U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: John Burt’s LINCOLN’S TRAGIC PRAGMATISM (Part III)

LTPThe following is the third and final installation of our roundtable dedicated to John Burt’s remarkable book, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism. I have heard publication of this book referred to as an “event”–so a roundtable on it is the least we could have done. For Peter Wirzbicki’s original S-USIH review of Burt’s book click here. For the first contribution to the roundtable by Richard King click here. For the second contribution by Peter Kuryla click here.  And now without further ado, Professor Burt responds to his interlocutors. It’s a long read–not sure that Burt writes anything short–but it is well worth your time.

Implicitness, Pragmatism and Responsibility in Lincoln:
Response to Richard King, Peter Kuryla, and Peter Wirzbicki

by John Burt

First, I want to express the deep gratitude I feel to my three interlocutors here. Nobody could ask for more fairminded, more thoughtful, more insightful responses to their work than Richard, Peter, and Peter have given me. I should add that I was just as impressed about the places where they differed from me as I was where they agreed with me, and indeed on a few things they have changed my views, of which more later.

Let me start with Peter Kuryla’s response. He starts by making a case for Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism at a point where many readers (myself included) think it is quite vulnerable, asking how my term “tragic pragmatism” might connect with pragmatism as we have classically come to understand that term from the writings of Peirce and James. I start by conceding, as Peter notes, that I hadn’t intended the term to refer to the formal philosophical tradition, but had in mind a more commonplace sense of the word as referring to a tradition of “seat-of-the-pants, practical decision-making” under the urgent pressure of exigencies. But he shows, as I neglected to do, that my concept of “implicitness,” by which I mean the sense that a concept is freighted with consequences and entailments that, first, continue to exceed any concrete working out of that concept into conceptions in the here and now and, second, continue to bring forth new entailments as the contingencies of history force them to the surface, does bear some resemblance to the Jamesian idea that “moral questions immediately present themselves [to experience] as questions whose solutions cannot wait for sensible proof.”

My notion of implicitness owes a great deal to the distinction made by H.L.A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin between a law’s underlying concept and its realization in conceptions shaped and limited by the habits of life among which they come to the surface. It derives also from the idea of “negative capability” first described by John Keats in a now-famous letter to his brother. And it derives from Michael Polanyi’s concept of “tacit knowledge,” the idea that there is more to our ideas than we can ever articulate, and that the knowledge we can articulate is rooted in knowledge that we cannot.

My development of the distinction between concept and conception may differ from Hart’s and from Dworkin’s, because I see the concept as essentially implicit and opaque, as fundamentally resisting the effort of the mind to exhaust it completely in conceptions. It is in the nature of our most important values that we do not fully know what they commit us to when we commit ourselves to them. Our deepest values have inexhaustible inwardness; we never fully understand them, we are continually seeking to apprehend their meaning more deeply. We cannot treat them as axioms in a logical demonstration because we do not really know their full meaning until we have lived our way into them. Under pressure of urgent contingencies, our values continue to unfold new layers of obligation we did not appreciate beforehand, and may even have explicitly disavowed.

I saw the distinction between concept and conception as related to but distinct from the traditional distinction between divine law and human law, or the distinction between higher law and positive law. The difference is this: to see a deep conflict as turning on the difference between divine law and human law is to tempt each side to seek to resolve their differences by force (since my side has God with it and your side does not) and thus to turn their conflict into a test of which side is strong rather than of which side is right, but to see that conflict as turning upon the relationship that contrasting conceptions have to their shared underlying concept is to seek to preserve persuasive comity and to keep alive the possibility of resolving the conflict through a transformative meeting of minds. In a very incisive critique of my book by Diana Schaub in the Claremont Review of Books she argued that my notion of implicitness, like the notion of the higher law generally, could give one a license to bend legal texts however one wishes; my own view is that the fact that one is responsible both to the concept and the conception, in the way one is responsible both to an ideal of justice and to playing by the rules of a procedural republic, somewhat limits the chance that the idea of implicitness can be used to justify just about anything. (But that’s a different fight.)

Peter argues that my notion of implicitness, while not Jamesian, is closer to James than I realized. James is concerned, as I am, chiefly with how people experience their values, and sees values as, as I do, as being something one cannot completely construct from first principles. James saw himself as standing in the same relationship to Verificationism that Kant saw himself standing to Empiricism. Recognizing that verificationism could not be asked to ground ethical knowledge, James grounded ethical knowledge in urgent necessities of conduct that outrun the possibility of sensible proof; experience provides the foundation for ethics that evidence can’t. James seeks to “make some room for moral belief apart from the kind of scientism that would deny the ultimate reality or transcendence of such things as morals, which in the first place defies the way that we experience and feel about our beliefs.”

My argument is a little different, Peter notes, because unlike James I argue not that our ultimate values are ungroundable but that they are unknowable. (More precisely, I argue that the unfolding of Lincoln’s policies about slavery and race make most sense if one understands him as being guided by a sense of the implicitness of values like that I have tried to develop. That said, I see the idea of implicitness as having value in itself, and don’t see it only as a heuristic construction to make interpretation of Lincoln’s speeches clearer.) For James, ethical claims cannot be verified, but what they demand can be clear; for me ethical claims remain partly opaque despite everything.

The hard decisions, for instance the decision about whether to deal or to fight in the face of a fraught conflict which risks descending to a violent struggle whose outcome is uncertain, ultimately remain leaps in the dark. I see our moral thinking as subject to two intractable limitations: first, we have, as Isaiah Berlin argued, no reason to believe that our values do all ultimately sort together; we have every reason to expect that our values will be in intractable and high-stakes conflict with each other. Second, we engage in politics always in the shadow of the violence that follows the failure of politics, and what we can make deals about is subject not only to the limits of what decent people should not be asked to compromise but also to the limits set by the likelihood of their being able to survive the consequences of drawing a line in the sand. I want to recognize the liability of force without romanticizing it. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said that “Between two groups of people who want to make inconsistent kinds of worlds, I see no remedy but force.” I want to keep the possibility that this is true before me, but I also want to resist the idea that the truth of Holmes’ claim is ineluctable.

Peter also makes a fascinating argument about the form of my book. He notices that my concept of implicitness commits me to a procedure that may be seen as unhistorical: because the values Lincoln sought to serve had an implicit dimension, I could not interpret those values only within the horizon of Lincoln’s own time and place. I had to intervene to say what Lincoln meant by his words but couldn’t express for himself, and made arguments about what Lincoln intuitively “knew without knowing.” I think Peter is right that this procedure has risks and could easily go very wrong, and if I intervene for Lincoln in the name of a plausible ontological claim about concepts, it really is an open question where Lincoln ends and where I start (although I do hope that in most of the particular cases I was able to specify, from Lincoln’s own words, why I thought what I did about what he had in mind).

I think two things justify the risk of tracing out some of the further commitments which follow from an implicit value, from a concept. The first is that I conceived of the concerns of the book as ineluctably normative. I did not want to see Lincoln’s arguments only as strategic interventions in his conflict with Douglas but as insights into issues you and I also struggle with and find just as difficult as Lincoln did. I wanted to argue that we could learn from him, not merely about him; I saw my task not only as interpretive (“this is what Lincoln valued”) but also as normative (“this is the light Lincoln casts on issues that are still alive for us”). I did not want to draw a crass application to modern issues (having, Lincoln, say, endorse my own presidential candidate), but I did want to see Lincoln as involved in issues that implicate us no less than him.

My second argument derives from an observation Ernst Cassirer made in An Essay on Man. Cassirer was interested in Leopold von Ranke’s claim that the scholar should seek to understand history wie es eigentlich gewesen, “as it essentially was.” Ranke’s phrase is often taken as arguing for an objectivist, only the facts without interpretation ethos, the kind of thing parodied in Dickens’ portrayal of Professor Gradgrind’s tirade about facts facts facts in the opening pages of Hard Times. But that, argues Cassirer, was not what Ranke in fact practiced, and it wasn’t what he intended to argue either. Ranke’s power as a historian, Cassirer argued, derives not only from the thoroughness of his research and his rigorous separation of primary from secondary sources, but also from his imaginative capacity to inhabit the minds of historical agents whose values profoundly differ from his own. His objectivity is not the creation of his factuality but of his literary imagination, his ability to see the world of his subjects as Shakespeare saw the world of Lady Macbeth or Richard III. Cassirer’s point is that objectivity in the interpretive sciences is the creature of imagination, and is not possible without it. I want to note in passing that Cassirer’s argument is not what we would now call an antifoundationalist or a poststructuralist one. His argument is not that there is not objectivity, that all accounts are fictional; his argument is that objectivity is possible, but only through the imagination.

Finally, Peter asks about my principle of inclusion in the book, things I regret including and things I regret cutting. The first draft of the book had chapters or sections on the Federalist Papers, on the Lyceum speech, on the 1845 Narrative of Frederick Douglass, and on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I hope someday to write another book to pick up those various pieces. It also had extended sections trying to connect the idea of implicitness with L.S. Vygotsky’s idea of a “complex” and with Wittgenstein’s idea of “family resemblances.” Those ideas remain of interest to me, but I didn’t need to develop them to make the points I wanted to make about Lincoln. Finally, my original conception of the book turned much more on Arendt, especially on On Revolution, but also on The Life of the Mind. I think in retrospect that my thinking about implicitness would have been deepened by a more sustained engagement with Arendt on Thinking and on Willing.

I’d like to treat Peter Wirzbicki’s response in his review and Richard King’s in his paper together, because both turn on the problem of moral narcissism, a subject about which I have changed my mind. Richard is right when he points out my profound intellectual debt to Robert Penn Warren, to C. Vann Woodward, and to Reinhold Niebuhr. The starting point of my book was Warren’s little book The Legacy of the Civil War, which David Blight has recently elegantly treated, and the last chapter of my Lincoln book grew directly out of my 1988 book on Warren. Peter, Peter, and Richard may have noticed that the essay on the Second Inaugural I sent to them this summer not only has an epigraph from Robert Penn Warren’s Brother to Dragons (“The recognition of complicity is the beginning of innocence”) but has an undercurrent of allusions to Warren throughout. Despite all this, I think my perspective is rather different from Warren’s.

Warren’s critique of moral narcissism descends from a common southern hostility to higher law idealism that arises from defensiveness about being southern. To see their harshest critics as enthusiasts in the root sense of that word, as people who in Luther’s phrase, believe they have swallowed the holy spirit feathers and all, offers obvious consolations. Richard is right that there is something suspect about the way hostility to higher law idealism makes “1950s southern moderates and liberals sound as they they were offering elegant justifications of a go-slow, plague-on-both-your-houses stance” during the Civil Rights era.

I think ultimately Warren’s position is slightly different from this, and mine is slightly different from Warren’s. For one thing, Warren, unlike many other southerners, never uses his critique of higher law idealism to blow smoke at the idea that the Civil War turned on slavery or at the idea that slavery was a crime. Even in his bad first book on John Brown Warren distinguishes not just between Brown and Lincoln as wrong and right opponents of slavery but also between Brown and such sterner, less morally flabby figures as Frederick Douglass and Henry Wilson, although Warren also spends a lot of time sophomorically beating up on Emerson and Thoreau. Even more than this, Warren’s obsession with higher law idealists throughout his fiction argues that they were not figures of opposition (or ideological straw men) for him but unacknowledged versions of himself, in the way that Milton’s Satan is for Milton. Moral narcissism is the shadow of higher law idealism, and Warren treats higher law idealism so obsessively because he feels its temptations himself. He knows that it is an occupational hazard of morally serious people.

When I was working on Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism friends often took me to task, saying, “Why do you defend moderates like Lincoln and Seward and criticize radicals like John Brown when you concede that Brown was right that slavery could not have been ended without war and that the war was if not inevitable at least very likely?” One thing I wanted to be sure of was not to use the concept of moral narcissism to separate the radicals from the moderates, nor to use it to separate those who were willing to resort to violence from those who were not, though I still want to maintain the distinction between those for whom violence remained the continuation of politics by other means and those who sought purity through violence. But I’m still not totally sure I answered the question my friends put to me.

One thing I perhaps did not make clear enough was that I did not conceive of moral narcissism as a mere character flaw or as a problem endemic to antislavery or to idealist critiques of society generally. I saw moral narcissism as the consequence of a deep problem in the idea of the good itself, as a consequence of the fact that nothing is more likely to tempt us to trample others than the idea of the good, that nothing is more capable of driving us to do evil things than a desperate and urgent, indeed an emergency sense, of what the good requires of us. Under conditions of moral emergency, it is our very virtues that are most likely to drive us to do shameful things, and those temptations are felt more strongly by morally serious natures than by morally shallow ones. Moral panic, more than moral narcissism, might have been a better term for what I had in mind.

In On Revolution Hannah Arendt makes an interesting case about the limitations of Captain Vere from Melville’s Billy Budd. Vere is a well-read student of the Enlightenment, someone who knows his Burke, his Hume, his Locke, and his Smith. But this very learning unfits him for the crisis he will face in the course of the story, for Vere morally organizes the world around ideas of vice and virtue, ideas which turn on self control and the prudent regulation of impulses, and notions such as metaphysical good, embodied in Billy, and metaphysical evil, embodied in Claggart, are not in his repertoire. His radio simply does not tune to those frequencies. Metaphysical good and metaphysical evil are equally impossible for him to comprehend, and contact with either is equally destructive to his moral world, and equally liable to morally discredit him. Vere is one of a host of characters in Melville, from Starbuck to the lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” to Amasa Delano in “Benito Cereno,” who are simply not intellectually or morally equipped to come to terms with their world.

Now the difference between a world organized around vice and virtue and a world organized around good and evil does not exactly render my sense of what is at stake in the political crisis of the 1850s. But consider this slightly different version of the distinction: what is the difference between a world organized around right and wrong and a world organized around good and evil, and what happens when people who see the world in terms of right and wrong are confronted with a world in which there is good and evil? (This is the scenario of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock.)

It is easy to see that the wrong-doer and the evil are ontologically different beings. The wrong is the wrongly twisted, and the word wrong runs in company with wrest, wrist, wrench, wring, wright (with a w). I’m not sure whether it also runs with wreck, wreak, and wrath, but I would be surprised if it did not. The wrongdoer seems closer to a man with a vice than to someone with a positive attraction to the dark side, to the evil. The wrongdoer would certainly seem to have more in common with the rightdoer than the metaphysically good does with the metaphysically evil. The world of politics, to the extent that it is a moral world at all, is more easily conceived of as a world in which right and wrong struggle with each other than as a world in which good and evil do, if only because right and wrong are human in the same way, and good and evil are not. Right knows how to argue with wrong, knows what will tell with wrong, has some idea how to wrestle wrong around to right. Right can meet wrong in the same way virtue meets with vice, in the arena of persuasion and negotiation, and in doing so it need not risk its character as right. By contrast, good cannot have the kind of persuasive hold on evil that right does on wrong, and good must always risk its character as good when it is in conflict with evil.

Those who see the world in terms of right and wrong will always show up poorly if they find themselves in a world in which good and evil are in play. Think how poorly, for instance, Starbuck holds his own against Ahab. Think of how poor a case for himself Serenus Zeitblom makes in Mann’s Doctor Faustus, not only against Leverkuhn, but also against Hitler. Zeitblom is well aware of cutting a ridiculous figure in Mann’s novel. Mann is aware, and Zeitblom is aware, that the Enlightenment values he stands for are discredited in a modern world in which they have no charisma and seem to be no more than excuses, good manners, and pious conformities. Mann offers no alternative values, indeed offers nothing stronger than Zeitblom’s pale humanism, to meet the challenge the novel poses, even as he is aware of the weakness of those values.

But what would it take, really, to hold your own in that world? If you could hold your own personally, say through a kind of defiant mysticism, could you redeem the world for a decent political order with that means, or would you only redeem yourself from that world? And what would it take, assuming that you come at it as a good-enough human being rather than as a saint, to hold your own against Ahab? Isn’t almost the first thing that would happen to you that you would become rather like him? And isn’t that also rather like what made Ahab into Ahab in the first place — the sense that he too, in the figure of the White Whale, had to grapple with an irruption of metaphysical evil? Isn’t one of the big lessons of Melville that the high road to evil is the attempt to confront evil directly? For what wouldn’t you be justified in doing if those were the stakes? How could you avoid mobilizing all the darkest aspects of your own personality if you felt that is what it would take to hold off darkness’s power? Melville leaves the reader with two uncomfortable choices: those who cannot distinguish evil and wrong, as Starbuck cannot, not only fail in their confrontation with evil but are morally discredited by it. But those who face evil as what it is are, no matter what their intentions, darkened by it.

I think it was always Lincoln’s effort to understand the conflict over slavery in terms of right and wrong. Indeed, with Douglas he framed the issue as a conflict between seeing the issue as between right and wrong and seeing the issue as between profit and loss. But Lincoln was usually careful to always preserve a sense of his moral kinship with his enemies, from the Peoria speech to the Second Inaugural Address. What I have called Lincoln’s resistance to moral narcissism, his rejection of higher-law idealism, might as easily be seen as his resistance to seeing the conflict over slavery as a conflict between good and evil rather than as a conflict between right and wrong.

Was Lincoln correct to do so? It’s clear that seeing the conflict in the other way would have had profound effects, both in how the war was waged, once it came to violence, and in how political life is to be arranged after the violence is over. It would seem to complicate peacemaking to see one’s enemy in demonic terms, but in our own time we have seen it done twice, so presumably it’s not impossible.

But the problem still remains. A conflict over right and wrong may become a violent conflict, but even as a violent conflict it remains a conflict between human beings who will sooner or later have to live with each other, and as a conflict it can still be seen as Clausewitz sees war, as a political conflict carried on by other means. But a conflict over good and evil is a conflict in which almost anything is possible, and indeed almost anything becomes not only in bounds but required, called for by the very gravity of the issue in conflict. It’s hard to imagine any way back from such a conflict. Yet the fact remains, and the history of the last century shows, that the demonic is an ever present possibility in human nature, and one that one can find not far under the surface. How to manage that possibility and to contain its challenge to our moral identity and to liberal politics is a challenge I don’t think I answer in my book. I don’t think I have any idea how to answer that challenge even now.

Now that is where my original draft of this response ended. But the argument just can’t end there, can it? I had set out to rethink the problem of moral narcissism in order to give a deeper account of the problem that would not treat it as a mere character flow. This led me to the commonplace that politics can mediate conflicts about right and wrong but not about good and evil. But this commonplace rendered the problem less tractable, and seemed to leave my thinking at an impasse.

I think one way out might be to think through an earlier critique of my book — made by Jim Kloppenberg at a conference at Yale in 2013 — that I don’t think I have satisfactorily answered, and that is that I did not provide a way in Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism to account for the frequent success of nonviolent resistance, caught up as I was in the choice the figures I was thinking about had to make between dealing or fighting. First, I’d like to embrace Arendt’s distinction, drawn here in this roundtable by Richard, between conscientious objection, which is a mode of self-purifying withdrawal from the public world, and civil disobedience, which is a mode of transformative moral engagement with the public world. The civilly disobedient person is not only engaged with the public order, a public order shared with the opponent, but is also engaged in a very immediate way with the opponent, whom he confronts in order to make him face the violence the opponent would rather not acknowledge himself to be capable of, and to whose better angels the civilly disobedient seeks to appeal, asking the opponent whether he and his sympathizers really do want to be the people their acts reveal them to be.

At first glance this does not appear to be a promising solution to the problem I just articulated. A common critique of nonviolence is that it can be expected to be effective only against the wrong, not against the evil; it could be effective against segregation, for instance, this argument runs, only because in the wake of the Second World War white southerners were already ambivalent about segregation and therefore were ripe for the moral shock of recognition that nonviolent protest gave them. Or at least enough of them were ripe for the moral shock to make the strategy of nonviolent moral confrontation promising. By contrast, the Tolstoyan and other pacifists Vassily Grossman describes in his great novel of Stalingrad Life and Fate would seem to be engaged in a very futile resistance to an entire political order organized against them, except that even in the face of their failures their examples continue to resonate in the mind of Grossman himself, and their courage is especially sharply defined in a novel in which almost no other character is capable of retaining integrity. These characters don’t prevail against opponents in the novel, and it almost doesn’t matter to them whether they do, but they do teach a lesson to Grossman’s own imagined readers in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, and perhaps they would do so even to Grossman’s imagined readers had he somehow written the novel in Stalin’s day, although this I am less sure about. That leaves the question of whether the promise of nonviolence is wishful or not still an open one.

But perhaps this critique, that nonviolent civil disobedience can reach the wrong but not the evil, depends upon a mistaken conception of evil itself, that it depends upon imagining evil in the Gnostic fashion, as a force, rather than in the Augustinian fashion, as a privation. If, with Arendt, we imagine evil as a failure of thinking, as she describes evil in The Life of the Mind (looking back to here to Eichmann in Jerusalem), we deprive evil of the appearance of dark charisma, revealing the shrivelled body of Anakin Skywalker inside the dark giant costume of Darth Vader and the vaunting would-be Nietzschean Übermensch turns out to be a masquerade put on by the Nietzschean last man.

What did Arendt mean by “a failure of thinking?” I don’t think it was merely a matter of the formulaic, cliché-ridden verbiage that came out of Eichmann at his trial. Arendt imagined thinking as an unending dialogue with an internal other, and connected this internal unending dialogue with the unending and perpetually teasing dialogues of Socrates with his interlocutors. What Arendt seems to have had in mind was not only Socrates’ restless self-overthrowing in the toils of his own conversation, but also how that restlessness not only kept him from becoming the prisoner of somebody’s Big Ideas (including the Big Idea of philosophical skepticism). Further, this habit of unending conversation kept him from serving either the injustice of the democracy at the time of the trial of the admirals or the injustice of the oligarchs at the time of the Thirty Tyrants. Socrates himself is often kept from wrong courses by the unanticipated sting of his divine sign, the Socratic daimon. What the aporia his dialogues keep returning to seems to be is a public form of what Socrates experiences internally from the daimon. With this model of thinking in mind, we can say that what the nonviolent seem to seek to provoke from their interlocutors is a moment of shamefaced recognition rather like those moments of aporia that keep happening to both the dogmatic dumbbells and the skeptical wiseguys in the Socratic dialogues. Such moments of shamefaced recognition would seem to be the hallmark of thinking, in which case it is easy to see how such an act of thinking, provoked by a non-violent anagnorisis, could be restorative. But it’s not completely easy to see how such shamefaced thought might have an effect in less everyday failures of thinking. It’s still not easy to see how this might contain the power of truly demonic political evil.

If evil is a failure of thinking and not a dark charismatic inside knowledge of reality (as it seems to promise to be in literature), then there is reason to hope for the effectiveness of nonviolence in awakening the evil, not just the wrong. The nonviolent civil disobedient concedes that wrong slides into evil, and that the line between them is a hard one to draw; but at the same time the nonviolent civil disobedient also argues that the opponent’s evil may not be the only salient fact about his nature, and it is this that allows the nonviolent, in the act of confrontation, to claim kinship with him. The anagnorisis of nonviolence turns on the wager that even in the case of the evil their evil is not the whole story. As far as leaps in the dark go, that is an attractive one.

I think there is a similar wager involved in the Second Inaugural Address. It’s important to remember that for all of its irenic conclusion the speech is a very angry one. In fact it is harder to find an angrier moment in American public oratory than the penultimate paragraph, in which Lincoln suggests that God may not be satisfied until every drop of blood drawn with the lash is paid for by one drawn by the sword. That’s why I don’t think the rhetorical strategy of the speech amounts to the claim that if everyone is guilty nobody is, for that strategy is not compatible with the anger one finds in that paragraph. I think the rhetorical strategy is different: Lincoln offers an opening to the defeated Confederacy, saying in effect, if you agree to a new birth of freedom I won’t dwell on what a bad guy you are since I also have things to be ashamed of.

I haven’t addressed the paper I sent the panel on the Second Inaugural Address in which I distinguished between agential and ontological guilt, and perhaps we can develop views about that in conversation. But I wanted to add in passing that what Richard says about responsibility seems very similar to what I had in mind about ontological guilt. If you talk with Germans of the current generation, they will not tell you that the crimes of the Nazi regime had nothing to do with them, although they are two generations or so removed from the Nazi era; they will tell you that their history gives them a special sense of responsibility, a special discomfort, but also a special awareness, and a special set of duties. I think that’s what I had in mind for ontological guilt. And in America I think that special responsibility includes but is not exhausted by a special demand for bringing about racial equality, and, a special demand for racial reconciliation.