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Matt Walsh, Michael Oakeshott, and Jean-Paul Sartre

Les grands hommes, en apprenant aux faibles à réfléchir, les ont mis sur la route de l'erreur.”

(Great men, by teaching the weak to think, put them on the road to error)

– Marquis de Vauvenargues, Maxims et Réflexions


News Update

Matt Walsh, author, columnist, and host of the Matt Walsh Show podcast with The Daily Wire, has found himself in hot water on multiple occasions when discussing the issue of transgender ideology. This controversy perhaps reached its height when he made an appearance on Dr. Phil to discuss the issue with transgender individuals. Walsh has again become the spotlight of attention for his opinions on swimmer Lia Thomas. Thomas, a transgender athlete who swam for three years on the University of Pennsylvania men’s team, has presented a real dilemma over the past swim season in competing on the women’s team and shattering women’s Ivy League records. Matt Walsh has made his opinions clear on this issue: Lia Thomas, a biological male, swimming against female swimmers is blatantly unfair. The NCAA women’s swimming and diving championships are going to be held at Georgia Tech March 16-19, and Matt Walsh will be here to speak on “Why Men Don’t Belong in Women’s Sports,” on March 14, from 5:30-6:30 in room 103 of the Instructional Center.


With Matt Walsh coming to campus, the issue of transgender ideology will most likely be on the forefront of the student body’s mind. I would like to detail a few of my thoughts on this issue, as well as comment on why I think it is a good thing that Matt Walsh is not only speaking here, but speaking his mind on this issue in general. I do not wish to merely commentate on the Lia Thomas ordeal, but rather to question the very foundations of transgender ideology. I fear that conservatives often think of transgender ideology as irrational jargon. To be fair, it is jargon – but it is far from “irrational.” In fact, I am of the opinion that it is one of the very products of a hyper-rational culture that the West has been bedeviled by in our post-Enlightenment era, a manifested example of Michael Oakeshott’s idea of “Rationalist politics,” the offspring of an Existentialist–Postmodern consummation, and a philosophy to be taken seriously – not because it is a serious philosophy, but because it is a philosophy capable of inflicting serious damage on our civilization.

Michael Oakeshott, in detailing the two different types of knowledge us human beings can possess (namely technical and practical), provides a useful lens through which we can begin to understand the Rationalist political worldview. It begins with understanding the inseparable nature of technical and practical knowledge that Oakeshott details in his work, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. In every art, science, or practical activity, a kind of technique is involved. Often, the knowledge required for these techniques will be formulated in a set of rules or axioms that we can learn, remember, and put into practice. This is, in every sense of the word, technical knowledge – knowledge that is found in theory and stored in the pages of textbooks. It can also be found in simple, day to day techniques like cooking or driving where knowledge is stored in cookbooks and highway safety manuals. Practical knowledge, however, is knowledge of a different sort; It exists only in practice and is not contemplative nor able to be formulated in a set of rules. According to Oakeshott, “the method by which it may be shared and becomes common knowledge is not the method of formulated doctrine.” It can be referred to as a form of traditional knowledge, and in “every activity this sort of knowledge is involved; the mastery of any skill, the pursuit of any concrete activity is impossible without it.” In the fine arts, poetry, music, and painting there is certainly a high degree of technical knowledge. However, this is only one aspect of the artist, for the ability to produce a fine painting or compose a beautiful piece of music requires something beyond mere technique, some other form of practical or traditional knowledge. The same can be said for the sciences. Great scientific discoveries are not always the result of merely following the rules. These types of knowledge do not stop with the arts and sciences, however; Oakeshott tells us that this combination of technical and practical knowledge is also involved in political activity.

While these forms of knowledge are not identical, they are inseparable – both constitute the way we come to know the world around us. This leads Oakeshott to define Rationalism: the assertion that practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, and technical knowledge is the only way in which we come to know anything. This, Oakeshott believes, is the ideology that has predominated post-Renaissance European thought. This is manifested in the idea that ideology is far superior to traditions of knowledge because it appears to be self-contained, meaning it can be imparted on empty minds, “and if it is to be taught to one who already believes something, the first step of the teacher must be to administer the purge, to make certain that all prejudices and preconceptions are removed, to lay his foundation upon the unshakable rock of absolute ignorance.” Technical knowledge has become superior in our eyes because it appears to begin from absolute ignorance and end in absolute certainty. Such was the project of Descartes. This tabula rasa idea is quite important for the Rationalist. Bacon believed that genuine knowledge must begin with the purging of the mind, and that the aim of knowledge is certainty which springs forth from an emptied mind. The rationalist disposition has invaded Western thought. Every traditional form of knowledge that is practical, passed on between generations, and slowly reformed is scrupulously examined under the great microscopes of rationality and utility. In many ways, this is a consequence of the Enlightenment, which became the practice for politics during the French Revolution. William Doyle, in his The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, articulates the impact of the Enlightenment and French Revolution as such:

Quite literally, nothing was any longer sacred. All power, all authority, all institutions, were now provisional, valid so long as they could be justified in terms of rationality and utility. In this sense, the French Revolution really did represent the triumph of the Enlightenment.

The problem, however, is that the idea that knowledge can only be imparted on an empty mind that has been purged of all prejudices and traditional beliefs, so that it may be complete and certain, is entirely illusory. Oakeshott holds that nothing can be imparted on an empty mind, and even learning techniques, or complicated theories, requires reforming knowledge that already exists, not simply getting rid of pure ignorance. What is imparted on our minds (new forms of knowledge or techniques) is nourished by what is already there. Oakeshott holds that this idea is similar to the self-made man – who is never really self-made, but rather is dependent on the society around him and a largely ignored inheritance he receives. Knowledge, in the same way, is never self-complete. Because the Rationalist project has totally rejected traditional knowledge, it entirely lacks the ability to correct its shortcomings. You cannot escape the rationalist error by becoming more rationalistic. As Oakeshott posits,

He [the rationalist] does not merely neglect the kind of knowledge which would save him, he begins by destroying it. First he turns out the light and then complains he cannot see.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Francisco Goya, 1799.

The rationalist worldview is entirely a-human, but it also corrupts the mind that accepts its precepts. It is entirely destructive in its disposition. This would lead Blaise Pascal (a judicious critic of Descartes’ rationalism) to describe those who believe that the world is solely about rationality and utility as demi-savants, or half-learned (it could also be translated as half-skilled). Les demi-savants despise traditional forms of knowledge, and according to Pascal they are capable only of starting to reason about something, but they cannot push their thoughts far enough. In many ways, they fully display what David Hume meant when he claimed “reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.” I am not quite sure about the ought aspect of this, but I certainly believe Hume is correct in saying that reason does become the slave of the passions. This holds true for the Rationalist and demi-savant, the issue is that they are blind to this fact. Their “reason” is a slave to their passions, but they cannot see it; thus, they launch an intellectual crusade against any passion that is not their own in the name of rationality and neutrality. Thus displaying exactly what Francisco Goya depicted in his masterpiece, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Our reason will fall asleep, and if we are not watchful it will catch us entirely by surprise – becoming apparent only after we are terrorized by the monsters of unadulterated oblivion and prejudice wrought upon us by the apostles of reason and tolerance.

They may desire to be forever adrift on the vast sea of reason, but I suggest we do not let them rip from the great ship of western civilization its rudder: tradition. For we will lose all direction when we do; we may perhaps even lose the ship itself, as the great tools we were given to brave the storms all civilizations must endure were thrown overboard in the name of freedom, only to one day find ourselves castaway on some faraway shores of licentious vanity.

I believe the transgender ideology falls into this rationalist camp. It sets out to destroy all traditional knowledge about who we are as human beings; then demands we cede the reigns of the English vernacular in the name of some ethereal doctrine about gender. I suggest we say no; primarily because transgender ideology is susceptible to all of the problems rationalist projects are, though it is a rather radical case. However, it is not the only radical case, for it is born out of the union of two other radically rationalist ideologies: Existentialism and Postmodernism. I hope to make it clear that Judith Butler’s idea that “gender is performative and not an essence,” is rife with all of the contradictions that Jean-Paul Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” is.

The idea that existence precedes essence is the core tenet of Existentialism and can be found in the works of many existentialists, but it is formulated as a fundamental doctrine of the existentialist catechism in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism, where he actually states:

l’existence précède l’essence.

So what exactly does Sartre mean when he says that existence precedes essence? Well, I think it is best to begin with the last word: essence. For Sartre, an essence is a concept, something a-priori, something baked into us beforehand, a nature of some sorts. You may be thinking that human nature would seem to comprise an “essence,” and you would be correct. For Sartre, “there is no human nature.” There is only the individual, and the goal is to unfetter ourselves from every essence and concept the world tries to heave onto us without our consent. So, because human nature is an essence, it cannot precede existence – in fact, it does not really exist. It is a construct as all concepts are: something that man can take on if he so chooses, but not something he is bound by. Thus, “man is nothing,” a being that exists “before he can be defined by a concept,” “nothing but what he makes of himself,” and therefore solely what he “conceives himself to be” and “wills himself to be after his thrust towards existence.” According to Sartre, “man exists, turns up, arrives on the scene, and only afterwards, defines himself.”

Je ne pense pas, M. Sartre; je ne pense pas.

Perhaps, at first glance, what Jean-Paul Sartre says is comprehensible; there is even a great appeal to it. However, upon further reflection, I think the entire structure falls apart. Let us first ask Sartre: What would such an existence, which precedes essence, look like? He, in my estimates, would reply that it looks like a being totally free from concepts. For Sartre this would be authenticity, a life rescued from the slime of the world in total defiance of the other – which means opposition to the world created by others and in which they are at home. To exist is to be totally opposed to everything, and thus, according to Sartre: to be nothing. The problems with this soon become apparent. How can a being – which is something – be nothing? How can something thrust itself towards nothing? How can a being exist before becoming defined by a concept? A being is a concept. A man is a concept and thus cannot “exist, turn up, arrive on the scene, and only afterwards, define himself,” for he is already defined. Sartre’s work is suffused with this paradoxical parlance that he simply repeats in liturgical fashion, so as to drill it into the mind of the reader who has been so stupefied by jargon that all he can do is accept it. The issue for Sartre is that he assumes there is some kind of being, some kind of man, that is not already a concept, that does not already have an essence. However, one cannot understand a being, or “man,” without the concept of human nature. Attempting to do so is a prime example of rationalism run amuck. The very definition of a man, or of a being, assumes a concept; thus, Sartre seems not only to assume but also rest on that which he intends to destroy. The authenticity he strives for – a world wholly opposed to that which is created by the other – is entirely fantastic. To be wholly opposed to the world is not to be nothing, as Sartre claims. What you are opposed to, as Sartre’s existentialist, is precisely what makes you what you are. If you like, your world wholly opposed to the other is not possible without the other. This precept about the social nature of man has been the traditional way to understand the human person in our civilization; it was known to the Greeks, when they told us that man is a “political animal” who is “born for citizenship,” and to the Hebrews, whose God looked over his creation and only saw one thing that was not good: Man being alone.

Transgender ideology struggles with the same issues I have just presented for Existentialism. In fact, Judith Butler – primary founder of modern queer theory – quite literally copies Sartre’s famed “existence precedes essence” when she states that gender is not an essence but is by nature “perfomative.” For Butler, we have all had the wrong idea about gender; we have likened it to something like sex: a biological fact, an essence that describes something true about human beings and their nature. Butler believes this is incorrect and that gender is something more like Sartre’s existence. No, not the existence of Jean-Paul Sartre, but his idea of “existence.” Gender is something you create; it precedes your essence. It is whatever one wishes for it to be – an ethereal, cartesian abstraction that predates mere biological facts. In Butler’s words, it is “free floating,” “flexible,” and not caused by “stable facts.” In other words, it is free from concepts. The issue is that like Existentialism, transgender ideology also assumes that which it desires to destroy: namely, a stable, objective conception of human nature. Thus, when Matt Walsh was on Dr. Phil and asked the two individuals promoting trans ideology to define a woman, they were dumbfounded and only able to conjure up “a woman is someone who identifies as a woman.” To which Walsh replied: yes, but what is that? They could not answer, because transgender ideology ultimately is nonsensical subjectivity longing for, and reaching toward, objectivity. It claims that womanhood is entirely subjective while at the same time attempting to lay claim to something objective in stating “I am a woman.” Walsh has stepped up to claim that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. He is right. Ultimately, to make sense of what they wish to believe, they must first rewrite the English language. I suggest we do not let them.

The final aspect of transgender ideology is the postmodern flavor it has. As Jean-François Lyotard stated in his work, The Postmodern Condition, postmodernism is taking an incredulous position towards mata-narratives. A meta-narrative is practically speaking, a worldview – an attempt to explain the world. Christianity is a meta-narrative, as is Kantian ethics, Buddhism, liberalism, conservatism, communism, and so on. The problem the postmodernists run into thus becomes: If people do not act in the world according to worldviews, then why do people do what they do? This is where Michel Foucault takes center stage and provides a very Nietzschean answer: it’s all about power. Like Nietzsche, Foucault believes something else lies underneath the veneer of order, morality, and social legitimization – namely, power. Concerning Michel Foucault, the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, said it best: “There is no truth that can be espoused, defended, or rescued against systems of power.” Thus, the disciples of Foucault interested in gender and sex (those like Judith Butler) began to see a binary gender system as merely a system of power. Speaking of it as a biological fact stands opposed to the freedom of choice – which is the great sin against the jealous god of liberalism. Therefore, those who claim that gender is binary are merely attempting to enslave you, to exert their power on you to keep you from truly existing, from truly expressing yourself.

So, transgender ideology is, at its very core, a hyper-rationalistic ideology which aims, as all rationalist projects do, to completely purge our minds of every traditional form of knowledge about who we are as human beings. It fails because it completely ignores the way actual humans live, and thus because it sees the world as clay to shape into whatever fashion it wishes, it has a great propensity to inflict serious harm on us, and in fact has done so already. In this radical, existentialist pursuit of the self, we alienate ourselves from the actual world, and ultimately from our true selves. But that is getting too much into Hegel, and I promised myself not to do that! At the end of it all, the sophists who adhere to transgender ideology quite literally tell us that their ideas are obscure and fickle – I suggest we take them at their word and ignore them. They also tell us that meta-narratives do not exist, and that every human motivation is about power – we must realize that in describing the world as such, they reveal to us their true motivations; so I, again, suggest we take them at their word and refuse to grant them any power. Matt Walsh is standing up, pointing out their lunacy and calling their bluff. For that he should be commended. Some conservatives say they do not like Walsh’s tactics, they claim he is too harsh. I do not really think he is as harsh as they make him out to be; but even if he were, he is standing firm with the zeal required from conservatives if we truly desire to conserve and perpetuate the great inheritance we have in the West. As William Butler Yeats brilliantly tells us in The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Those who seek to destroy every tradition that we have inherited certainly do so with fervent conviction; so I applaud Walsh for defending his convictions, despite any disagreements I may have with him. There are many dark sides to our human nature, and for, practically speaking, all of human civilization, we have viewed men and women as different by nature. Conservatives must step up and defend this traditional view of the human person; for allowing pompous twenty-year-old college students to rewrite human relations, which deal with the dark passions of men, will certainly mean disaster for our civilization. So, I welcome Walsh to Georgia Tech to do just that. //

Micah Paul Veillon


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