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The Administration of Things: A Geneaology

(Original essay by Ben Kafka at West 86th.com...)

"...If men never disagreed about the ends of life, if our ancestors had remained undisturbed in the Garden of Eden, the studies to which the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory is dedicated could scarcely have been conceived,” Isaiah Berlin told his audience at Oxford when he assumed that position in 1958. Philosophy was at its best when it was being contentious, especially when it was being contentious about the meaning and purpose of our common existence. Too much agreement was an abdication of its ethical responsibility:

Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political, but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. This is the meaning of Saint-Simon’s famous phrase about ‘replacing the government of persons by the administration of things’, and the Marxist prophecies about the withering away of the state and the beginning of the true history of humanity. This outlook is called utopian by those for whom speculation about this condition of perfect social harmony is the play of idle fancy. Nevertheless, a visitor from Mars to any British—or American—university today might perhaps be forgiven if he sustained the impression that its members lived in something very like this innocent and idyllic state, for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers.

The task of philosophy was not to settle disputes, but to unsettle them, to encourage them, to keep them going. For it was only through disputation that we could resist the rule of experts and machines, the bureaucratic-technocratic society foretold by Saint-Simon and championed by Marx and Engels, a society in which we replace the “government of persons by the administration of things..."


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