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Why now?

A correspondent with a scientific turn of mind wanted to pursue a question raised here a a week or two ago, why the Derrida and similar viruses are such a plague now when earlier they weren’t a problem.

My comments (slightly edited):

It seems that most “why now” explanations emphasize features of modern life that are hard to fix, and that most people wouldn’t want to fix—complexity, abundant instant communication, extensive formalized training and education, a certain adventurousness, and so on. All these things make it easy to spread superficially appealing novelties that have the appeal of expert authority but little substantive content.

It would be more helpful to point to things missing from the modern world that might make the things just mentioned less dangerous. One particular thing to consider is religion. A reason modernism and its successors have become so powerful is that today technical expertise is thought to trump established habits and our shared intuitive sense of things. What a religion does is give those kinds of knowledge a form and structure that makes them able to defend themselves and insist on their irreplaceable role in human life.

I doubt that purely scientific or philosophical opposition to modernism and so on can do as well. Such an approach still makes rationally validated knowledge actually possessed by human beings—expertise—the key. All such opposition can claim is that true expertise tells us that we have to rely on longstanding nonexpert patterns of practice and understanding, because the knowledge implicit in those patterns is needed, along with explicit expertise, to get worthwhile results in complex things like architecture.

The problem with that line of thought is that it doesn’t justify anything in particular. Some traditions are bad, all traditions have internal conflicts, and any tradition can be variously interpreted, applied and developed. As a result, any tradition can in time be interpreted to mean almost anything at all.

If the final standard in case of conflict or differing interpretations is expertise, rather than implicit goods and not-wholly-articulate truths known by accepting a particular tradition in a comprehensive and living—and therefore non-expert—way, then we’ll have the experts back in control, and in the long run they won’t be significantly restrained by their ostensible acceptance of the authority of tradition. But to accept a tradition as reliable and authoritative in a comprehensive and living way, at least if one does so with awareness of what’s involved, is to give oneself to a religion.