Plato and the Frankfurt School

by Benjamin Studebaker

These days I get to supervise all of the history of political thought courses at Cambridge. It keeps me busy during term time, but it helps me think about things. The other day I was doing a supervision on the Greeks, when something clicked for me. I think Plato and the Frankfurt School have something important in common.

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The Frankfurt School famously critiques instrumental reason. Some people read this as a broad critique of rationality itself–and it certainly becomes this, in the hands of some readers. When I first encountered the Frankfurt School during my masters, I read them this way. But I now think it makes more sense to read them in a different way. I want to make a distinction between instrumental reason and substantive reason:

  1. Instrumental reason is agnostic about ends. It presumes there is no consensus about ends, but that we can reach conclusions about what would be necessary to achieve any given set of ends.
  2. Substantive reason is about which ends we ought to select in the first place.

Often times in political theory, a dichotomy is set up between the “ancient” and the “modern”. For enlightenment theorists like Montesquieu and Constant, ancient societies were organised around shared ends. Because the ancients shared the same ends, they could build their polities around a moral consensus of one kind or another. Ancient citizens could be virtuous in the sense that they could identify with the ends of their polity and subordinate their personal desires to those public ends. The public realm was identified with the moral realm, so to subordinate the individual to the collective was to be virtuous and to be moral.

In modernity, this moral consensus had broken down, and because of this it was no longer possible to inspire citizens to identify with the morality of the state in the same thick way. For this reason, the enlightenment theorists proposed that states should not longer be designed with virtue in mind. Instead, states should be structured so that no one individual can utterly dominate them. You get separation of powers, checks and balances, negative liberty, and so on.

The thing is, the state cannot disavow value outright. The experience of having states that were committed to some moral consensus makes it impossible to legitimate states that try to do away with this. People don’t just want order, they want “good” order. But since there is no agreement on the content of “good”, the enlightenment theorists water this agreement down to its bare essentials. A thin moral consensus forms around liberty to pursue our ends, survival, and basic living standards, but outside of this it attempts to disavow value commitments. This, essentially, is the kind of liberalism Rawls gives us.

A state that is based around an enlightenment notion of liberty is a state that is based around enabling citizens to pursue their private desires. This means all individual desires are treated as legitimate. Since the state is unable to establish a thick moral consensus, it lets individuals pick whatever ends they want, constraining them only insofar as they attempt to contravene the desires of their neighbours.

The effect of this is that substantive reason itself becomes a form of liberty infringement. To scrutinise another person’s desires from the point of view of some substantive doctrine is to in some way limit the menu of acceptable desires. It becomes socially frowned upon to “judge” other people, because to judge their desires is to invoke some form of substantive rationality.

This is where I want to bring Plato in. Plato believed that desires were not trustworthy. He thought that it was necessary to use the reasoning part of the soul to constrain the desiring part. If this doesn’t happen, Plato thought the desiring part of the soul would eventually result in the destruction of the polity. They would do this both by trying to dominate the polity politically and by becoming addicted to consumer luxuries. The pursuit of luxuries drives them into disastrous wars and economic mistakes. For Plato, the sophists deny the existence of values beyond desire, and because of this they bring about the demise of the polity.

The liberal state is dedicated to denying space for substantive values, but it is at the same time committed to the market. In this way, the liberal state treats the market as if it were a substantively neutral decision-making mechanism. Hayek is a perfect example of this. For Hayek, the market is not an appropriate site for “social justice”, but at the same time Hayek is implicitly claiming that the market is the only fair way to adjudicate between different people’s conflicting desires. When people criticise the market, they are accused of bringing in substantive values. When people defend the market, they trade on a false neutral–their value commitments are concealed.

When the instrumental reason of the market reigns, the state still has substantive commitments, but those commitments are depoliticised and treated as beyond scrutiny. The state’s substantive commitment is to the idea that we really ought to pursue the desires of citizens and that the market is a fair mechanism for adjudicating between those desires when they conflict. That is the core commitment of the liberal state. I’ll repeat it for emphasis:

The core commitment of the liberal state is that we really ought to pursue the desires of citizens and that the market is a fair mechanism for adjudicating between those desires when they conflict.

Everything which conflicts with this is treated as an illegitimate external judgement, an attempt by the individual to tyrannise over the community. Liberalism becomes a desirarchy in which people’s individual desires exercise a collective tyranny over all other conceptions of value. In a bid to be pluralistic, liberalism is totalitarian. The market itself is pitched as a system of checks and balances, as an impersonal rule of law, as an institutional mechanism which is beyond political dispute.

The Frankfurt School’s critique is a critique of this, of the fact that the enlightenment has made our desires increasingly impossible to scrutinise. All forms of substantive reason are denied, leaving only instrumental reason. The individual is expected to do everything they can to pursue their desires, and the institutions are left with the task of preventing any given individual or group from “winning” in a permanent way and establishing some form of tyranny. Liberal institutions are a means of sustaining desirarchy without permitting the establishment of tyranny. They keep us in a liminal space, where ostensibly no one wins.

But someone is winning–the rich people who profit from markets. And someone is losing–the workers, who are treated as little more than consumers and consumer products. And the pursuit of luxury also results in things like climate change. But if we point these things out, we are attempting to subject the market to external moral standards, and the core commitment of the liberal state is fundamentally inimical to this.

So for both Plato and the Frankfurt School, the problem is unchecked desire, desire which has been depoliticised, normalised, and treated as inviolable. The liberals call any attempt to scrutinise desire “tyranny”, while Plato calls the domination of desire by the same name. The Frankfurt School aimed not to annihilate reason, but to reestablish a foundation for it. But because we increasingly understand morality exclusively through the lens of desire, it is increasingly impossible to give people reasons not to revel in their desires which they will feel they have some cause to accept.

This is in part because there has been a shift in the burden of proof. Desires are taken to be legitimate on their face, and the moral philosopher is expected to justify any objection to them. If the ethicist attempts to use substantive reason of the kind offered by Plato, they will be accused of relying on faith claims or of subjecting our desires to fundamentally arbitrary standards. Theories of substantive reason have never been worked out in a great deal of detail, and they never meet the extraordinarily high epistemological standards which liberals will demand of them.

When Plato describes the process of trying to learn about the good, he uses the allegory of the charioteer. The allegory consists of a rider, a white horse, and a black horse. The rider is the rational part of the soul, the part which is interested in learning about the good. The white horse is spirited, honour-loving part. It tends to cooperate with the man, but is interested in approval rather than in the good itself. The black horse is the desirous, unruly part. It often sidetracks the chariot. The horses have wings, and the truth is to be found above the clouds. But the horses–especially the black horse–are often uninterested in what is to be found there. Over and over, they pull the chariot back down to earth. So the rider only gets glimpses of the truth and must constantly reassert control over the horses to get further glimpses.

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This view of moral truth implies a few things:

  1. No one has the whole truth. Everyone only gets glimpses, so no one will be able to give you a fully worked out version of it. The good cannot be summarised in a line or even in a book.
  2. Each person has to be their own rider. No one can rely on another to give them the good. The good is something each person has to seek out for themselves. It is a relationship, a process, not an end-point.
  3. No one permanently has the truth. The constant distractions from the horses make us forget what we have seen. So we are not only having to return to the heavens to get more of the truth, we are having to return simply to remember what we have seen before.

The liberals demand that moral truth meet standards that are inconsistent with the lessons we learn from the allegory of the charioteer. Liberal states are therefore predicated on denying the existence of moral standards that are independent from the psychological desires and motivations which we can empirically and scientifically demonstrate we have. But of course, our desires and motivations are socially constructed by a society which feeds our desires and gives us no additional standards or guidance. In this way, liberal society conceals the good from us and then uses our inability to see the good as proof of its nonexistence.

Left alternatives require that we have the ability to subject the market system to moral scrutiny, but if morality is determined procedurally by the market this becomes impossible. The liberal commitment to a plurality of desires thus annihilates the possibility of true value pluralism, by preventing alternatives to market values from being thinkable. To get out of it, we have to understand that substantive reason is fundamentally different from instrumental reason, from science, from empiricism, and that these differences do not invalidate it.

In this way, cultural critiques of liberalism and economic critiques of liberalism go together. Plato and the Frankfurt School go together.