Friday, August 27, 2004

The Sleep of Reason

The embrace of relativism by many leftist intellectuals in the United States, while it may not be politically very important, is a terrible admission of failure, and an excuse for not answering the claims of their political opponents. The subordination of the intellect to partisan loyalty is found across the political spectrum, but usually it takes the form of a blind insistence on the objective truth of certain supporting facts and refusal to consider evidence to the contrary. So what explains the shift, at least by a certain slice of the intellectual left, to this new form of obfuscation?

When I was an undergraduate I volunteered to go door to door for Zero Population Growth to promote the liberalization of abortion laws. I thought that, as a philosophy major, I was just the person for the job: I had read Locke on personal identity and could explain to people that even though fetuses were human beings, living organisms of species homo sapiens, they were not persons. I was prepared to expand on this in great detail.

I was told that this was not a good idea. At the training session for volunteers, we were cautioned not to get into "philosophical arguments." If a contact attempted to argue we were to repeat (as many times as it took) that abortion was simply an issue of women's rights, and that was that. If we allowed ourselves to be drawn into arguments of any kind, we were warned, we were lost.

It was the same thing whenever I tried to work for the political causes I supported--argument was out. I don't know whether this was peculiar to leftist causes or a feature of politics as such but the idea was that sloganeering and manipulation were sophisticated while argument was, at best, naive. But it did seem especially entrenched in the Left--it was a commonplace that you couldn't dismantle the master's house with the master's tools.

This isn't an assumption peculiar to the French "intellectuals" Sokol and Bricmont exposed or to academic literati--it's feature of popular culture. I get it from students. Every year the freshmen in my intro logic classes, where I devote the first 3 weeks to "critical thinking" and debunking rehearse the theme. Many are grossly superstitious and almost all buy some version of mellow relativism. Most don't think logic broadly construed is important--in the words of one haunting course eval comment: "What's the good of being logical if no one else is?"

Talking to upperclassmen who were more articulate and reflective got some idea of their views. Conservative ideologues in my ethics classes believed that "rationality" was coextensive with the Market, which was perfectly efficient--any objections to the free operation of the Market were ipso facto irrational. Some were convinced that not only I, but Rawls and everyone on the syllabus apart from Nozick were warm-hearted sentimentalists who didn't know how the real world worked and that Sen just didn't understand economics. Most of the others believed that rationality was a matter of arbitrary convention. Rationality was a matter of memorizing and following arbitrary rules. To be rational was to be blinkered and constrained, conventional, obedient, rigid, simplistic and dull.

In less than a week I'll be back to teaching after my sabbatical--I've got a lot of work to do. On the whole I'm not a great enthusiast about teaching. But I do get a kick out of it in intro logic classes when students have their satoris and realize that the stuff makes sense--and I can say (it usually gets a laugh) "Hey--that's why they call it 'logic'!"


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