In my last entry I suggested that the problems of modern thought have to do with a defective understanding of knowledge. We refuse to believe anything without explicit proof, and since it turns out we can’t function without believing things explicit proof can’t justify people claim to have it when they don’t. Results have included the cult of the expert, scientific socialism, enlightened social policy, and other catastrophes. The only possible exit from the problem is recognizing a larger and more authoritative role for tradition, religion and particular loyalties.
Nothing human stays still. If people take a super-critical attitude toward knowledge, and are always doubting the connection between belief and reality, they’ll end up doing the same with language and lose their common-sense understanding of the connection between word and object. Here again there are two choices: we can either believe that words mean nothing, or that they constitute reality and so mean everything. In both cases we’ll say whatever we want, either because words are meaningless or because they call into being that to which they refer. The only issue will be getting others to accept what we say, so we can get what we want.
There are actually deep questions here, as on other points where modern thought goes wrong. The word is what commands and makes meaning concrete. The Western religions therefore recognize the Divine Word as fundamental:
- “In the beginning was the Word …” (John 1:1-5.)
- The belief that God made the world in accordance with Torah.
- The belief that the Koran is the uncreated word of Allah.
Any meaningful world must be understood as a manifestation of word and purpose, that is of an authoritative word. We cannot do without an authoritative word unless we are to give up on the meaning and reality of the world. The West—including Dar-ul-Islam—is thus logocentric. Eastern religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism—that do not treat the word as fundamental do not see a personal righteous God at the bottom of things. They therefore tend to treat the world as illusory. It’s not meant, so it doesn’t mean anything and is best seen through and shrugged off.
Since modernity abolishes the transcendent and exalts the secular it believes this world is meaningful without reference to any other. It must therefore make words of this world an authority beyond which there is no other. The absolute Divine Word must be replaced by the absolute human word, by secular scripture. Examples include:
- The Founding Documents of the United States, which are conceived as somehow bringing themselves into existence and creating our political cosmos. The judiciary, who can make those documents mean what they want, then become a sort of secular Word Incarnate. (See the account of the Casey decision a couple of entries ago.)
- International human rights documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which have aquired a status like that of the American Founding Documents and in effect empower international activists to reconstruct moral reality through e.g. recognition of a universal right to “gay marriage” as an interpretation of the documents.
The demand that human words be absolute once again shows why liberalism is the true political expression of modernity. If human words are to be absolute their truth must be somehow self-contained and not dependent on anything that can be observed or argued about. Hence the usefulness of making freedom and equality the basis of politics and morality. Equality denies the relevance of substantive distinctions and freedom insists on doing away with merely given limitations. They make observable reality irrelevant to politics and morality except as an obstacle to be overcome or a source of means to to achieve our goals. That’s needed if human pronouncements are to be treated as absolute.