The CSS Blog Network

The Natural Selection of Ideas: Prerequisites and Implications for Politics, Philosophy and History

Courtesy Rhoni Mcfarlane/Flickr

This article was originally published by Global Policy on 4 May 2016.

Why do certain ideas and political paradigms endure while others become obsolete or are rejected?

This question has preoccupied political and philosophical scholarship for millennia. This article puts forward four conditions for the survivability of ideas. It argues that modern tools for understanding human nature, such as those offered by neuroscience, provide us with unprecedented insights about human predilections and needs. Based on these findings, we can better conceptualize why some ideas thrive while others do not and their possible implications to international relations. The human need for dignity is central to this explanation: no ideas can thrive if they do not guarantee and safeguard human dignity.

In 1859, Darwin introduced the concept of natural selection in On the Origin of Species, and J.S. Mill explored the flourishing of ideas in On Liberty. In Darwinian natural selection, features that do not contribute to the function of the individual vanish over the course of generations, as bearers of such traits lack the reproductive fitness to pass those features on to their offspring. Mill applied a similar argument to ideas: good ideas would survive the rigors of critical debate, but there were no means of discovering which ideas would endure apart from testing them. In my attempt to continue this debate, I turn to neuroscience. Advances in neuroscience and brain-imaging inform us about underlying predilections in our nature, which indicate that we will be more likely to choose and validate certain ideas over others. My task here is to unpack this premise and to do so by looking at four prerequisites for the selection of ideas.

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Review – Leo Strauss: Man of Peace

The German-American philosopher Leo Strauss. Image: Academia Christiana/Flickr

This book review was originally published by E-International Relations on 7 December, 2014.

Leo Strauss: Man of Peace
by Robert Howse,
NYU School of Law: New York

To begin, I must emphasize the extent to which Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace is a book about Leo Strauss that is not exclusively for those steeped in the ever expanding Strauss literature, unlike so much that has a steep learning curve (cf. Velkley 2011; Lampert 2013). Nor is it solely for IR scholars, or even trained political theorists, as Howse’s book is easily accessible to a generally learned audience, staying true to Strauss’s thought without losing newcomers in his unique rhetoric. This said, Howse’s clarity in no way mars his lucidity. Readers already familiar with Strauss, or with some knowledge of Machiavelli, Thucydides, Grotius, or Kant will benefit from Howse’s presentation of Strauss as a worthy thinker for international relations. People new to these conversations in IR and Political Theory have an unmatched gateway. » More

Book Review: The Ethics of Armed Conflict: A Cosmopolitan Just War Theory by John W. Lango

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published by Europp (European Politics and Policy), a blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Ethics of Armed Conflict: A Cosmopolitan Just War Theory. John W. Lango. Edinburgh University Press. January 2014.

In recent years, just war theory has witnessed a remarkable intellectual revival. Predominantly a phenomenon in English-speaking philosophical circles, contemporary just war theory has tackled many pressing issues relating to the use of armed force with increasing philosophical sophistication, drawing upon insights from other philosophical subfields, such as political theory, legal theory, and bioethics. John W. Lango’s latest book is best viewed against this background.

Mirroring recent debates on global justice in political theory, contemporary just war theory can be roughly divided into non-cosmopolitan and cosmopolitan approaches.

In a nutshell, the former approach attaches moral significance to communal and state boundaries, whereas the latter, upholding an ideal of world citizenship, deems borders morally irrelevant. As its title suggests, Lango’s book is committed to the second perspective. » More

China, a Superpower. Really?

A Shaolin Warrior, courtesy of Sven Laqua/flickr

Last week, my colleague Kaisa Schreck wrote an excellent blog post on China. In it she argued that China had already saved the world economy and that it was bound to rule the region if not the world in the near future. Forbes’ ranking of Hu Jintao as the most powerful man in the world seemed to validate this assessment.

I personally think that China is lacking one key element to become a superpower: moral gravitas and appeal. And if we look at history, every powerful region or country has not only been powerful economically or militarily, but also “morally”.

Let’s look at the Roman Empire first. The empire ruled the whole Mediterranean region for centuries and its capital, Rome, had more than one million inhabitants,  a significant number 2000 years ago. The Empire was not only powerful because it could crush its enemies, it was also morally powerful. By taking up Greek philosophy and focusing on philosophical and scientific education, the Romans quickly surpassed their enemies in thought and morality. The arts had a powerful place in Roman civilization and it shined from the shores of Portugal to Iran. Its values of citizenship, arts and philosophy were not only adopted by the Roman elites, but also by many of the neighboring elites. » More

The End of History, the End of Ideology?

Is Ideology your next meal? courtesy of Alyson Hewett

When Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history” at the end of the Cold War, he wasn’t completely wrong. The history of ideas stopped.

I know that philosophy is no longer trendy, but we have to face it: Ideologies have played a vitally important role in human history. Whether the Enlightenment, capitalism, communism, fascism, socialism, anarchism and all the other “isms”, ideologies have, sometimes alone and sometimes in competition with each other defined political history. Competition between ideologies forced them to improve their practical implementation, and thus each theory became better and better by being in contact with other ideologies.

When Fukuyama declared that history had ended, he meant that ideological history had ceased to exist when capitalism won the fight against communism. Since then, no serious ideologies have been able to seriously question or challenge the neoliberal system.

As a result, we have become bad and inept at thinking outside the box. We no longer seriously question the system (that most of us live in), not even after one of its most serious crises. Few people seem interested in seeking out and spreading new form of thinking that promote something better than capitalism. This is a serious deficiency for our increasingly ideology-deficient societies.

We do no longer think about reforming or improving the society, we just think about fixing it. Think about our government’s response to the financial crisis. What did we do? Did we try to create a financial system in which crises are no longer possible? No, we just saved the system from itself and are now simply waiting for the next crisis to happen.

What we need, is out of the box-thinking that the re-think and re-examines the basis of our current system. A few philosophers have started on this journey and one of them is Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher. » More

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