Furthest Right

The Phenomenology Of Reason (M. Raphael Johnson)

The Phenomenology Of Reason

M. Raphael Johnson


As European societies descend further into the barbarism of “global civilization,” it seems necessary to worry about the foundations of a just and stable social order. Political theory seems to thrive in trying times, but unfortunately, our present era seems an exception, as academic political theory seems utterly stuck in a web of cliches, political correctness and a dependency upon major “old-money” foundations such that its relevance to contemporary debate is relegated to merely echoing the demands of the state and more powerful private actors. Serious criticism is almost solely the property of the independent but ever-embattled declasse outside of the universities.  

Due to the fact that barbarism is profitable and fashionable (it has taken the form of nihilistic capitalism for the moment), academia has also regressed accordingly, into a myopic world of post-modernism and a well subsidized and mass-produced “radicalism,” united in the fact that they deny the very existence of moral foundations, and even of rationality itself. On the other hand, the fact remains that the political “right” in America and Europe has consistently failed to elucidate a coherent theory of society or the state independent of Enlightenment slogans, a view of modernist human “autonomy” that has largely been responsible for unleashing the very intellectual crimes of post-modernism in the first place. Furthermore, the political “right” has long lost even a toehold in professional academia, which leads to the unenviable position of having the majority of theoretical work on “rightist” matters dependent on well meaning but intellectually limited amateurs. 

The Enlightenment myth, or, more accurately, the myth that is as old as philosophy itself and reached a fever pitch in western Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, undergirds our present fashionable barbarism. The myth (it is primarily epistemological) is central to both liberalism and a vulgar American conservatism, and consists in the Aristo-Thomistic epistemological idea that there exists in the world an abstract mind on the one hand, an abstract object on the other, and a series of propositions in between that purport to explain the relation, called “knowledge.” Michael Oakeshott identified the myth as central to the difficulties facing the European world in such famous essays as “Rationalism in Politics” and “The Tower of Babel,” but, in a flurry of libertarian and “conservative” writing, the central understanding of this countercritique has been lost. 

Primarily, the myth exists in the proposition that reason is autonomous, i.e., that reason is capable of abstracting from any determinate material condition whatever, and that we “know” or “experience” this faculty of mind precisely in this ability. From this, social foundations, if they can be called that, end up as a series of rational concepts in agreement only in their external and formal character, as content per se is not strictly a part of such abstract analysis. Such a myth of reason and the social chaos it creates is central to understanding the Enlightenment, and its inheritance of the Thomistic system that, ultimately, gave it birth.(1)

One wonders what an abstract action looks like, or what abstract deliberation about an equally abstract goal might be; it is, nonetheless, the basis of modern contract theory and much “republican” and “democratic” thinking of both a “liberal” and “conservative” stripe. They are ideological in the strict sense, that is, they derive from speculation about the nature of deliberation, thought and action apart from any specific content or context. It seems relatively clear that to build a political vision based on such figments of the mind as “contract” is dangerous, for it distorts the very meaning of words like “action,” which are always about something in particular, and, by definition, become “actions” per se only when they are made intelligible, that is, placed in a certain context, which is analytically indistinguishable from action as such. And if this is true, then, in order to make action or deliberation conceivable, there must be, not a contextual vacuum, but a determinate way of life and a shared vocabulary of meaning that can be called upon to make sense out of anything a man does or thinks in society.(2)

A man is not born (a humanoid animal is born, civilizations are made), but made, and he is made by the vocabulary, activity and reality of shared meanings that exist in any specific society and determinate way of life. Liberal individualism, typified by contract theory and the pseudo-moral theory of Enlightenment capitalism and/or socialism, begins with the untenable Cartesian assumption that civil society is analytically separable from specific cultural contexts and ways of life; the entire Cartesian epistemology and its later political manifestations is built around this idea.(3)  

The difficulty with the myth of epistemology that informs most debate on politics in our present era (often descending into the foundationless post-modernism, proving the victory of Nietzsche) is that underlying the formal agreement of concepts that is the essence of an “ideological” approach to politics is a foundation of cultural and communal constructs that have been too little understood and largely ignored except as “intersubjective” symbols. Nationalism, or as what Vladimir Solovyov, from Johann Herder, called “nationality,” builds its critique of this vapid western nominalism precisely by emphasizing the nature of this substratum as previous to any cognition (that is, the conditions for meaningful cognition), and is what a specifically “ideological” approach to politics takes for granted. 

Natural law in human affairs might be said to encompass the notion (abbreviated into a proposition) that a human being is naturally social, with the necessary corollary that he is also, therefore, dependent. The criticism of the western myth is, first, that human rational faculty is not autonomous of itself, and this is because of the epistemological necessity of a communal and cultural basis (abbreviated as “national” or “ethnic”) for any reflection whatever. Secondly, the nullification of the ethical conception of autonomy (as normally defined, by, for example, John Stuart Mill) deriving from our dependent and communal status, is provided with a foundation. This foundation for a criticism of the western myth is also the proper starting place for a nationalist countercritique of modern individualism, capitalism and the state. 


Human beings must congregate to survive. Within the dynamics of this congregation, specific problems — such as economic production — calcify into specific skills and methods that come to define certain practices in society; this is the necessary consequent to the proposition that “all men are social,” and is the very content to a robust notion of natural law, rather than the abstract Thomistic variety. The slow development of communal tradition is universal, from tribal primitive societies up until the development of ideology. The notion of a “cultural community” being the primary basis for individuality is as old as humanity. In other words, individuals do not exist as ethically relevant entities primarily, but only secondarily, as products of a community.(4) 

The notion of a human being’s natural communality — and the ethical corollary of the moral primacy of solidarity — leads one to the idea that the cultural collective, a natural and organic entity that springs from the very nature of the human species, must exist prior the the existence of mature individuals. Without the goods that the cultural collective (i.e. the nation in a broad, cultural sense) provides, the existence of the individual as a morally significant entity is radically open to question. The existence of thought presupposes language in that thought outside of language is literally inconceivable. Only immediate impulses, urges and primitive feelings can be experienced outside a linguistic (and therefore conceptual; therefore social) nexus. Language is, by definition, a product of the cultural collective. A shared language, therefore, is necessary for any level of thought in general, and, certainly, is necessary for any thought to be communicated to others.

Moreover, it also follows that thought takes on meaning only within the confines of a cultural community that can provide the very reason for thought, i.e. the solving of specific human problems and questions that arise in the community’s development. There is no reason for language outside of the community.(5) It is true that the notion of language is necessary for thought for it could not be communicated (and therefore could not be useful) outside of the national and cultural nexus. The very conceptual content of words is provided with meaning only within such a context. 

If thought exists posterior to the satisfaction of our animal nature, i.e. the solving of the basic problems of food, shelter and production (however primitive), then the development of reason exists posterior to the existence of a community. If the reverse were the case, as western rationalism presupposes, then one would need to explain and provide an example of a thought without language and directed to no specific purpose. The conclusion is, therefore, that language, concepts, logic, etc. all are abbreviations of already existing practices, that is to say, the developing ethno-communitarian nexus. 


Human beings naturally form communities, divisions of labor and communal customs that regulate the interaction of the society’s members. It is from this interaction that human reason, and the concomitant virtues that are the synthesis of natural community and reason, are formed. Human reason, then, is not a set of abstractions but rather is not analytically distinct from that series of clusters of objects, contexts, feelings, associations and words that reach into the very history and nature of any specific nation and people. Now, while natural law seems to state that human beings are naturally social (proven by the fact that the human being out of social context is, despite Rousseau’s protestations, inconceivable), and this bald fact is the basis of moral objectivity (rather than the hedging concept of “intersubjectivity”), it therefore follows that specific normative utterances derive from the specific development of national and tribal groups.

This is the basis for moral objectivity and can thus dispense with the idealism of Fichte and Hegel, relying more on Vico and Herder, and thus can maintain itself against “intersubjectivity” from which post-modernism takes its starting point. Natural law, or the law of human sociality, is the foundation for ethics and the foundation for human activity in general; however, the specific reality that one interacts with is a product of the particular cultural collective and its experience. 

The nationalist understanding of the individual is easily understood from this. The notion of human action presupposes interaction. Interaction is impossible outside of a cultural collective, for it is precisely the job of this collective to create the set of informal and often subconscious rules that provide a relatively regular set of patterns that underlie interaction, that is, provide the “matter” to be used by the will. The community protects one from the arbitrariness that would engulf individuals dealing with one another without these unspoken cultural norms. Without the community, the social interaction to create one would be impossible; human life and human reason would be, as a result, impossible as well. 

It is easy to conclude that, in all things, the community precedes the individual in moral significance. This is simply due to the fact that individuals are products of the community. Simply, the things one needs to know to be a functioning individual that is responsible (rather than a sociopath), namely, certain manners, skills, language, education, etc. are provided by the collective and have existed for countless generations before the “individual” who irrationally asserts his “autonomy” over the social whole. Reason, then, is not an abstract faculty, capable of thrusting itself in all directions, but is rather a residual category, one that is literally formed by the history of a people who have behaved in certain ways and solved certain problems. The contradiction in this sort of western mythical thinking is that the very substratum of human autonomy, well explained in Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, is left abstract, that is, unrelated to the asserting individual, and treated as having no moral content objectively.

Hegel, in his Philosophy of Right, makes this contradiction the turning point between Civil Society and the State, which for Hegel is indistinguishable from the (Prussian/Germanic) nation. 


The phenomenology of reason (or criticism) is that the empirically real (that is, particular objects, our present social status) leads to the conceptualization of the empirical, which in turn is permitted to confront the real, the particular. Simply put, the notion of phenomenological epistemology centers around the idea that any specific set of observables, particular objects encountered in normal experience, is a product of ideas. A specific object is provided with its content and meaning because the idea is “imposed” upon it. For Johann Herder, the idea of “myth” fits this pattern. Nature is made intelligible because it is poeticized by the ethno-community. Folk tales, music and artistic creation in general “humanizes” nature in that it takes the bald reality of matter and, without destroying its particularity, turns it into an object of art. Therefore, even the facts of nature are in this way made “national,” made real by the living community united by language and historical experience. 

History, then, is the development of the “disembodied ideas,” that is, our conceptualization of the merely empirical, in relation to the observables of experience, both changing them and being changed in turn. For many neo-Hegelians, this is the very nature of social and ethical understanding. But even this does not presuppose individuality (though the individual will is active, and freely so) but rather shows us a moral epistemology that grounds criticism in the community one is dealing with rather than the existence of an abstract reasoning faculty; reason becomes a slave of what is empirically real. What nationalist and ethno-communitarian theory does is properly ground even the existence of a critical faculty — one of moral criticism — that exists only in and through the civilizing matrix of the nation, or more specifically and accurately, one’s specifically ethno-linguistic community. 


The idea that man comes to be an “individual” only through the nation suggests the next phase, that of the nature of social unity. Social unity comes before the individual, for it is only within this unity that the faculties for a properly functioning individual exist. This is the foundation for the fallacy of the “social contract” theory, one of the major products of the western myth. It assumes fully functioning and civilized men, all with a well developed sense of civic responsibility, without ever having any experience of civilization or community whatever. There is no explanation of how they became so civic minded.(6)

The rejection of social contract theory revolutionizes the way men see civil society. Civil society is now an organic, communal and cultural entity rather than an abstract contract entered into by inexplicable and inconceivable “individuals,” or more accurately, Hobbesian social atoms — as they are not “people” in any understandable sense.  

Social chaos is the product of the destruction, whether quickly or slowly, of the cultural community. History proves, as in the cases of Poland or Ireland among hundreds of others, that it cannot be destroyed by military force, but only through cultural contaminants and alien ideas. In our contemporary era, the corrosive force of global capitalism and western media are forcing communities to self-consciousness, that is, the objective nature of nationality is now becoming provoked into subjective awareness. Scholars of nationalism such as Anthony Smith,(7) among many others, have posited that the existence of a subjective (that is, self conscious) nationalism is the direct result of traditional ways of life being invaded by “modernity.”

The incredibly disruptive and acidic properties of global capitalism force peoples to become, quickly and violently, conscious of themselves as comprising an objective entity, the ethnos. It is another argument altogether that nations are thus created by this force. (8) Scholars such as Gellner and Kedourie have attempted to make this argument, ultimately without success.(9)  

Nations, that is, ethno-linguistic communities, are objective entities in that they comprise many civilizing institutions and ideas, bound to themselves as they imprint their own stamp upon it based on their collective historical experience. They feature a common language, fundamental moral agreement, fundamental religious conformity, social ritual, mannerisms and many other such elements. Such communities are not necessarily encapsulated by states, and many are not states, but are suppressed by them. The common canard about the “rise of nationalism” revolves around the idea that the state is synonymous with a national community, and, therefore, nationalism is strictly a modern creation, since the state is also. As Benedict Anderson wrote, nations become “imagined communities” created solely by the existence of the printed word which increasingly seeks out new markets which in turn demand the regularization of language over larger and larger territories. Such translation eventually crystallizes into “nationhood.”  

What is difficult to understand is how, exactly, did entire countries come to place such fanatic devotion to a purely literary invention. Modernism claims, in short, that modern Greek nationalism has nothing to do with the memories of ancient Greece, modern French nationalism has nothing to do with Louis IX, and that Russian nationalism has nothing to do with Ivan III.(10) Modernist theory on nationalism defines the nation in terms solely germane to modernity, and thus conclude, in a circular fashion, that nations are particularly modern inventions. Regardless, the “rise of nationalism” is the result of these objective factors becoming conscious, that is, rather than being the creations of leaders, it is the politicization of objective cultural norms. The dialectics of this politicization have two specific motions: 

1) The movement between objective and subjective nationality. In other words, ethno-communities have always existed, whether in tribal form, under the yoke of empires, or as independent self-governing entities in one form or another. They have changed, they have been vitiated as well as liberated, they have become part of larger entities, but they continue to exist, and, as times change, continue to place moral demands on their members. It is another matter for nationalism to be a functioning alternative idea of the political system. This is not the “ideologization” of the national collective (which is resistant to conceptualization), but an awakening of sorts in that a specific people actually come to define themselves as such, and demand recognition of that fact.(11) This is the “spring” of nations, not the invention of nations. States might administer nations, they might even protect them, but, outside of the creation of a sort of formal administrative unity that can be mobilized in times of emergency, they do not create them. 

2) The movement between specific nations and communities and the state system. Often, it is alleged that the state created the nation (Gellner’s work is important here). This is partially true. The state created a national-like idea that justified the expansion and imperial designs of the state itself. Today, thankfully, political scientists are being reminded that these smaller, sub-state organizations and communities have never lost their pre-state identity, and hundreds of these throughout the globe are demanding the recognition of that fact as well. With a few exceptions, the ideas of nation and state are mutually opposed. This is a positive development; there is much in ethno-nationalism that is anti-statist. The state might have been a convenient vehicle for certain aspirations concerning security and markets, such as in the work of Barres and Treitschke, but it has no ethical value unless, as is very common, the concepts of state and nation are confounded. 

The question of recognition is central to nationalist activity, subjectively speaking, for it is the public proclamation of the civilizing forces that create individuals; it is the proclamation, in other words, of the individual himself. If the community is a specific entity, different from all others and provides a “thick” conception of the individual and his responsibilities, then it follows that it needs to rule itself, independent of alien entities — including the modern state — that can only distort the specificcity of the ethnos as whole. 

The nationalist conception of the state is immensely important. The dialectic of nation and state shows that the state is an autonomous entity (or at least that it aspires to that) in that has its own specific set of interests and normally does not stand for moral competition with the imperatives of the cultural communities the state ostensibly represents. This level of competition is the driving force within the nation/state dialectic. The synthesis of this dialectic, as it were, is the understanding of the state as an epiphenomenon of the nation; it is Rousseau rescued from his rationalistic understanding of state and individual (also a correction of Nisbet’s understanding of Rousseau and nationalism); the state is a protective coating against external enemies. If nations were respected as such, there would be no reason for the external state at all; authority would be contained within the less formal structures of family, guild and church.(12)  

The difficulty with Rousseau’s idea of the General Will, as Hegel pointed out, was that the notion of the collective to which the individual gives himself (somehow fully formed) to was indeterminate as it, as Nisbet properly said, rejects any sort of intermediate institutions that come between the citizen and the state; Rousseau was correct to claim that the state should be nothing more than a growth from the General Will and having no autonomous existence. Rousseau, however, falls into the same trap as many of his generation, that is, they fail to give an account of the civilizational process that leads to the social contract, or even the very process of thought, articulation and contextual understanding that would even make the concept conceivable to begin with.  

The set of assertions that make up Rousseau’s Second Discourse at least place him above his contemporaries, but there is still an instinct to civility and civic mindedness that it left unexplained. The social development of man in Rousseau’s famed treatise leaves the transition between savagery and the full “self-giving” of the Social Contract unintelligible. The idea of the “General Will” for the nationalist and ethno-communitarian is that the “General” in “General Will” is the nature of the communal association (which, incidentally, is not a produce of a specific will at all). The general will is the specific set of cultural patterns that have become normative for a certain people, thus leaving traditional and more informal and decentralized institutions intact, in fact, the spirit of nationhood is the continual integration of these other institutions into some sort of differentiated and complex unity.

This pattern is not voted on, or often even understood explicitly, but rather, the state, such as it is, represents this cultural unity in explicating, defending, representing and exemplifying the cultural essence of a specific people. Outside of this, the state is a parasite on the people, vile and without the slightest ethical substance or legitimacy. It becomes St. Augustine’s government of thieves writ large. 

As the Irish conservatives such as Burke did not fail to point out, the cultural patterns of any society are the real check on anti-social behavior. The state is a clumsy means to enforce conformity, and, even more importantly, the continual reliance on state power to enforce certain basic civilizational norms is normally a sign that cultural decay has set in and is well advanced. Significantly, the state, for ethno-nationalism, with all its rhetorical impulses to totalism, is quite small. First of all, the first imperative is to keep the state from developing interests of its own to the greatest extent possible. Secondly, the existence of a healthy culture, passed on largely through the functioning family and other smaller institutions, makes the existence of coercion from the formal state unnecessary. The reliance on coercion is a warning sign rather than a solution. Thirdly, it is not an exaggeration, when one begins to separate, within 19th century nationalist literature, nation from state (conceptually speaking), to identify “nation” with “society.” For it is within the functioning of society that the national idea takes its modern form, for all the functions of a society depend on precisely those commonalities and foundations that create the civil individual. 

From this understanding of the state, one may reasonably conclude that it is not a reality, but rather an epiphenomenon of the nation. The state is the incomplete and abbreviated formal principle of the national culture; it is, in a small way, the authorized spokesman for the nation, and her defender on the international stage. It is incomplete in that the national culture cannot be entirely explained through a series of formal propositions, but the cultural patterns that create functioning individuals and explicate social virtue (for virtue is by definition a derivative from a specific communal context) can be abbreviated in more or less “ideological” form, but a form that does not do justice to its content. The state, relative to the nation/society, is a necessary evil. 

The nature and ontology of social unity does not, therefore, exist solely from a series of concepts that have but a merely formal and externalized agreement. The notion of conceptualization and the resultant standardization is occasionally necessary, but of itself is not, and is often far from, the living content of the social virtues specifically suited to a particular society. In short, the ontology of national unity is a series of immediate bonds that hold a people together. These immediate bonds, those generally unreflective ingredients to any civil society, or even any human activity, such as fundamental moral agreement, language, unspoken customs governing even trivial social interaction and the history of a specific people, are the very substrate of human action of any kind. Without a social context, human action is unintelligible. “Action,” “deliberation,” “freedom” and other words cannot intelligibly be used as abstractions, but are embedded in a specific way of life which constrict the choices an individual makes, which, far from being a threat to liberty, provides meaning to actions which abstract and libertarian ideas of freedom do not address. Without language, one of the greatest products of nations and cultures, reasoning thought cannot occur; but only animal impulses are possible. 

It is significant that these bonds, this substratum of human activity, are mostly unreflective. It is in the unspokenness of many social norms and conventions that makes social interaction possible. The point of its being unreflective is that it is ingrained into the consciousness of the relevant individuals, and thus simply involves itself in even trivial social interaction. Each action a human being performs of social significance cannot be accompanied by a set of logical deductions, but the cultural norms that regularize social behavior must simply be ingrained, i.e. must become immediate. Nationalism, particularly of a cultural, Herderian sort, takes as central to its ethics that it is these immediate bonds that represent the very stuff of social interaction, that is, social interaction is inconceivable without such a substratum of immediate connection.


1. There can be no question as to the intentions of St. Thomas. He was, while a rationalist, largely taking his Roman Catholic and cultural traditions for granted. To a great extent, this explains his hyper-abstract character. The question of the “rightness” of culture was not an issue at all. However, the Oxford scholastics just a few generations after Thomas already show the abuse of this rationalist system, and manifested the seeds of its eventual demise.

2. Of course, this is the primary critique of the communitarians in political theory today. Robert Nisbet’s work alone is sufficient to establish that.

3. It reached its apogee in the philosophical trajectory from Kant to Compte. In Kantian morality, one of the primary conditions for judging morality is whether or not it is “tainted” by particular considerations. Kant’s version of the myth is that generality, considered as such, is the actual ground for “moral” acts. Rousseau’s preceding idea of the General Will is identical in this respect.

4. This is not to nullify the individual, but merely to say that the various virtues necessary to become an “individual” in modern society are not inborn, but must derive from some communal context.

5. This is a bit more than a tautology. Michael Oakeshott’s work on language is central here, specifically his (1974) On Human Conduct. In short, morally significant language develops within the context of the various strata of society coordinating their social efforts.

6. The notion of a “social contract” has been rarefied into a literal myth in that it is often considered an intellectual fiction to conceive of the importance of individual liberty. Therefore, many “social contract” theorists such as John Rawls actually admit the “mythic” nature of such a fiction, but that it is legitimate given its end, that is, the intellectual support of a political theory of liberty, abstractly considered. Many have taken this to be “liberty” itself.

7. cf. his Nationalism and Modernism (1998) for summaries of the dominant theories in this field. Smith is a scrupulously honest scholar. He is part of a dying breed.

8. Important works here include Geertz, Clifford. Old Societies and New States; van den Berghe, Pierre. The Ethnic Phenomenon; and Grosby, Stephen. “Religion and Nationality in Antiquity.”

9. Cf. a few names from the Modernist school of nationalism such as Ernst Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism; Elie Kedourie’s Nationalism; as well as John Breuilly’s Nationalism and the State; and Charles Tilly’s Formation of National States in Western Europe. These are the major works hostile to nationalism.

10. Leah Greenfield’s Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity is a refreshing alternative to the Gellnerian ideas on modernism, while still remaining aloof to the commitments of nationalist theory per se.

11. The notion that members of a nation must explicitly and regularly recognize themselves a such is a subjective quality only. Workers in the capitalist system do not usually recognize or understand their role in the global trading order objectively, but it exists nonetheless.

12. Another of the endless misconceptions of nationalist thought is that the idea of nation, on the one hand, and the functioning of sub national institutions, on the other, are in conflict. Few in the history of nationalist thinking have sought to eliminate the intermediate institutions that have formed the nation in the first place. This is a terrible misconception begun by Nisbet and continuing to this day. Intermediate institutions within the cultural collective continually work reciprocally, creating the idea of nationhood. Their smooth functioning, therefore, is the result of cultural commonality, i.e. objective nationality.

[The Idyllic, August 30, 2003]


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