Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In defense of reason and arguments

Over at The New Republic, where they're celebrating their 100th anniversary, Leon Wiesltier defends reason itself (which is sadly necessary):

There are people who prefer ardent thought to clear thought, and loyal thought to strict thought. There are people who mistrust thought altogether and prefer the unarguable authenticities of the heart—the individual heart and the collective heart. There are people who regard thought . . . as an activity of an elite; and there is some sociological truth to their misgiving, though the social provenance of an idea says nothing about its value. (Hardship may make one wise, but it does not make one smart.) Yet the ideal of “clear and intelligent thought,” stripped of its condescension and its indifference to the non-rational dimensions of human life, deserves to be defended. We need not be a nation of intellectuals, but we must not be a nation of idiots. . . .

[T]he cultural reputation of reason needs to be revised. Reason is an intensely romantic pursuit, especially if one finds romance in struggle. Reason’s victories are almost never final. It is always surrounded by unreason, which is always more popular. Reason is the stout resistance, the flickering lamp in the darkness, the perpetual underdog, the stoic connoisseur of defeat, the loser that dusts itself off and fights another day. If, as some of its enemies claim, reason aspires to control, it is a futile aspiration. The anti-rationalist mob in contemporary thought can relax: reason will never come to rule. Not a chance. Thomas Mann once remarked, against Nietzsche, that the world never suffers from a surfeit of reason. And he never went online! . . .

The application of reason to public affairs is sometimes confused with technocracy. Yet there are no technocrats of first principles, no specialists in what to believe. Some people regard themselves as such experts, of course; but too much authority is conceded to them. Good judgment cannot be prescribed or outsourced. There are no blue-ribbon panels on truth and goodness. The responsibility for belief falls equally on all of us. The search for values, and for the grounds of values, is catch-as-catch-can: it may lead the thoughtful individual to books, to films, to travel, to participation, to conversation, to friendship and love . . .

There are many questions that call for expertise, but this does not settle the matter: there arise warring experts. Sometimes the disagreement is honest, sometimes it is not. The dissent from a scientific or scholarly consensus is sometimes nothing more than the doubt that powerful interests cunningly sow for their own purposes. (Where there are experts there are pseudo-experts.) But the work of natural scientists and social scientists will never relieve the ordinary citizen of his obligation to arrive at some basis for a view. It falls to us, who are not economists or biologists or climatologists, to support a position. We must support what we cannot ourselves verify.

By what authority do we choose between authorities? And yet an open society is founded upon the faith in precisely such a choice. The confidence of an open society in the intellects of its citizens is astounding. Has it ever been completely vindicated? . . .

A democracy imposes an extraordinary intellectual responsibility upon ordinary people. Our system is finally determined by what our citizenry thinks. This is thrilling and this is terrifying.

A thoughtless member of a democracy is a delinquent member of a democracy. Anti-intellectualism has been one of the regular features of populism, but in this respect populism is an offense against the people, because it denies their mental capability and scants their mental agency. Anti-intellectualism is always pseudo-democratic. In enshrining prejudices and dogmas, it robs the citizen of his exacting and proper role.

What was the democratic breakthrough? Among other things, it was the triumph of opinion. We are governed by what we think. What is wrong with being opinionated? Opinionation is an expectation of democracy. But the triumph of opinion was a mixed blessing, or at least a tremendous gamble. Opinion, after all, is fantastically manipulable. In 1920, Walter Lippmann wrote glowingly of “the manufacture of consent”—the phrase was made famous in his book Public Opinion two years later—but for us the phrase is infamous, and more than a little sinister. For this reason, there is nothing more consequential for the workings of a democratic order than its methods of opinion-formation. Lippmann, again: “The protection of the sources of its opinion is the basic problem of democracy. Everything else depends upon it. Without protection against propaganda, without standards of evidence, without criteria of emphasis, the living substance of all popular decision is exposed to every prejudice and to infinite exploitation.” . . .

“It’s just my opinion”: this bizarre American locution, which is supposed to provide an avenue of escape in a disputation, suggests that there is something illegitimate, even disrespectful, about insisting upon the defense of a proposition. Yet the respect we owe persons we do not owe their opinions. Political respect is axiomatic, but intellectual respect must be earned. . . .

The refinement of opinion cannot be accomplished except in a spirit of criticism. Describing and explaining will not suffice (though they may account for whole genres of journalism); the moment must come for judging. It was a dark day in America when “judgmental” became a term of opprobrium. In a universe without judgment, what is admiration worth?

Long live negativity! We must learn again to think negatively. Negations may be emancipations. Negations may operate in the service of affirmations. But happy talk, the uplift of pure positivity, is the rhetoric of the status quo.

The polemical temperament advances the aims of an honest and decent society more than the blurbing temperament.

An aversion to controversy is an aversion to democracy. Since all the views do not go together, and since the stakes in the validity of the respective views are very high, a free people should be a quarrelsome people. The quarrels of an open society are evidence of extraordinary philosophical and political development. They are the proof of our progress. The quarrels are not the problem, they are the solution.

Are our fights nasty? Not as nasty as their absence would be. . . . Ferocity is as essential to our system as civility. It is easy to be tolerant of ideas about which one is indifferent. . . .

Dictators employ intellectuals, but finally they fear intellectuals. They live in dread that their liars will one day decide to tell the truth. Sooner or later, therefore, they destroy them.

A just order is an order in which truth has no need of courage.