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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Nietzsche, Morgenthau, and the Roots of Realism

Edvard Munch’s 1906 painting of Friedrich Nietzsche. Image: http://www.munch150.no/no/Presse/Pressebilder/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by E-International Relations.

Thucydides. Hobbes. Machiavelli. Realists have (re)turned to these thinkers time and again in order to construct and fortify the basic contours of their theories of global politics. From their texts, realists have extracted and put to use a series of ontological arguments concerning the nature of power, the human, the state, and the global milieu through which these forces traverse. The consequent interpretations of global politics tend to be ones that dramatize a tragic and unending struggle for power among nation-states that takes place under a condition of anarchy and insecurity, where morality holds little hope for redemption. While the discourses of realism substantiate this agonistic sense of global politics with rotating reference to a pantheon of classical and modern philosophical figures, they nonetheless consistently fail to mention one particular name: Nietzsche. This is a remarkable absence considering the fact that Nietzsche was the most decisive intellectual influence for realism’s principal modern architect, Hans J. Morgenthau. It was Nietzsche, more than any other thinker, who served as Morgenthau’s ‘foremost intellectual authority’ (Frei 2001: 94). From his lifelong encounter with Nietzsche, Morgenthau developed his basic way of looking at people and things, the ontological and conceptual coordinates that would ground the realist paradigm (Frei 2001: 94). This intellectual convergence between Nietzsche and Morgenthau presents a serious challenge to realists. It reveals to them that one of their most important philosophical forerunners remains a little known figure, an unnamed origin. » More

Interview – Michael Walzer

Israel and Gaza

Israel and Gaza. Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi/flickr.

Professor Michael Walzer is one of America’s foremost political philosophers and public intellectuals. He has written about a wide variety of topics in political theory and moral philosophy, including political obligation, just and unjust war, nationalism and ethnicity, economic justice, and the welfare state. He played a critical role in the revival of a practical, issue-focused ethics and in the development of a pluralist approach to political and moral life. He has published 27 books and over 300 articles, including  Just and Unjust WarsOn Toleration, and Arguing About War. He has served as editor of the political journal Dissent for more than three decades, and is a contributor to The New Republic. He graduated Summa cum laude from Brandeis University with a B.A. in History, studied at the University of Cambridge on a Fulbright Fellowship (1956–1957) and completed his doctoral work at Harvard, earning his Ph.D. in Government in 1961. Currently, he is working on issues having to do with international justice and the new forms of welfare, as well as on a collaborative project focused on the history of Jewish political thought.

Professor Walzer answers reader questions about intervention in Syria, just war in the age of drones, preventing genocide and mass atrocities, and Israel-Palestine peace negotiations. » More

War of All against All?

Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, Photo: lisby1/flickr

New interpretations of the foundational texts of a movement or ideology may be the most passive-aggressive form of intellectual combat.  Done well, however, it can also be one of the most satisfying.   A case in point: Arash Abizadeh’s article, “Hobbes on the Causes of War: A Disagreement Theory” in the May 2011 issue of the American Political Science Review.

Academic schools always seem to have their prophets and sacred texts, but textual infallibility is rare.  For the embattled Realist tribe, however, Hobbes’ Leviathan once came pretty close.   Chapter XIII contains perhaps the most famous of all descriptions of human nature and its consequences for political life, that “without a common power to keep [us] all in awe … the life of man [is], solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  Everyone once knew (or thought they knew) what this meant.   Indeed, the eloquence of this famous sentence once left many with little doubt: at least for Hobbes if not always for us, coercive power is the primary good.  In its absence (as in international politics), ‘force and fraud’ are the two primary virtues.

But as Abizadeh points out, the ground has begun to shift beneath Realists’ feet.  It has already been demonstrated, he tells us, that the chief function of Hobbes’ sovereign is to provide an “authoritative mechanism for governing” not conflicting wants, desires and interests, but “moral language,” — which would locate the source of war even for Hobbes at the level of “ideology, culture and socialization,” rather than systemic-structural incentives or depraved human nature. » More