Stephen Hicks: Populism Succeeds Where Education Fails

by Belen Marty

The Canadian-American philosopher, Stephen Hicks, visited downtown Buenos Aires on Thursday, November 5, to participate in the launching of his recently translated book, Explaining Postmodernism.

Over the course of an hour and a half, the Rockford University professor provided an overview of the various issues raised in the book, and addressed the differences between Continental and Anglo-American philosophy.

For Hicks, these schools of thought are in constant conflict. On one side, you find the idols of Latin America’s education system: Rousseau, Marx, Hegel, Heidegger, Foucault, Sartre, Kant, Nietzsche, and Derrida. On the other, we have Bacon, Locke, Newton, Smith, Hume, and Stuart Mill.

Hicks insists on the importance of education to fight dysfunctional populists regimes.

By the end of his speech, it was not difficult to understand why, for example, people in the United States look for role models in individuals like Steve Jobs, while in Argentina they’re more like Che Guevara.

Hicks offered his perspectives to the PanAm Post, and spoke on the relationships between philosophy and issues like corruption, politics, and education.

Stephen Hicks explaining the main differences between the Anglo-American and the Continental  philosophy. (PanAm Post)

Who is more responsible for the failure or success of a country: businessmen, politicians, or intellectuals?

Politicians get a huge amount of blame, and so do the businessmen who are crony and play with the politicians inappropriately. But the more important blame goes to intellectuals, definitely. Intellectuals are the ones who train the teachers, when the teachers go to university. The teachers then take charge of young people, and then raise a whole of culture of people to think a certain way.

Certainly the intellectuals who are the university professors are the ones training the future lawyers, journalists, and people from all of the professions. So, the intellectual responsibility is primarily with the professors.

You mentioned corruption during your speech, especially within Latin America. How can philosophy fight corruption?

Corruption is primarily a matter of ethics, and people learn different kinds of ethical systems. Some people come to believe, morally speaking, that it’s already a corrupt world, and that they did not make that corrupt world. It’s dog eat dog, and that if they don’t engage in the corruption, then other people will and they will be victims of it. So, they come to believe that corruption is fine.

However, I think most people who engage in corruption know that it’s possible for people to get things done politically, or in business, or any other way of life, without there being corruption.

They know that their corrupt system is wrong, but they still chose to participate in it as a shortcut, and that is an irresponsibility.

Free market and individual-rights advocates usually rely on utilitarian arguments. Is this the right way to convince people on the ideas of freedom?

Well, I think it is absolutely important that freedom leads to good consequences. One of the reasons why the free society is good is that it makes peoples’ lives better. People are more fulfilled, because they chose their own careers; they choose their own family, their own art; people become more prosperous. So, the consequences are very important.

But the important thing here is that freedom is a matter of principle. Human beings need to make their own choices in life. That is what it is to be a human being. So, even if the choices that people make are mistaken, and they lead in some cases to bad consequences, you still need to respect their freedom as a matter of principle.

Some say that postmodernism is on the way out, and it does not have the same appeal as it has in previous decades. Are we exiting the postmodernism phase?

I would really much like to think so. I came of age in a postmodernism intellectual climate, and it has been the dominant one for the last generation or so.

Probably the most accurate thing to say is that the debate against postmodernism has been engaged. Things move more slowly in the postmodern world.

Postmodernists started to dominate in the 1970s and 1980s, and by the time you get to the late 1990s you started to see some intelligent, articulate people arguing against postmodernism in literature, law, history, and so forth. I joined into that debate also in the late 1990s.

Right now, it is appropriate to say that within the academic world there is still huge amount of postmodernism, but there is also a huge amount of resistant to postmodernism and people trying to work on alternatives. Which one will prevail, nobody can say.

What makes me a little bit optimistic though, is that in the intellectual world people do like new fresh arguments and approaches. Postmodernism has been around for a generation or so now, so I’m starting to sense it to be a little stale.

But unless the arguments that the postmodernists are making are addressed at a very fundamental level, they might recede for a while and then reappear in the next generation in a slightly different form.

Given the success of populists regimes in Latin America, would you say people are driven by passion?

I think people can and should be moved by passions. We are human beings. We are rational; we are passionate. But the important thing, as a personal philosophical project for all of us, is to do our best thinking about what is important and what our lives mean and then commit passionately to achieving our goals. And also, enjoying passionately all the things we are doing in our lives.

The problem of course happens when trying to do one without the other.

The success of populism only works when you have a dysfunctional education system. If you have a system where people are poorly educated and they are not taught how to think for themselves — independently — then necessarily they turn to various forms of leadership and they follow more blindly.

Those leaders are in many cases very sophisticated at knowing which passion buttons to push to make people do what they want.

The problem of dysfunctional populism is an education problem. Obviously, what we want in a free and open democratic society is for the populace to be better informed and passionate about politics, but hopefully in a liberal direction.

Source: PanAm Post


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