You actually don’t know anything…whatever that means?

December 2, 2011

Political Theory


Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote,

“Every one sees what you seem, but few know what you are. And these few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many”.

To put this in simpler terms, every one is judging you. In fact, we are always being judged or judging others, even if we do not intend to do so. We even judge ourselves! Whether it be making the judgment that, “OSU students have the mental capacity the size of a peanut” or critiquing our own appearance, “I look a scrub today”, we are always judging. So why do we judge? Is it simply a matter of human nature? Or have we been socially constructed to judge others? If you argue that judging is human nature, perhaps, you feel so because as a human race we are always looking to improve. Improve our technology, intelligence, physical appearance, and even our own morality. Do we have a natural instinct to be critical of the world? After all, if we were not critical how would we advance? So perhaps judging is a natural human tendency. On the other hand, what makes you so sure that the human race has always formed judgement?

Don't try too hard to be something you're not...whatever that means

Most importantly is that which results from judging, specifically the judgment of others. A few of the endless possibilities: inequality, humiliation, conformity, pride, success, and individuality. However, being critical, it appears most pertinent to look at the negatives as opposed to the positives. Perhaps this why Machiavelli stressed that appearance is key. When we judge people negatively, we close ourselves off to them. We do not consider the positive qualities which they may possess but rather let the negative overpower. Thus, it is in our best interest to appear socially acceptable (unless we’d prefer to be anti-social). So how do we separate the positive from negative and define what is socially acceptable? A simplified answer is that we socially construct words and symbols, which contribute to our cultural perspective. Basically, we are given a way to look at the world as well as act within it. And as Sociologist, Allan Johnson would say, people are more inclined to follow the path of least resistance (the socially accepted views of one’s culture) than go against the grain. Therefore, if we are more inclined to follow the views of our culture, then the majority of us will agree on what to construct positive as well as negative.

To delve a little deeper, let’s take a look at inequality, one of the many possibilities resulting from judgment. Political theorist, Jean Jacques Rousseau would argue that social inequality is not a product of human nature; rather it is the result of the establishment of civil society, writing,

“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.”

Rousseau claims that civil society was formed with the establishment of property. Thus property spurred judgment, which spurred social inequality. But is Rousseau correct or has he merely emphasized the wrong point? Why is it property and not judgment that created inequality? Take a moment to stop and think about this. Everything we view is through a lens. This lens forms thoughts, specifically judgments which tell us what is good, bad, can be improved, or futile. Do you really believe that social inequality (which results from judgment) began with the establishment of property? How can property be the reason for social inequality when judgment took precedent? Rousseau, even acknowledged that prehistoric man formed judgements, writing,

“To will, and not to will, to desire and to fear, must be the first, and almost the only operations of his soul, till new circumstances occasion new developments of his faculties.”

In this passage Rousseau notes that prehistoric man judged what to desire and will and what not to desire and will. So because prehistoric man must have judged property to be to his advantage, judgement as opposed to property must be the true cause for civil society. Civil society in turn spurs inequality. In addition, Rousseau acknowledges that the development of humanity depended on the basis of new circumstances. These new circumstances had to be judged, so human development is also a result of judgement. However, it is difficult to determine if both Rousseau and myself are correct. This is because Rousseau was socially constructed to have a certain perspective leading him to conclude property as the reason for inequality. At the same time, I was socially constructed to have a certain perspective leading me to conclude judgment as the reason for inequality. Are we both right? Is it best to just call it futile? Is this a question that cannot arrive at an answer?

Perhaps, no one ever said it better than Athenian philosopher, Socrates,

“I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know”.

Basically what I am trying to get at is that neither Rousseau nor myself can fully be deemed as correct. Rather we can only judge via our cultural lens. Essentially, there is no right or wrong. Rather only a way to think; perspective. This is my perspective. That we know everything but at the same time know absolutely nothing, because all we think we know is the result of social construction. So rather then ask you a specific question about a theorist, I would rather you judge. Judge this blog! What do you think? Go for it.

I have been socially constructed to believe that this image is not appropriate for this blog post.

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About erfreed3

Sophomore at the University of Michigan. Undecided. I like humanity-based and social science courses. Singer-Songwriter. That is all.

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2 Comments on “You actually don’t know anything…whatever that means?”

  1. Karsten Smolinski Says:

    I personally think that our tendency to be critical is a result of our human nature. Even animals judge. Birds pick mates based on who has the best plumage. Wolves pick their pack leader based on whatever male is the toughest. Judging probably emerged as a tool for survival long before homo sapiens even existed. However, I would agree that this tendency has evolved into much more because of the complexity of human culture and the human tendency to judge based on our own perspective.
    Still, I like to think that humanity may be reaching a turning point. Though social construction has definitely been detrimental in the past, prejudicing people against others and creating social strife, I think that social construction could also work to the benefit of humanity. From my own personal experiences, I’ve seen how the University of Michigan encourages diversity and had several professors, including professor LaVaque-Manty, who have pointed out how one’s views vary with one’s perspective. With the global perspective that modern technology has given us, I think that instead of being socially conditioned to be more critical, people will be socially conditioned to be more understanding.

  2. lmaren Says:

    This is a topic that I have thought a lot about before and I think that you bring an interesting twist to the idea of perspective. I believe that judging others is a natural human attribute. How we judge others is affected by our culture and surroundings. For example, centuries ago, fat, pale people were considered beautiful because it showed that they had could afford that much food and they stayed indoors and did not work outside. Nowadays, it couldn’t be more opposite! I would agree that what we know and what we accept as okay and normal are cultural phenomenons that we have created. You could go as far as to argue that our judgement is actually not our own judgement-it’s our reflection on our culture. But in the world that our society has created, there have been things that have been determined as right or wrong, such as murder, and that is what becomes true.

    Everything we know was fabricated somehow and we were taught to believe that it is true. But, there is no way to find the real truth, so maybe we are best to just stick to what society has determined to be correct and adhere to those laws. There is no proof of answers, and maybe no truth at all, like Socrates suggests.

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