Lilla, Robin, Newton, and Darwin

My comment in reply to this post in Washington Monthly reviewing Mark Lilla's The Shipwrecked Mind in light of Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind

Lilla's most recent splash was his concern trolling anti-identity politics piece in the aftermath of Hillary's defeat.1

What if Lilla is right about Robin but wrong about identity politics? This might be the upshot of the penultimate paragraph above.

The suggestion seems to be that the resolution of this conflict might be some sort of Robin-Lilla synthesis which furthers the liberal project.

Another way to resolve the conflict would be to accept that Lilla falsifies Robin and Black Lives Matter falsifies Lilla. That would be consistent with a supposition that Robin and Lilla, as Enlightenment liberals, share some fundamentally wrong ideas about the world.

We already know this is true based on history because Enlightenment liberalism is based on science that has since been superseded. Voltaire et al thought of themselves as Newtonians. We now know that Newtonian physics is not the science which rationalizes human affairs. As living things the proper paradigm is laid out by Charles Darwin.

Whether it's Lilla with his multiple causes or Robin with his one big cause, both are operating with a fundamentally Newtonian model of causation. It's all billiard balls colliding, just a matter of how many all at once.

For living things, however, causation is a different process. No amount of knowledge about the world one million years ago is sufficient to predict the evolution of Homo sapiens. And no amount of knowledge about homo sapien society 100 years ago is sufficient to predict the rise of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.

Our language of left and right and "the political spectrum" are down to Voltaire's Newtonianism and his rise to fame thanks to his exposition of Newton's Opticks. This language enabled the intellectual heights of the Enlightenment, but now constrains our ability to construct a useful model of reality that embraces our Darwinian social nature, our identity politics, our syncretic (not coherent) ideology, and our infinitely varied political coalitions that have nothing at all in common with light refracted through a prism.


1. The End of Identity Liberalism, NYT, Nov. 18, 2016