What does to be radical mean?

[Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot model]

by Ana Bazac

Etymologically, to be radical means to go to the “root of the matter”, that “for man, … is man himself”[i]. But this simple explanation is inherently abstract, if it is not developed in its multi facets concreteness.


One aspect of the radicalness of thinking is the thinking itself, i. e. the manner it is thought in connection with the surrounding things. Thus, if the telos of the first philosophers was ontology, the conception of the existence as it is given by the access consciousness / the reflective part of the consciousness, the following phase was gnoseology or rather epistemology, the inquiry of the ways the humans think and what and how do they reflect tò tí esti, the what-it-is, or ta onta. From this standpoint, epistemology was radical towards ontology, because it raised just the question of the intermediary moment between the exterior milieu and the conscious moment of its understanding; the exterior was visible – clear-cut as appearance – and what was the problem was just the penetration of the human mind within and behind the visible; so first, people put in relation the input – output, the things they are interested about and their meanings; but then, they question the “black box” between the two extremes, how the ideas form within mind:

                                                 input – black box – output.

However, since many thinkers have focused only on the mysterious mechanism of thinking, do the researchers of the mystery of nature – of what grows and envelops the humans – are not radicals towards those whose intention is only the discussion of the technicalities of the thoughts? Is a kind of mystery biggest than the other?


Beyond this playful introduction – that nevertheless draws attention to the dialectical unity of the process of thinking, as well as on the necessity to be aware about the difference between words, concepts and things – the concept of radicalness is not tantamount to opposition of contraries, and least to the contradictory incompatibility of philosophical theories. Kant’s transcendental idealism is not radical towards Hume’s empiricism, it is simply different, other[ii], because it goes beyond the access consciousness. Actually, the extreme philosophical theories – as idealism and materialism – are rather moments in the philosophical efforts to surpass, to outrun the competing theories, or didactic exaggerations retained by the next analysts. The focus on specific problems and viewpoints did not annul the inclusion of other problems and points of view: it simply deflected them to different approaches. Neither Plato did reject the reality comprised by both senses and ideas, nor Hegel, and nor the materialists did ignore the power of ideas on the world.

Did the different approaches mean that the “essence” of things was absolutely opposed? Maybe, but even the most closed metaphysics contained concrete illustrations which involved different types of essences. In this respect, we rather recall the permanent embarrassing problem of the difference and intertwining of words, concepts and things, and the mutual Aufhebung the philosophers raced in order to win it. In fact, the theories whose aim was the exceeding of other theories contained aspects and standpoints of the criticized theories. And we may suggest that the internal contradictoriness of coagulated theories as well as the contradictions between theories did never concern all the aspects present in those theories. This situation emphasizes the important difference between the essentialist and the existentialist philosophies, or more exactly, the proportion of essentialist and existentialist approaches in every philosophical construction. From this point of view, both the difficulty to differentiate and separate the essentialist deductions (of reality/explanations from concepts) from the existentialist inductions, and their mixture once more show how cardinal is the understanding of common features of philosophies traditionally marked as absolutely opposed. For example, Kant, Hegel and Marx had a commonality that was continued and overshot but this surpassing never erased it[iii]. (Actually, there is about some commonalities).


This methodological warning of the mutual Aufhebung helps us to sketch the morphology of radicalness. It is an aspect that highlights the different types of radicalness and the relationships between them. These types are related to the kind of inquiry.

First, the investigation aims to understand the causes, but they could be unveiled not in the Aristotelian system of interdependent material, formal, efficient and telic causes but in isolated fragments of linear chains, and more, which are not developed “all the way to the end”, but finished before they would arrive to the dialectical conclusion of complex and dynamic unity of causes. Neither the professional search for causes does advocate the focus on fragments of a linear chain. Thus, it’s doubtful to might consider radical the following of a fragment of a linear chain towards other ones.

The result can be but a fragmented image of the consequences of the considered facts. Actually, the reality – or more, the existence – becomes contracted, shrunk, according just to the fragmented image of the causes. The system of the real states / problems becomes simplified, rather as a model of these states / problems. At the level of philosophy of science, we speak about the “space” that gives birth to the discontents concerning this state of things and thus, to the “revolutions” in science. At the level of methodological analysis in epistemology, it is about the intention to configure a picture of the states / problems according to the paradigms or theories based on specific fragmented causes, which were the premises / the (explicit or tacit) suppositions or the frame of the new concrete construction. If we express this methodological situation in a less pretentious way, we could distinguish the (scientific, namely based on well-founded demonstrations or arguments, both in philosophy and science) theory from propaganda. In the latter, the tableau described as reality results from a selection of facts and causes and corresponds to the frame suppositions which it justifies. Is a theoretical analysis radical because it exceeds the legitimizing description and considers the founding premises as hypotheses which should be re-demonstrated? Of course, we feel that the above adjective is not quite suitable: just because there is la propriété des mots, we are careful when we use synonyms (which never superpose exactly); a good theoretical analysis is deep despite the specific narrow area it is focused on, is holistic without being superficial, is sharp in its logic, is accurate concerning the treatment of the abstract and the concrete; accordingly, it is efficient. Someone can use the word “radical” when he/she compare a bad theory and a good one, and is enthusiastic towards the latter; yet in fact, this is not radicalness, but steps in the development of reason, of scientific approach of things.


Consequently, the radicalness relates not to irrespective which theory, but only to peculiar ones, those about the concrete existential situation of people, and specifically of great number of people, of masses. And because there are different concrete domains of the existential situation of people, there are different concrete radicalness in every such concrete domain and theories related to every such concrete domain. For instance, a theory about culture, that explains it as a chain of influence of ideas can be more or less radical according to the area covered by these ideas and to the theoretical and practical results of the chain of influence; or a theory about  racial and national differences can be more or less radical according to the closed or open area of these differences – and of the theories about these differences – and thus, to the results of these different types of treatment of the (ideas of) differences.


As it is known, the term radical became famous during the European transition to modernity, more exactly during the era of bourgeois revolutions. (And after them, the term kept its aura rather as a self-calling of different bourgeois parties until it became superfluous, being supplanted by both the terms liberal and democrat – seeming lesser dangerous to the bourgeois layers who should have been their members and support – and the non-bourgeois terms of socialist and communist, linked to the mass worker parties).

Although the forging and use of terms is the result of the movement of ideas, in turn, this ideal movement reflects real social movements in different domains. Simply put, the bourgeois parties – representatives of different bourgeois layers – promoted the interests of these different layers, namely, of the petty, middle and big bourgeoisie. Fighting for hegemony towards the former ruling classes (aristocracy, clergy and monarchy), at first these different bourgeois layers seemed to be similarly radical, i.e. promoting the ideas that took “the form of universality”. “For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones”[iv]. Clearer, the substitution and taking over of the old hegemony ought to be perceived by the general population as a radical transformation of the old society, namely, of the old property, production and change relations. This radicalness called and generated the form of universality.

But as the revolution gave victory to the big bourgeoisie, the rest of bourgeois layers found themselves in the situation to fight not only against the proletarian layers – who aimed a “social republic”, but who were too weak to do this[v] – but also against the big bourgeoisie, now allied with the former ruling strata. The term radical was waved just by this rest of bourgeois layers, obviously not by all of them (rather by the petty one) and not in every moment of the modern revolutionary process, because even this bourgeois rest, after allying a moment with the proletarians, became afraid from their truly radical goals and objectively subordinated itself to the winner big bourgeoisie, its radical words remaining only a wave of illusions and catching means of the naïve idealist bourgeois.

“Every new class, therefore, achieves its hegemony only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously, whereas the opposition of the non-ruling class against the new ruling class later develops all the more sharply and profoundly. Both these things determine the fact that the struggle to be waged against this new ruling class, in its turn, aims at a more decided and radical negation of the previous conditions of society than could all previous classes which sought to rule”[vi].


The above historical chapter helps us to deduce that the radicalness of ideas is not only historical but that its reflective power and its use depend on concrete social relations, manifested in different domains related to these relations which are existential. To continue the above examples, a theory that posits and concludes the necessity of equal racial and national rights, without revealing the structural economic causes of the racial and national inequality, hardly can be defined as radical: obviously, it is a better answer to the problem of that inequality, but since it spins around the ideas of human nature[vii], and local and universal habits and morals, it remains at the level of justification and benevolent criticism. This is the basis of “salad” type solving of these rights, as well as of the neo-liberal substitution of class and economic relations with racial and national (and gender) relations.

Since nowadays is clear that, in order to understand the problems of the humans, we need to go to the root of things, to causes, interpreting the appearances and to pass beyond them, we should not forget the old, simple conclusion: without the “most radical rupture with traditional property relations” there is no “the most radical rupture with traditional ideas”[viii].

We can, certainly, “be radical” – i.e. thinking in the most critical manner about different aspects of the human life – but if we do not relate our criticism to the structural relations (without which we cannot understand the economic and social ideas), we do not arrive further than turning the ideas until the obstacle of structural relations, put by our self-censorship. The roots are the aim in every aspect, but their roots are only in the structural relations. We do not start from the roots of an aspect or the other in order to show what the radicalness in that aspect does mean, but from the structural relations. And if we think „all the way”, we see that from any aspect do we start we arrive to the same methodological requirement: we arrive to the necessity to take into account the structural relations. In other words, we see that we cannot arrive to radical ideas / solutions, which solve the circumscribed problems and their definitions, but if we are radical concerning the structural relations, so wherever we were leaving, we would arrive there.

On the other hand, if we start from the structural relations and are radical, we understand that all the other aspects are solved in time. Only the structural relations can be solved radically only at one dash. But, once again, the other aspects can be solved only by linking them to the structural relations.


So, the parenthesis from the title is clear now: we must take into account the structural relations, and this is possible, as the history of the last three centuries showed, only at one dash. Otherwise, an ocean of powerless words substitutes the means of solving and, when all is said, neither the world to solve remains and nor the solving subject. Perhaps a helpless being: that is not anymore the human, also because the words used by him before have destroyed his critical thinking and reason[ix].

But is the model of Alexander the Great in front of the Gordian knot realist? The appearance of the present world makes all of us sad, very sad. It seems that humanity goes towards its extinction: consciously; even knowing the means to stop this slipping into an abyss that will definitely erase its cultural uniqueness in the Universe.

However, knowing is a permanent progress. Though the dominant pensée unique is offensive against the model of Alexander and the Gordian knot, we hope that this model will follow the path of the Enlightenment idea of universalism: the human values – having as a criterion the Kantian categorical imperative – are common to the entire human species, with all the historical local differences. To be radical today means to promote this type of universalism, seen through the lenses of all the common people from the world and of every one of them; through the lenses of their struggle to live a beautiful and meaningful human life. To be radical today means to be responsible towards all of them.

[i] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction (1844), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm

[ii] As in Plato’s dialectical method (Parmenide, The Sophist).

[iii] See Ana Bazac, “Up to a Point, the Dialectical Materialism is Dialectical Idealism, in Hegel’s Meaning; but then It is More”, Analele Universității din Craiova, Seria Filosofie, 51, 1, 2023, pp. 94-131.

[iv] Karl Marx, Fr. Engels, German Ideology (1845), in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works in Three Volumes, Volume One, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1973, p. 48.

[v] This was “the general content of the modern revolution, a content which was in most singular contradiction to everything that, with the material available, with the degree of education attained by the masses, under the given circumstances and relations, could be immediately realised in practice”, Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works in Three Volumes, Volume One, p. 403.

[vi] Karl Marx, Fr. Engels, German Ideology (1844), in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works in Three Volumes, Volume One, p. 49 (my emphasis, AB).

[vii] Ana Bazac, “The Problem of the Coexistence of the Concept of Human Nature and Racism”, Dialogue & Universalism, 1/2021, pp. 139-156.

[viii] Karl Marx, Fr. Engels, Manifesto of Communist Party (1848), in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works in Three Volumes, Volume One, p. 136.

[ix] Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel. Leçons sur la Phénoménologie de l’esprit professées de 1933 à 1939 à l’Ecole des Hautes Études, réunies et publiées par Raymond Queneau. Paris: Gallimard, (1947), Gallimard, 1968, 1997, pp. 434, 435.

What does to be radical mean?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to top