Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Principle and history

James W. Ceaser has written some very good books, including this and this., and I think I’ve read them all and profited from them all. This one may be his best. It is called Nature and History in American Political Development. It was the inaugural Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture at Harvard in 2004 and has comments (chapters, really) from Jack Rakove, Nancy Rosenblum, and Rogers Smith. Ceasar’s lecture (about 100 pages, or half the book) is simply terrific. He traces what he calls foundational concepts throughout American history, from Nature as a permanent, unchanging, or standard of right, to the idea of the Historical School (tradition), and then to the Philosophy of History (progress). To be short about it: Jefferson says we did not need to search musty records to "investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved in our hearts." Then compare Woodrow Wilson, who said this (at a Jefferson day celebration, no less!): "if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface."

Ceasar understands that the two make claims of right. He artfully explains and interprets our history in light of this battle, explains how and why customary history is often sufficient to be used on behalf of natural right (see the Whigs elevation of tradition pre-1850’s), and then why Republicans (and then Lincoln’s statesmanship) came to see the necessity of an emphasis on nature again. And then Ceasar traces the
dark ages during the Reconstruction period when the Darwinian (Hegelian) ideas were allowed deep entry into American political life: "The original idea of natural right lost ground, and with it any plan for securing for the rights of all citizens."
Then came the Progressives--and Ceasar says that the name does not deceive--and their
full-throated attack on the idea of natural right, "making Progressivism the first major national movement to offer the concept of History as the nation’s primary foundational idea." He then talks about the present and how Progressivism has collapsed and how the new element has been introduced into American politics: "a restoration of the foundational concept of nature." And this has been done not on the basis of myth or convenient fiction (or something merely salutary), but "as something intelligible based on an account of the nature of human beings and of the political order."

You get the drift. Ceasar has it right, the essay is elegant and will lead you to all manner of good ideas. Get the book and chew on it.

Discussions - 18 Comments

Sounds good, but is Hegel really compatible with Darwin?

Mr. Lewis (or Dr. Lewis?),

I think Dr. Schramm is drawing on the Darwinian process of evolution and Hegel’s historicism. The only real similair idea between these two men is their belief that something (in Darwin’s case, biology; in Hegel’s, society) is constantly evolving and progressing.

Hat Tip to Dr. Burkett for his "American Political Thought II" course . . . if anyone has anymore questions about Hegel (or the Progressive movement as a whole), you should look him up (he works at Ashland). Also, you might be interested in an essay I wrote (it talks about the movement of historicism from Germany to the United States through Dr. Richard T. Ely) . . . (nothing like self-promotion . . . :-D) for Burkett’s class.

Matt, not the Dr. but the gadfly.

You could also try Dr. Vaughn in the philosophy department for a handling of Hegel’s Epistemology(theory of Mind)...which is decidely different from the progressives, Dewey.

As a side question: does historicism need to travel from Germany to the United States, or could the ideas be developed independently?

(It is I suppose historical fact that the ideas came with people coming back from schooling in germany...)

Let us suppose that Darwin was worried about the consequences to religious belief of publishing his theory of evolution(which he was). Let us also suppose that many people reading of the theory harbored such fears. Now let us suppose that because of such fears we would want to believe that God acts through evolution. So...just as Darwin’s theory Naturalistically read pushes God out of the Swoops Hegel’s Universal Spirit to not only bring him back in...but to catalogue Darwin’s Naturalism as residing far below phrenology(the science of reading head bumps)in the grand scheme of unfolding thought itself.

Mr. Lewis,

I certainly don’t agree with you about Hegel’s Universal Spirit and its differences with Darwin. There are a lot more differences between Hegel and Darwin than similarities . . .

And I seriously doubt that historicism would have developed independently in the United States. Germany (and a few other European countries) has a history of developing excellent philosophers and philosophical schools (that are unique and original). Nothing like that has ever come out of the United States (and pragmatism doesn’t count . . . it relies all too much on foreign thought). We have no great original philosophers and I don’t think we have one real philosophical school. Our education is much too ridiculous to produce concrete thought like that (at the high school level much more than at the college level). When a German student comes to study in America, they’ve already read Kant, Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, Heidegger, etc. in high school. We’d never do that, though . . . those high school students might actually begin to think for themselves . . . and become . . . *gasp* . . . LIBERALS!!! :-D

Heh. In all seriousness, though, I doubt historicism would have ever developed in the U.S. independent of men like Richard Ely and his American peers who studied in Europe . . .

Oops. I meant "I certainly don’t DISagree with you . . ."

Matt, I have to take issue with the idea of not reading books in high school because of the fear of making them liberals. The educational establishment is overwhelmingly liberal and books, especially the great books, are continuously being pushed aside for all the latest new nonsense. Traditionalists are going to classical schools and the like because of their desire to get back to Socrates, Rousseau, Voltaire, Lincoln, et al. Also, I think it is mistaken to think that those who read great books will inevitably become liberal. Just look around NLT.

First of all, I agree with all Tony’s points concerning the reading of good books. Second, how are Darwin and Hegel so different? I have to go to work now or I’d elaborate, but from what I understand of Hegel they’re not incompatable at all.


Come on. I was being sarcastic about everyone reading good books becoming liberal. However, I do think that liberals tend to encourage free expression and expanded education much more than conservatives (from what I’ve seen).

I would love to see some proof for liberals "pushing aside" the great classics. Sure, they introduce new "nonsense" every now and again, but I don’t think they do this at the expense of the classics. They just don’t linger on them FOREVER (as many classes taught by Ashbrook faculty seem to do). The Ancients are great and a lot can be learned from them when we study political science . . . but they’re not the only people who ever wrote anything (any political science student at Ashland should understand what I’m discussing here). I’m sure there are programs that completely discount the Ancients, but I really don’t see how that’s much different than completely discounting modern political thought . . . both should be included in the curriculum of any serious university (or high school).

I think what I was really trying to get at in my last comment was the poor condition of our secondary education here in the United States. This makes it more difficult for universities, because it requires them to make all of the freshman catch-up. I wish they could just take off from a firm educational foundation . . . but that’s really not readily available here in the U.S.

The compatibility issue is an interesting one. As I’ve stated before, I think they are on a certain level, but more often are not. Here’s what the Marxists think. Heh. I’ve read excerpts from this book which tries to unite the two and it makes some serious stretches (but feel free to buy a copy . . . for $95 . . .). All in all, though, I think these two are largely incompatible because they’re discussing two fairly different subjects, regardless of their agreement that in each one there is a sort of evolution. I don’t really see any strong analogies being made between Hegel’s historicist ideology and Darwin’s biological ideology based on that sole similarity.

If you’d like to point out some specific instances where you can really draw out comparable ideas, Andrew, I’d like to see some . . .

Hegel is incompatible with Darwin from a Darwinian perspective, but Darwin is not incompatible with Hegel, from a Hegelian perspective. Almost nothing is incompatible with Hegel, nay nothing can be incompatible with Hegel, for all thought that is possible is either already contained within the system, or a new manifestation of Universal spirit.

But unless Andrew enlightens us...or until, I would like to take offense at your statement concerning education.

"We have no great original philosophers and I don’t think we have one real philosophical school. "Our education is much too ridiculous to produce concrete thought like that (at the high school level much more than at the college level). When a German student comes to study in America, they’ve already read Kant, Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, Heidegger, etc. in high school. We’d never do that, though . . . those high school students might actually begin to think for themselves . . . and become . . . *gasp* . . . LIBERALS."

My real question is: does concrete thought have to be produced? Does reading the great germans produce concrete thought? does it allow thought at all? or does it simply make Topiaries of men, molded to the image of the master?

If reading Kant, Hegel, Marx, Rousseau and Heidegger allows thought then pragmatism represents thought, thought that is unique(as all thought must be?) and thus a real american philosophic school.

I would also perhaps argue that Objectivism (Ayn Rand) is a totally unique american philosophical school.

On the other hand, I would ask you, how is your fast ball? Nowadays, and in America one doesn’t become a great german philosopher unless one is in some way defective. Or perhaps that is unfair, but what drives one man to books, and another to sports...and others to religion and why do we still lead the world in inventions, productivity and growth? As Marx’s mother used to say Marx talks about Capital an awfull lot for someone who lacks it.

"I do think that liberals tend to encourage free expression"

Nope, no they don’t. Not by a long shot. The only free expressions they encourage, for the most part, are ones that are in line with liberal thought.

I think liberals tend to encourage free expression. It’s just that their encouragement turns on specific assumptions which the "classical" idea of free expression (or you like it) is not concerned with. Hence, "too many rich white males," as an argument against a thing’s (books) value.


What do you mean when you talk about "original" philosophy? Is it developed exclusive to other schools of thought? If not, then I’d object to your solution about book selection in the class room. Here we go:

I would answer John’s "real" questions above in this manner: 1)yes; 2)no; 3)yes; 4)sometimes (the only way to tell is based on another’s use of it).

Given these things, there are reasons why works on "modern political thought" should not push aside the classics [for proof of this taking place, look at Columbia University and the books that are being replaced on their famous core curriculum (and then refer to my last post, even though these men are only thought of as white because they gained a permanent place in the modern western thought?)]. It cannot be so simple as to include everything because there is not enough time, and it is not so easy as to diversify with arbitrary selections or specific excerpts (arbitrary in that there needs to be a reason that a student can understand for the selections; excerpts because there ability to educate is at least questionable).

My point is that thought is produced; a jet was not the work of a spontaneous and original idea. Rather, it is built on the thoughts, plans, and breakthroughs of others (don’t think Hegel here, that’s not my point). As also with philosophy. Inevitably, a choice must be made as to what students should be taught. Students should be taught what can be understood. The classics, on a philosophical scale, work as the foundation to modern (western) political thought. In order to recognize where a modern school (ideologue) has come from, the foundation must be understood...

Obviously, there is more to it than this. The choice is related to many other factors as well, but I could never have had an inkling of what Hegel meant without Kant and Spinoza, and without Hegel, not progressivism (unless the choice of presumed premises need not be explained or justified, in which case Neitzche comes into play). As on the other hand, it would be difficult to understand the significance of what Lincoln meant without the Declaration and the Federalist Papers, and those without Locke, Rousseau, Berkely (maybe), etc. And all this is not the result of accident, there are reasons why classics exist today, as they did a century ago. Perhaps we linger on them FOREVER because they have something to say; not something to be absorbed, mind you, but rather to be considered, both as to there relevance, application, and results.



Do you say Hegel is exclusive to Darwin’s theory from Darwin’s perspective because of phenomonolgy and spriit?

I disagree somewhat with your answers to my questions, but I can’t really answer them myself so I bracket

To answer Fred and Matt Mingus here is what I really think.

Darwin would have rejected Hegel. There is nothing scientific in Hegel that Darwin wouldn’t consider psuedo-science. Darwin is properly a Brit, and if thought must come from and be built upon foundations, then Darwin’s foundations are closer to John Stuart Mill than to Hegel. Indeed, despite all the noise about the Pragmatists being deeply influenced by Hegel, we should do well to remmember that which tortured Schaupenhaeur, namely that there was more thought in Germany than simply Hegel. But of course Schaupenhaeur and his music do not lie on the path to Darwin. Indeed if we must trace the Pragmatic mind to Germany we could embrace a robust Pragmatism in the works of Karl Popper (the german basis of Karl Popper’s thougths could have been identical to those of the American Pragmatists...)who in The Open Society and its ennemies and The Logic of Scientific Discovery go to great lenghts to skeewer Plato, not to mention Hegel. And I think the British mind of Darwin building on the structures of Mill is a hell of a lot closer to Popper than Hegel. In fact Karl Popper’s Evolutionary epistemology is much, much in debt to Darwin...because it advances/evolves on the basis of falsifiability. So Darwin is not compatible with Hegel, if we take as Darwin’s Epistemology either that of Mill or Popper, but to do otherwise is to mistake the type of scientist he was.

Now getting back to the american pragmatists... they were influenced by Hegel(in some way, I suppose)... and this is a bad thing. But they were also influenced by Mill, and this is a good thing. And they also grew out of a unique American experience.... which I think makes them original if such a thing can be spoken of seriously.

John Dewey is simply someone who Americanised and reconstituted John Stuart Mill..(althought I have my beefs with the guy) and American pragmatism if it is anything unoriginal owes more to the British than the Germans. (Of course the question is: Was John Stuart Mill more in line with Hume and Locke (the brits) or was he influenced by others such as his oft refferenced "The Sphere and Duties of Government" by Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt? (this isn’t a real important question to me because I think von Humbolt is british without being from britian. As Dr. Schramm is American without being from America.)


I’m a little late weighing in. First, thanks Peter for bringing Jim Ceaser’s most recent effort to our attention; I’ve read it and as you say it’s a grand tour through ideas of Nature and History in American political history. Jim’s purpose though isn’t exactly that of the Claremont Institute or the Ashbrook Center, and he certainly doesn’t talk about the relations between Darwin and Hegel. He wants contemporary American political scientists to pay attention to the phenomenon of "foundational ideas" at work in American politics and political history. Moreover, his survey, and his case about "foundational ideas," are part-and-parcel of an ongoing, longstanding effort to articulate a "political science for our times." Thus, I would say that his 1990 book, Liberal Democracy and Political Science (Johns Hopkins), is his best and quintessential book. (Even though Reconstructing America is his most learned and most beautiful book, well worth reading and even pondering, as you point out, Peter.) Therefore an essential aspect of his newest effort is his dialectical engagement with an old-fashioned historian, a good guy, Jack Rakove, a newfangled democratic theorist, Nancy Rosenblum (not a good lady-thinker), and a fellow political scientist, Rogers Smith (who is remarkably civil and sympathetic to Ceaser’s approach). Engaging with them, Ceaser further clarifies his "political science" intention, exploring the place and role of general ideas in American political development, the proper role of political science in understanding and assisting contemporary politics, and - with a fine wit - defending himself against false imputations (by N. Rosenblum, who reveals herself as a left-theorist-incapable of reading another) and Leo Strauss against slurs and mischaracterizations.
BTW: the book originally was a lecture with responses given at, of all places, Harvard. We probably should acknowledge when something good happens at the University on the Charles, especially when it isn’t directly connected with Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.

Look I am going to make this explicit, and at the risk of being wrong say something stupid to boot. Pragmatism as it understands itself has absolutely nothing to do with Hegel. And this I believe is true because it is usefull.

In truth the only pragmatist I have read is Dewey, and Dewey is a Darwinian/Millian/Brit. And not "but I could never have had an inkling of what Hegel meant without Kant and Spinoza, and without Hegel, not progressivism". So Hegel/Kant/Spinoza/German is not Dewey.

And to be honest I never bothered to read Spinoza.

Paul, as usual, is right. If there is a weakness in Jim’s book, it would be that he doesn’t comes to terms sufficiently the issue of what sort of understanding of nature can effectively resist history, and that has something to do with his slighting of religion in the "American experience." And here’s the relationship between Darwin and Hegel: As long as human beings are historical beings (in Hegel’s sense), Darwin doesn’t teach the whole truth (because "natural history" is an oxymoron). But if history has come to an end, then sociobiology has become true. If the animal smart enough to know the alleged comprehensive truth of sociobiology continues to rebel radically against it, say, through the the continued technological and biological conquest of nature, then Darwin doesn’t (yet, perhaps, from a Hegelian perspective) teach the truth.

Peter Lawler’s praise, as usual, is welcome. I’d agree that, while outside the scope of his intention and project, the question of "what sort, or understanding, of Nature can resist History?" is quite germane; I’d even go further and say that his conception and practice of political science - as admirable as it is - doesn’t allow him to handle that theoretical-practical question. (On the other hand, speaking to, or about, C/AC views, I’m not sure that the Founders’s notion of Nature and/or human nature is immune from the assaults and acids of progressive (small "P"!) notions inherent in it and in many (some?) of the Founders’s worldview.)
Jim, though, explicitly says that he doesn’t slight, much less ignore, religion in America, it just didn’t fit within the confines of the original lecture. Let’s - charitably? - give him a pass on "where’s religion?". After all, he was a double major at Kenyon: religion and political science.

Peter is always right on historicism, naturalism, Hegel/Hegelianism, and Darwinism.

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