Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics

My blog entry on Two Kinds of Liberals raised for me a philosophical knot to be untied, implicating such formidable dead men as Aristotle and Wittgenstein.

Aristotle’s interest in natural philosophy and classification leads him to distinguish essential traits from accidental traits. Having four legs and a tail are “essential” traits of a cat; having a calico coloring is an “accidental” trait, a trait that applies to the individual but doesn’t define the category.

Wittgenstein makes a point in the Blue Book that at first sounds similar to Aristotle’s but turns out to be different in implication. Wittgenstein is interested in how we use language. E.g., when we read, do we process the meaning of each word and then put the meanings together? That may seem intuitive, but thinkers as far back as Edmund Burke (in his great 18th-century treatise on the sublime) suspected that this is not how the psychological process works. Wittgenstein asks us to picture someone who hasn’t learned the names for colors. Send him out to pick red flowers today, blue flowers tomorrow. At first you give him a color chart and he compares the flowers in the field to the chart, picking the correct ones. But soon he doesn’t need the chart because he “knows” his colors. The color chart is no longer relevant to his completion of the task. Just as the color chart is no longer needed to pick the flowers, the “image” associated with each word is not required for the process of reading and understanding the novel. We don’t stop and picture the meaning or image associated with each word before going on to the next word. Were this so, we would never in a lifetime finish our first Russian novel. Thus, Wittgenstein distinguishes between “a process being in accordance with a rule” and “a process involving a rule.” As when the color chart is no longer needed, we understand the novel “in accordance with” the meanings of words, but the meanings are not “involved” in the process. Wittgenstein concludes: “The rule which has been taught and is subsequently applied interests us only so far as it is involved in the application. A rule, so far as it interests us, does not act at a distance.” Or, to put it mathematically, if we want to understand a calculation, we are only interested in a rule if “the symbol of the rule forms part of the calculation.”

At first it looks like “a rule involved in a process” corresponds to an “essential” rule in Aristotle’s terms and “a rule in accordance with which” a process takes place would be an “accidental” rule, and there may indeed be contexts wherein the analogy holds true. But Wittgenstein’s point is more radical. Whereas Aristotle is clarifying aspects of the objective world, Wittgenstein is saying that language, once learned, functions without reference to a world outside of itself. The objective world to which the language might refer is irrelevant to (uninvolved in) our processing and understanding the language. “The sign (the sentence) gets its significance … [not from] an object co-existing with the sign … but from the system of signs, from the language to which it belongs. Roughly, understanding a sentence means understanding a language.”

Unlike Aristotle, Wittgenstein points the way to postmodernism, where the ground of meaning is infinitely displaced by a series of signifiers, where there is no ultimate reference point, and where relativism – metaphysical and cultural – becomes hard to shake off.

This theoretical dissonance may seem pointless, but I think it exposes the layering that undergirds the way we think about real world problems. Take the issue of cultural difference. The wing of liberalism I associate with Enlightenment rationalism, as well as with 1960-70s Civil Rights and feminism, is folded on top of an Aristotelian base. The “essential” aspect of human identity is our shared humanness, and we can best resolve such problems as racism through appeal to our universal human capacities for reason and compassion. Race, gender, and cultural identities are, after all, “accidental” traits superimposed upon that shared humanness.

“Identity politics,” together with “multiculturalism,” took hold in academia in the 1980s, and proposed that objectivity is impossible because everyone is a priori “politically situated” by their race, gender, class, etc. This theory is rooted in the ideas of Wittgenstein rather than those of Aristotle. In addressing problems of cultural difference, identity politics does not expressly deny “shared humanness,” but shared humanness is no longer “involved” in the process – it doesn’t form part of the active calculation. The political determinants of race, gender, etc., on the other hand, are “involved” in the process, and need to be respected as such. For example, when the white William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner from a black man’s perspective, the liberals who attacked him for the arrogance of crossing that line would fit my category of multiculturalist liberals. For them, in today’s racial milieu, the black experience, the white experience, are “involved” in social relations, whereas shared humanness is remote; thus, it is presumptuous for a white man to think he can comprehend what a black man such as Nat Turner might have felt. The other branch of liberals – Enlightenment rationalists, 1960s liberals – who bank on the Aristotelian notion of shared humanness, would, quite the contrary, praise Styron for struggling to get beyond the “accidental” features of race and grasp experience from the point of view of our shared humanness.

When I said in my Two Kinds of Liberals blog that I was “with multiculturalism when it’s building bridges but not when it’s guarding walls,” I can now say that “identity politics” is an example of multiculturalism “guarding walls.” I see efforts such as Styron’s not as some kind of insidious “cultural appropriation” (an impossible term if one believes in the primacy of shared humanness) but as a heroic attempt to illuminate how our shared humanness is the key to dismantling the prejudice and ill will that can absorb us when we remain trapped within such “accidental” layers of identity as race or gender or cultural groupings. (And remember that “accidental” in Aristotle doesn’t mean trivial or unworthy of celebration, but simply means that it is a feature that does not define the essence.)

One other (unhappy in my opinion) consequence of the rise of “identity politics” within liberalism is the way in which it ceded the high ground that liberals held in the 1960s and 70s. Take the issue of double standards. My Aristotelian liberals (if you’ll permit the conceit) were the outspoken enemies of double standards on race and gender. This includes Wollstonecraft and Equiano in the Enlightenment period as well as the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the 1960s/70s. But with the theoretical turn to identity politics in the 1980s – where racial and gender identity displace shared humanness as the operative factor in race and gender struggles – a subset of liberals flip-flopped from being the enemies of double standards to being the champions of double standards. Thus began a liberal regimen of race-specific rules for what language is acceptable and for which practices are “reserved” against cultural appropriation, not to mention the idea, novel at the time but now widely accepted among a new generation of liberals, that a prejudice against someone on purely racial grounds is only “racism” if you are white (i.e., if your race has the upper hand in a power differential). Thus the legitimate effort to address gender inequities can take the form of banning the word “bossy” for girls but presumably not for boys. The endgame of “identity politics” liberals is understandable, even noble, but the means – which shifted from the brazenly integrationist platform of the 60s to a kind of trench warfare defending this or that demographic turf, which shifted from a confident rejection of all double standards to an embrace of, or at least an equivocation toward, double standards – to the extent that these means have been deployed, liberals have ceded the moral high ground – not to conservatives, who from my vantage seem even farther aloof from the moral high ground, but to a vacuum waiting to be filled.

OK, I can’t really blame this all on Wittgenstein (from whom I learn more with every reading), although he is implicated in the trajectory towards postmodernism, which I do believe is at least partly responsible for the moral vacuum that developed within liberalism. But writing this has restored my faith in the extraordinary resilience of ancient Greek thought. Thus in this recycling of one of the great questions that absorbed European wits from Boileau to Swift in the 100 years or so leading into the Enlightenment – whether the ancients or the moderns were the greater masters of learning – the laurel wreath goes to … Aristotle and the ancients!


9 thoughts on “Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics

  1. Gary,
    I read this entry and well done as usual. But Bobby Jindal must have read it as well. I saw yesterday that he gave a speech in which he said he does not believe in hyphenated Americans; no such thing as African-Americans, Indian-Americans, etc. We are all Americans. MTT


    • Haha. Me and Bobby Jindal. Now there’s a painful alliance. I could try to distance myself by saying that my shared humanness references biology and Bobby’s shared Americanness references imaginary lines on a map. Or by saying that I value and celebrate diversity but still give priority to shared humanness when it comes to solving social problems. As true as these statements are, I can’t really say I differ much from Bobby here — when it comes to healing ills in the body politic of a country, seeing each other as countrymen is more effective than setting up demographic turf wars (which doesn’t mean we can’t look at race and gender, which may well be involved in the issue, but we shouldn’t use them in a way that loses sight of our commonalty). But it’s not like I’m bringing biscuits to Bobby’s tea party. This isn’t really a partisan issue. Remember Barack “there’s no red America, there’s no blue America” Obama.


      • Yes, you Jindal and Paul in Galatians—“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I came of age under the sway of identity politics, so while I can grant you most of the points you make here and certainly agree that there are problems within the relativist trend, I find myself wanting to hold on to notion that staking out and exploring one’s own tiny vantage point, exploring all the books and crannies in the walls we’re guarding, has some use in a discourse that might helps us better understand ourselves and others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Laura. I’m all for exploring all the nooks and crannies of one’s vantage point, and celebrating the diversity of vantage points. It’s just when we guard our vantage point too jealously against others that I think the outcome is socially counterproductive. (I’m speaking of cultural plot points here; of course on the psychoanalytic side, different needs might prevail.) Anyway, I can tell from your tone that we’re on the same side, even though our vantage points might not be identical 🙂


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