constructing an extremely complex mechanism for generating a set of sentences, some of which he has heard, or that an adult can instantaneously determine whether (and if so, how) a particular item is generated by this mechanism, which has many of the properties of an abstract deductive theory. Yet this appears to be a fair description of the performance of the speaker, listener, and learner. If this is correct, we can predict that a direct attempt to account for the actual behavior of speaker, listener, and learner, not based on a prior understanding of the structure of grammars, will achieve very limited success. . . . The fact that all normal children acquire essentially comparable grammars of great complexity with remarkable rapidity suggests that human beings are somehow specially designed to do this, with data-handling or “hypothesis-formulating” ability of unknown character and complexity.[8]

Chomsky’s developments in linguistic were motivated by the scientific method proper. He went out in search for innate laws and he found them in the structure of grammar. Just as Newton discovered mathematical laws determining the force of gravitation, Chomsky and later scientific linguists uncovered mathematical laws determining the structure of grammar. And just as Newton concluded that these laws were embedded in the metaphysical being of the universe, Chomsky determined that grammatical laws were embedded in the metaphysical being of the human person.

The liberal episteme, flowing from the wobbly pen of Skinner, simply could not hold its own against the harmoniously ordered complexities of the human person. Skinner thought that the One of language emerged out of the Many of random utterances by free agents in a competitive framework. In reality, the Many of coherent sentences emerge out of the One of language buried deep in the structures of the human mind. The Word is not built gradually out of grunts and groans; the Word pre-exists as a basic structuring principle of the universe.

Where else does the liberal episteme hide, dressed up in the garb of science? Certainly, in neoclassical economics, with all of its mathematics and its pretensions. This is unsurprising, as we have seen that the liberal episteme first emerged in classical economics. But at that time, it did not pretend to be a science, but rather an art of government. In the twentieth century, however, it pretends to be a science proper. For example, contemporary neoclassical economics tells us that allowing free agents to do as they please, while subject to the forces of competition, will produce in markets Pareto optimal results. This means that resources will be optimally allocated by such activity; a strongly positive, rather than normative statement and one usually communicated by simple, yet compelling mathematics—with all the engineering precision the latter implies.

The liberal episteme also gets much purchase at the outer realms of contemporary biology. Contemporary Neo-Darwinist theory rests wholly on the liberal episteme and is, in fact, a cut-and-paste job from Spencer’s old proto-eugenics doctrines.[9] Most interestingly however, Neo-Darwinism is seen by the public as settled science, with principles as firm as those in physics. In fact, it is anything but. Within the field there is much disagreement over the most basic issues.

For example, the most eminent palaeontologist of the twentieth century, Stephen Jay Gould, did not think that the contemporary fossil record could be explained with the gradualist Neo-Darwinist mechanism and instead proposed a different one. In fact, within evolutionary biology even the definition of base-level concepts such as “species” is not without controversy. Those outside the field (until recently mostly mathematicians[10]) argue that the theory is both mathematically intractable and tautological.[11] Despite that, the Neo-Darwinist theory is generally referred to by supporters of the liberal episteme as evidence of the latter’s scientificity. Without getting into the nuts and bolts of the debate, I would merely counsel the reader not to be fooled.

An exhaustive genealogy of the liberal episteme’s infestation of our civilization’s battery of knowledge would require a book, perhaps two. Here we have only focused on some supposedly “scientific” iterations of the ideology to show that this runs far deeper than the supposedly more gaseous social sciences.

Cultural Entropy

The liberal episteme rests on a gamble: if we allow free agents to do as they please, not only will order emerge, but the best of all possible universes will be created. This should sound absurd. The fact that it does not merely shows how deeply our culture has been corrupted by the liberal episteme. However, the stakes are high, and they are rising every day.

To return to the actual sciences for a moment, consider the concept of entropy. Entropy is a principle in physics and information science that effectively states that, barring intervention, as time marches forward that which is ordered becomes ever more chaotic. This is simple enough to understand and is readily apparent even in day-to-day life. As we live in our home, it gets messy and chaotic. If we do not intervene and impose order by cleaning it, it will become ever more messy and more chaotic. This is entropy in action. The same is true for everything from car maintenance to personal grooming to the potential heat-death of the universe.

The liberal episteme is ultimately a denial of entropy. For those a little more familiar with physics: it is the ideational equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. The liberal episteme wants us to believe that order need not be imposed from outside. It can be generated from within. So, hands off, bud! Leave us alone and let us get on with it—don’t tread on me!

What this means for our societies should be obvious. If the liberal episteme is as absurd as it appears, looked at dispassionately and from outside our corrupted cultural milieu, then allowing it to corrupt our culture is monumentally dangerous. Allowed free reign, the liberal episteme will sow division and chaos. Entropic decay will become worse and worse the stronger the liberal episteme becomes. Order will break down, chaos will emerge. Civilization will dissolve and people will become increasingly uncivil. Harmony and beauty will wilt, and ugliness will stamp itself across space and time. Language itself will deteriorate and the meaning of core words and concepts will become fluid and vacuous. What we are describing is a Hell perhaps less vivid than Dante’s, but at the same time a lot more imaginable.

This is, of course, precisely what we are seeing today. For centuries the liberal episteme was kept in check. In politics, it was countered first by older systems of governance and then, as the democratic age dawned, by checks on the powers of the mob. In morality, it was moderated by an echo of Christianity that grew fainter and fainter over time. In economics, it was slowed down by really-existing economic structures that leaned against the dangerously flattening effects of unfettered exchange. As we get further into the twenty-first century, however, these checks and balances are breaking down. The liberal episteme is demolishing the older, hierarchical, law-governed systems of power. What is emerging is not a higher order but, predictably enough, utter cultural chaos.

We have forgotten the most basic of all possible truths: that just as there is a true, objective structure to the physical universe, there is a true, objective structure to the moral and political universe. If this structure is adhered to and respected, human beings thrive, order emerges and civilization flourishes. If this structure is ignored and faith is placed in the perpetual motion machine of the liberal episteme, human beings become feral, chaos engulfs all and society declines. These are simple truths, known through the ages and not much changed by my use of contemporary scientific language. And yet they are vital truths. They are the truths of the Natural Law.

For centuries we have been living on borrowed time. We have lived in the afterglow of the pre-liberal era, in a sort of interphase where the liberal episteme was ascendant but not yet victorious. Now liberalism proper is upon is. Not as a short, sharp burst as we saw in the French Revolution or a shambling, unstable behemoth like that produced by the October Revolution, but, much more ominously, as a sustained project that has colonized nearly all corners of our societies. If the liberal episteme is not countered it will almost certainly demolish our social world as we know it completely, not merely knocking over the pillars but smashing the stones into dust. Yet by recognizing the liberal episteme for what it is, by naming it and chasing it out into the open, there is perhaps more hope that it can be stopped.  

[1] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1979 (Pantheon Books, 1980), 197.

[2] David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (1752).

[3] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Book 1, Chapter 2.

[4] Isaac Newton, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica: Second Edition (General Scholium, 1713).

[5] Spencer, Herbert. (1851). Social Statics. P414.

[6] This thread may be harder for the reader to follow. But I would strongly suggest carefully examining the little-known influence that Adam Smith had directly on Hegel’s work. See: John Davis & James Henderson, “Adam Smith’s Influence on Hegel’s Philosophical Writings,” Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1991): 184-204.

The strand of liberalism that evolved into socialism is based wholly on the same liberal episteme. We are used to seeing socialism opposed to liberalism, but in reality, socialism is simply a minority strain of liberalism.

[7] B.F. Skinner, Verbal Behavior (1957), 226.

[8] Noam Chomsky, “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” Readings in the Psychology of Language (1967).

Chomsky’s view of language should remind us of Socrates, Meno and the slave boy who quickly masters basic geometry. For good reason. Mathematical reasoning too seems largely innate in humans.

[9] See: Valerie Haines, (1991). “Spencer, Darwin, and the Question of Reciprocal Influence” in the Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 23, No. 3 (1991): 409-431.

[10] See: Marcel-Paul Schützenberger, “The Miracles of Darwinism” in Origins and DesignI (1996).

The poignant and largely unknown remarks by Kurt Gödel are worth examining in some detail. See: Hao Wang, A Logical Journey: From Gödel to Philosophy (1997), 192-193. Due to its sheer obscurity and given the author’s (well-deserved) stature, the following is worth quoting:

I believe that mechanism in biology is a prejudice of our time which will be disproved. In this case, one disproof, in my opinion, will consist in a mathematical theorem to the effect that the formation within geological time of a human body by the laws of physics (or any other laws of similar nature), starting from a random distribution of the elementary particles and the field, is as unlikely as the separation by chance of the atmosphere into its components (192).

[11] See: David Berlinski, “The Deniable Darwin,” Commentary (1996).

Featured: Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de L'Europe, esquisse, 1876; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Vincent Clarke

Vincent Clarke is an independent historian of ideas.

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