A celebration of the life of the mind, A.D. 2006

Last weekend I attended commencement exercises at a very prestigious Northeastern liberal arts college distinguished by its selectiveness, its commitment to social progress, and its extraordinarily beautiful and lavishly funded campus. I was struck by the unity of view of all the speakers. Here’s the gist of what I heard:

  • The “scriptural reading” opening the commencement ceremony: a quotation from Learned Hand to the effect that the spirit of liberty is necessary for liberty, and the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is never too sure it is right.
  • The student speaker at commencement, a religion studies major and amateur improv comedian: he gave a riff on the college experience as Exodus—the escape from oppression (home and local community), getting over your head in a lot of water and confusion as you cross the sea of learning, and then glorious emergence at graduation followed by attacks on all the walled cities (gated communities?) so all the walls can be destroyed.
  • The president of the college at commencement: what distinguishes every graduate of the institution is that he has the qualities of a supremely skilled and disinterested administrator. In every situation he understands the relevant considerations and the viewpoints of all those involved and correctly sorts them into primary and secondary, so that he is able to come to a superior conclusion readily recognizable as such because it only makes manifest the internal logic of the situation and the goals and needs of those involved. That ability means people need and accept him as a leader and he should never fail to act as such. Such a conclusion will apply even more strongly to next year’s class since next year there will be even more knowledge available for them to apply to problems.
  • An honoree, a famous professor of philosophy who writes about issues of identity: he believes in falliblism. Whatever you believe it might be wrong, so you should be cautious and open to further investigation. That kind of rational approach has brought an end to slavery and opened the door to women’s rights. People ask him what he does, and he sometimes says he’s a philosopher. When they ask what his philosophy is he says “things are much more complicated than you think.” That shuts them up, apparently a good thing.
  • An honoree, a graduate of the college who became a physicist and makes neat stuff: it’s important in physics to be able to scrap your equipment and throw away the manuals and be able to rebuild it to do what you want it to do.
  • An honoree, a female graduate who became a lawyer and eventually a high-ranking federal appellate court judge who (as the president said in his introduction) is famous for coming out the right way on every issue: it’s important to fight stereotyping because stereotyping leads to oppression. She’s done that all her life, and it’s been a good and beneficial fight. You graduates have to continue the fight and bring it to a victorious conclusion.
  • A professor of theater arts speaking at a Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony: an undergraduate studies program should be designed by the student himself and display both internal integrity and individual uniqueness. (That’s pretty much what Ralph Waldo Emerson said on a similar occasion, but it did make me wonder if the institution thought it had anything solid, reliable and substantive to give students.)
  • A professor of education studies at some sort of convocation devoted to general uplift: while you’re questioning and constructing identities, confronting oppressions and inequalities and bringing about social change, you should also appreciate the skill and wisdom of ordinary people in everyday life.

The concerns were always strictly practical, but with a sort of transcendent aura having to do with unprecedented radical transformation of social reality. Everything was amazing and wonderful. Everyone talked about “social change,” never public service or doing your duty to carry things forward. No one mentioned the conduct of life or the good, beautiful and true. I think at one point someone said it’s nice to keep up friendships, and a couple times people said it’s important to get to know the value of the cleaning lady as a contributor and human being. That was about it, though.

It’s hard to do justice to how self-satisfied the speakers were. The president of the college was over the top on how wonderful the graduates were and what they could and should do. The federal judge, the education professor and the student devoted special attention to the wonderfulness of the institution, the graduates and above all the speaker himself. The federal judge was particularly simple-minded (some of the other speakers, the president and the philosopher for example, were actually quite intelligent and forceful in their way). The philosopher talked falliblism, but it’s not clear what function falliblism can have as a philosophy—as a basic principle for dealing with things—apart from saying that since everything is so complicated ordinary ways of thinking that make it possible for ordinary people to function really can’t be relied on so it’s experts like famous philosophy professors in top departments who should decide everything.

The unity of the talks had an obvious ethical and metaphysical basis in a common theory of the world everyone took for granted. In that theory the world is composed of lots and lots of things, each different from all the others. In the ignorant and unjust past order of a sort was achieved through concepts of identity that subordinated one thing to another and so enabled people to say what things are and do something about them. Such concepts are arbitrary, though, since they do not give each separate thing its due and are a matter of popular prejudice or the advantage of the powerful rather than careful investigation. Therefore all inherited concepts of identity must be dissolved and replaced by rationally-designed structures based on human ingenuity and the most general principles and not at all on anything that’s been done before. Naturally, there have to be people to promote the dissolution and to design and enforce the structures, and that’s where the college and its graduates come in.

Although the speakers did not mention it, some people (me, for example) believe there are alternative theories that make more sense and are more humane. One might say, for example, that the world is indeed complicated, and we are part of the world so we cannot step back from it and fully grasp it in thought to say from an external point of view just what it is and what we should do about it. We therefore learn to deal with it through experience. Since we are social beings our experience includes social experience that operates through development of concepts that help realize and stabilize goods and thus reveal what we can know about the things that are worth valuing and how to secure them. Such concepts become objects of our attachment and thus traditions.

The investigation and appreciation of such things was once understood as a basic purpose of humane studies. The speakers at this prestigious liberal arts college nonetheless agreed that traditional concepts of what things are and mean must all be resolutely extirpated as deeply rooted social stereotypes, in the name of tolerance, falliblism and human rights, and in favor of their favored method of progress through expertise. The education professor should, I suppose, have realized that her theory of the wisdom and competence of ordinary people creates problems for this picture, but in spite of her stated fondness for theory she had too little competence in abstract reasoning, and too much attachment to her position and to the people around her, to draw any such conclusion.

22 thoughts on “A celebration of the life of the mind, A.D. 2006”

  1. Your second to the last
    Your second to the last paragraph, “The unity of the talks had an obvious ethical and metaphysical basis,” etc., seems to be a summary of nominalism writ large, made into a social program to re-fashion either society or human nature.

    I’m always intrigued with fallibilists. Of course, they usually don’t or won’t admit that fallibilism is itself subject to fallibilist doubts. Nor do they acknowledge that even doubt must stand on some firm ground for doubt to even take root and make claims (Kierkegaard provided perhaps the best exposition of this unwritten foundation of fallibilism, and thereby demolished it as superficial).

    R. Niebuhr sums up the inherent contradiction within fallibilism: “Absolute skepticism is rare because the very lack of confidence in the possibility of achieving any valid truth in history presupposes some criterion of truth by which all fragmentary truths are found wanting.”

    Niebuhr went further with the fallibilists:

    “The belief that the intercourse between fragmentary truths will culminate in the realization of the whole truth becomes itself a religious position as soon as it is changed from a merely provisional and tentative attitude towards the immediate problem of dealing with fragmentary truths, into an answer to the final problem of truth and falsehood. Such a religion can and does maintain tolerance towards all religious beliefs except those which challenge this basic assumption. The idea of progress is the underlying presupposition of what may be broadly defined as liberal culture. If that assumption is challenged the whole structure of meaning in the liberal world is imperiled. For this reason the liberal is intolerant in regard to this article of his creed. The liberal does not argue about its validity, precisely because he has lost every degree of skepticism in regard to it.”

    • One more note, on the talk
      One more note, on the talk of the religious studies student. Note his implicit assumption that our era stands at the apex of human consciousness, that it provides a method to escape the false consciousness of tradition and authority, and that the present (at least as represented by him and his institution) is authoritative.
      This is passionate liberalism, that history is always ascending, that progress is assumed, that as products of this impersonal process of progress we possess the truth, and that destruction of the past is not only inevitable but necessary (perhaps “by any means necessary”).

      Note also that he overlooks that the Exodus story in the Old Testament is the story of a return to home, a return to the traditions of one’s roots. And, the medium of liberation is not learning, but faith in God.

      Some people never learn.

      • The talk of the college
        The talk of the college president reminds me of MacIntyre’s description of the archetypical characters of modern life, one of which is the “manager.”

        In “After Virtue,” MacIntyre provides a devastating deconstruction of this mythological character type, and his tool kit of rational princples and instant empathy.

        • Hey MD, fallibilism ought
          Hey MD, fallibilism ought not induce a sense of despair or passivity; it simply acknowledges that human knowledge is not absolute and that we oughtn’t behave as though it is. Could you please briefly outline an infallibilist epistemology that proceeds from indubitable premises and arrives at rock-solid conclusions using deductive reasoning? From what I have seen, people have kind of given up on that since the eminently-refutable Descartes. Also, any fallibilist worth his salt is probably seriously skeptical (there’s that word again) about the possibility or indeed advisability of radically restructuring the world using one’s Reason.

          • I agree with the spirit of
            I agree with the spirit of what you say, particularly the last sentence.

            As for your first sentence, a skepticism about falliblism doesn’t imply comprehensive infallibility. Obviously, our knowlege is not absolute; only God is absolute. But, that doesn’t entail the position that we can’t know anything.

            As for your second sentence (question), it assumes that knowlege is limited to those propositions entailed by deductive reasoning grounded in “indubitable premises.” I take it “indubitable premises” refers to empirical evidence. This assumption and its procedures is modern, and leads immediately to skepticism, then to nihilism.

            As for your third sentence, no doubt some have “given up.” Husserl didn’t, and sought to ground science in phenomenology, a project taken up by Heidegger. Kant had his little project also. I assume analytical philosophers haven’t given up.

            As for your final sentence, I don’t think such restraint is limited to falliblists, if in fact they are so restrained (Plantinga notes that serious falliblists, like Rorty, consider those who make serious commitments to be insane; does that imply some political consequences, or perhaps an involuntary commitment to your local asylum?). People who claim it’s impossible to know anything can get seriously upset with those who disagree with them, because they are highly committed to the notion that commitments are a bad thing.

          • Maybe that’s the problem
            Maybe that’s the problem then. In my epistemology classes, I was taught that fallibilists believed that definitions of knowledge had to be able to accomodate the possibility of error. I am not sure where you are getting the idea that fallibilists believe that knowledge itself is impossible. As I say, fallibilists merely want to liberalize the criteria of knowledge (relative to fallibilists), not deny its existence outright.

            The most persuasive argument I can find in favour of fallibilism is that, if we adopt an infallibilist perspective, there is actually very little of what we intuitively consider ourselves to know that can formally be considered knowledge. Certainly not the evidence of our imperfect senses, just for starters.
            As an example of the kind of fallibilism with which I am familar, I would point to Alvin Goldman’s work.

            I suppose if you have a particular confessional allegiance, you can claim scripture as a source of absolute knowledge. Of course, justifying one particular faith in relation to others cannot really be done philosophically. This seems to be mostly a matter of aesthetics and outcomes (ie. Christainity is superior to other relgiions because its adherents have produced the wealthiest, most powerful, and most advanced societies on earth; Protestantism is preferable to Catholicism by the same criteria).

          • That approach to falliblism
            That approach to falliblism is clearly defensible, but I view it as an offshoot of the modern quest for certainty, which has led to rampant skepticism. The thought is that if we can’t verify that our knowledge is absolute or wholly certain, then we don’t really know anything at all. The demand for perfect knowledge, and definitions of knowledge that entail perfection, reflect the structure of the modern mind, which is obsessed with dominion through measurement, quantity, definition, and control.

            This quest for certainty led many to dismiss induction, for example (Popper and Kuhn are leading examples of this dismissal), because induction cannot assure perfect knowledge. As Australian philosopher David Stove pointed out, this position, if taken to its logical extreme, is pathological, and leads to doubt where doubt it unwarranted. Stove speculated that this pathological epistemological doubt arose in reaction to the collapse of the comforting certainty of the Newtonian worldview in the early 20th Century. Having been disappointed once, some vowed they would never be disappointed again.

            You wrote:

            “The most persuasive argument I can find in favour of fallibilism is that, if we adopt an infallibilist perspective, there is actually very little of what we intuitively consider ourselves to know that can formally be considered knowledge. Certainly not the evidence of our imperfect senses, just for starters.”

            Again, if one rejects falliblism, or embraces a weak falliblism, doesn’t necessarily entail adoption of infallibility.

            But, I see the key word as “formally.” The most important things we know—such as an awareness that we can know anything—are not part of a “formal knowledge.” There’s massive literature on this point, running through Kantianism, and erupting again with Husserl and phenomenology. Heidegger, for example, would take issue with your paragraph, at least on its face.

            You wrote:

            “I suppose if you have a particular confessional allegiance, you can claim scripture as a source of absolute knowledge. Of course, justifying one particular faith in relation to others cannot really be done philosophically. This seems to be mostly a matter of aesthetics and outcomes (ie. Christainity is superior to other relgiions because its adherents have produced the wealthiest, most powerful, and most advanced societies on earth; Protestantism is preferable to Catholicism by the same criteria).”

            The aesthetic test of religious faith—that it “works” for us in some way—is modern, and reduces God to an instrument of our desires. That test is, IMHO, irrelevant to both faith and truth. Hannah Arendt said the intrumental test of God is the last stop on the road to atheism.

            As for justifying a faith “philosophically,” it depends on what one means by “philosophically.” Western philosophy began with the opening of the soul to the transcendent, and the effort to develop a vocabulary to reason about the experience. Modern philosophy is of course emaciated and decultured, and no longer does such things. So, if one limits oneself to the shriveled modern philosophy, you might have a point. But not everyone so limits himself.

          • This just to say I hadn’t
            This just to say I hadn’t yet seen MD’s reply to Fred S. of 9:31 when I posted my comment of 9:47. I agree with MD’s basic points.

            Long live free Flanders!

          • So, Fred Scrooby is not Fred
            So, Fred Scrooby is not Fred S! I was enjoying your site; but as a newcomer I was confused that you had such power to transform someone for the good overnight.

          • “So, Fred Scrooby is not Fred S!”
            Not by a long shot.

            Long live free Flanders!

          • I’ll just say that I think
            I’ll just say that I think you are accusing fallibilism of sins of which it is not guilty, and using some variation of the “slippery slope” fallacy to do so (ie. a little bit of skepticism inevitably slides into nihilism). I think that if you want to rail against nihilists who actually deny that knowledge is possible, then you should go after those thinkers collectively know as “post-structuralists” (Baudrillard and Foucault spring to mind immediately). Needless to say, analytical philosophers (fallibilists) and Continental philosophers like those two get along like chalk and cheese.

            As for science, at least in the helio-centrism v.s. geo-centrism debates of the 16th c., aesthetic considerations rather than “faith” helped to decide the issue. Each new astronomical discovery required the creation of all manner of epi-cycles, etc. in order to make the old Ptolemaic model work. The comparative simplicity and elegance of the Copernican model spoke in its favour. I would say that Occam’s razor has always been a central part of the scientific mindset. This is all in Kuhn’s admirable text, of course.

            Science’s empiricism always undercuts any faith-elements. One could liken scientists to parched villagers, praying to a succesion of gods until one of them makes it rain. They then repeatedly pray to that same god, and if it rains each time, after dozens or hundreds of repetitions, then he is added to the Pantheon of Scientific Gods. If not, then he is discarded. No religious person would be so impious as to demand verification from his God (at least not since Elijah).

          • You wrote:

            You wrote:

            “Science’s empiricism always undercuts any faith-elements. . . . No religious person would be so impious as to demand verification from his God (at least not since Elijah).”

            I don’t understand this, particularly the notion that faith requires some kind of verification. Faith is the medium of existing within reality. It presupposes an awareness and acknowledgement of reality, so “verification” at that point is redundant and non-sensical. It is only because reality has been previously “verified” that a person can exist within it in faith.

            As for the notion that empiricism can “undercut” any faith, I don’t see how that is possible. Empiricism addresses phenomena, not reality. Only if one confuses phenomena with reality (which is a common malady of modernity, no doubt) could such a claim be made.

          • Well, faith is defined as
            Well, faith is defined as “belief without proof or evidence,” so I’m not saying that “faith requires some verification.” I’m saying precisely the opposite. I suppose faith is “the medium of existing in reality” if you see reality as that which is described in Scripture or the bureaucratic dictates of the Catholic Church. Call me a benighted positivist but I would see the world in which we are living presently as the realm of reality.

          • In reply to Fred S.:
            In reply to Fred S.: attacking tradition on the basis of the impossibility of absolute knowledge is attacking a straw man, as tradition has always acknowledged the essential role of faith (or, “knowledge through faith,” if you like). And as Jim Kalb has pointed out elsewhere in these pages, even so-called non-sectarian knowledge—science—depends on faith in the sense that without it at some level, how do we know we can accept the basic axioms, postulates, and other assumptions—those pertaining to and justifying the “scientific method,” for example, but even those underlying pure abstract mathematics—make sense or are “trustworthy”?

            Look, a lot of baseless accusations of “unjustified assumption of absolute knowledge” get leveled: Sir Isaac Newton, for example, explicitly stated he was not assuming an absolute spatial frame of reference yet we keep hearing how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity “overthrew Newton’s assumption of an absolute spatial frame of reference.”

            Through faith ultimately, unproud knowledge creeps along in a forward direction. Did religion and prejudice slow it down? (I strongly suspect those professors making a big deal of “Fallibilism” are merely going after religions and prejudices—but only ones they happen to dislike, of course …) Yes—as thermodynamics teaches, and as Christianity before thermodynamics taught, you cannot eradicate a certain amount of friction in the gears that make the world go round. In other words, God doesn’t spoonfeed us the truth. But they didn’t slow it down as much as, or in the same ways as, today’s professors of “Fallibilism” would claim: Aristotle said objects fall down because down rather than up is the right place for them and things strive to attain their right place, and string theory says essentially the same thing. The whole point of Thomas Kuhn’s book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” was that Copernicus’ heliocentric theory didn’t account for the known observations as well as the Ptolemaic system, so something else was needed to explain what Kuhn called “the paradigm shift” from the more accurate to the less accurate (that the heliocentric orbits were ellipses, not circles, wasn’t understood until Kepler). To make a long story short, the faith that ultimately underlies science, determining the principles on which it rests, was that “something else.” Besides, can anyone think of ways in which these “Fallibilist” professors who oppose haughtiness, prejudice, and unfairness are haughty, prejudiced, and unfair? Gee, I dunno, but I have a feeling if I think about it real hard I’ll be able to come up with a few …..

            Pythagoras taught that the world was made of mathematics (which is of course what physics and logic are saying today in doing strange things such as, for example, defining the elementary particles of matter solely in terms of points having certain magnitudes of this or that value in quantum electrodynamic fields, and so on). Deep mystic that he was, Pythagoras also understood that, as mathematics underlay the world, faith underlay mathematics and therefore the world (he was a kind of religious leader as well as a math professor). There’s that account of the cavalry officer trying to make the Plains Indian chiefs he was pow-wowing with understand the magnitude of white civilization and that they had no alternative to submitting to U.S. government authority: he finally took a stick and drew a small circle in the dirt, saying through the interpreter, “This is what the Red Man knows,” then drew a much bigger circle around it, saying, “This is what the white man knows.” The chiefs looked at it thoughtfully a while without replying. Then one of them took the stick and drew an immense circle around both of the circles, saying through the interpreter, “And this is where the Red man and the white man know nothing.” Sir Isaac Newton’s outlook was no different from that chief’s. Neither was Prof. Einstein’s. “Fabillism” either is redundant or is attacking a straw man.

            Long live free Flanders!

          • “Aristotle said objects
            “Aristotle said objects fall down because down rather than up is the right place for them and things strive to attain their right place, and string theory says essentially the same thing.” (—my comment, above)

            So does General Relativity, by the way.

            I mean, examples abound. Prof. Richard Feynman said of those medieval depictions of planetary movements showing an angel flying behind, propelling each planet around, that they were “almost right”: “Had they had the angel flying not behind the planet pushing it tangentially but facing inward toward the orbital focus pushing it in a radial direction, they’d have had it exactly right.” (For those whose high-school physics is a bit rusty, the “force” is needed only to keep on pushing the planet inward in the radial direction; the planet’s sideways or tangential movement continues by itself, needing no constant application of “sideways-directed force”—something people didn’t understand until the combined work of Galileo and Newton.) F = ma is simply an empirical observation correlating mass and acceleration, not something amounting to a claim by science to know what “force” (an angel giving something a push?) ultimately is, and Isaac Newton understood this limitation perfectly, and wrote about it. Science doesn’t need “Fallibilism” to tell it its epistemological “limitations.” Rather, it’s the other way around: “Fallibilism” needs science in order to show the world how ass-backwards modernism is (even though that’s not “Fallibilism’s” conception of its mission—but friends of Turnabout know otherwise …).

            Long live free Flanders!

        • The college president
          The college president represents perfectly MacIntyre’s “The Manager” character, and his comments are pure Max Weber. The notion is that one can get away from controversy by entrusting everything to bureaucratic expertise. I am reminded of Keynes’s comment about present day public figures unconsciously repeating the scribblings of some long dead intellectual. For the college president to uncritically repeat ideas that were philosophically discredited many decades ago is in itself a telling commentary on the present state of higher illiteracy.

          • The higher mindlessness
            I don’t know that it’s ordinary illiteracy, really, I think of it as no where else to go. If you debunk technocratic rationality on the grounds that it expresses particular histories, traditions, class interests, arbitrary prejudices etc. and so can’t live up to its own ideals of universal perspicuous efficacy and rationality, you still have to decide things. Everything else has been even more debunked, and it’s the experts who decide all these things anyway, so if you leave everything up to the experts who have looked into it and know what the problems are then you can say that at least you’ve done your best and letting them decide things is better than letting uncritical popular bigotries and ignorance decide them.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Neutral Experts
            The notion of a neutral bureaucratic expertise is one of the moral fictions of our times. It depends in part on the notion that there is a sharp distinction between facts and values, but facts are always theory laden. Further, the systematic unpredictability of human affairs due to the many contingencies that are part of the human condition means that law like generalizations of a scientific nature are not available to the expert. He has no better predictive power than anyone else. As a result, the notion of neutral expertise serves as cover for smuggling private preference into policy decisions, and to avoid discussion of what is being done. That preference in our time will be the prevailing liberalism.

            My reference to illiteracy had to do with the fact that the college president could set forth Weber’s theory of bureaucracy as if it were unquestionably true, and not something highly controversial.

      • Falliblism and Exodus
        All the stuff academics say these days about the fluidity of constructions of identity, and how imposed identities (“social stereotypes”) are the root of all evil while chosen identities are good as long as we remain open to their tentativeness, is I suppose by definition the application of nominalism to human and other affairs

        The falliblism guy explicitly added “but of course, I could be wrong” to his statement of nominalism and other positive statements of belief, but that was taken and no doubt intended as rather a joke. The issue is what it means to make the possibility of error your basic organizing principle. It seems to me it will always end up meaning “we, who have the most knowledge about all this complicated stuff that you can’t even begin to understand, should decide everything and you should accept whatever we say.” The appellate judge lady made that more or less explicit with her absolute determination to root out all “stereotypes” (that is, to make the ways non-experts categorize things illegal).

        The college president made the point about how the present is the highest peak of everything explicit in the crudest way possible with his statement that the present graduating class was the most qualified ever, since we have more knowledge than ever before, and next year’s would outdo them.

        Rem tene, verba sequentur.

        • Alvin Plantinga provided a
          Alvin Plantinga provided a good description of your professor. Plantinga’s article surveys the various worldviews prevalent in academia. In this excerpt he describes your commencement speaker (who is hardly alone).

          A second complication: Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out (personal communication) that my account here omits a very important cadre of contemporary academics and intellectuals. There are many intellectuals who think of themselves as having no firm commitments at all; they float free of all commitment and intellectual allegiance. They are like people without a country, without a settled or established home or neighborhood; in Kant’s figure, they are like roaming nomads, a threat to settled and civilized ways of intellectual life. Not only don’t they display commitment; they disdain commitment as naive or illinformed, a failure to understand, a foolish failure to see something obvious and important. So, said MacIntyre, they aren’t committed either to the perennial naturalism of which I spoke, or to one or another form of anti-realism; they aren’t committed to anything at all. But they are nonetheless a most important part of the contemporary picture.

          This is both true and important. MacIntyre is quite right; the attitude he describes is indeed common among intellectuals and in academia. As a matter of fact, there is a deep connection between anti-realism and relativism, on the one hand, and this intellectual anomie or nomadism (or whatever we propose to call it), on the other. Maybe it goes as follows. The dialectic begins with some version of Kantian anti-realism: the fundamental lineaments of the world are due to us and our structuring activity and are not pant of the dinge an sich . The next step is relativism: it is noted that different people hold very different views as to what the world is like; the result is the notion that there isn’t any one way things are like (away which is due somehow to our noetic activity) but a whole host of different versions (as Nelson Goodman calls them), perhaps as many as there are persons. On this view there isn’t any such thing as a proposition’s being true simpliciter : what there is is a proposition’s being true in a version or from a perspective. (And so what is true for me might not be true for you.)

          To `see’ this point, however, is, in a way, to see through any sort of commitment with respect to intellectual life. Commitment goes with the idea that there really is such a thing as truth; to be committed to something is to hold that it is true, not just in some version, but simpliciter or absolutely—i.e., not merely true with respect to some other discourse or version, or with respect to what one or another group of human beings think or do. To be committed to something is to think it is true , not just true relative to what you or someone believes. But once you `see’ (as you think) that there isn’t any such thing as truth as such, then you are likely to think you also see the futility, the foolishness, the pitiable self-deluded nature of intellectual commitment. You will then think the only path of wisdom is that of the roaming, free-floating intellectual who has seen through the pretensions or naiveté of those who do make serious intellectual and moral commitments. (And you may indeed go so far as to join Richard Rorty in thinking such people insane —in which case, presumably, they ought not to be allowed to vote or take full part in the liberal society, and perhaps should be confined to its Gulags pending `recovery’ from the seizure.) As MacIntyre observes, this lack of commitment, this seeing through the pitiful self-delusion of commitment is rampant in academia; it is, I think, close to the beating heart (or perhaps the central mushy core) of contemporary deconstruction.

          • Should the committed or the uncommitted be committed?
            Is it really possible to avoid commitment though? I’d think that to live at all you have to assume at least implicitly that some things are simply real, good, etc. You have to live and operate in a world of some sort and you’ll accept that your world has some sort of nature and features. That’s what Pascal thought anyway and I’ve always believed him. It seems to me characteristic of liberalism though that it constantly strives to hide such commitments even from the liberal.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • I don’t take relativists,
            I don’t take relativists, nihilists, or falliblists very seriously. As Niebuhr noted, any notion of “error” presupposes some criterion of truth. So, even if one asserts that everything, at all times, proposed as knowledge is probably an error, this presupposes that the speaker has within himself some criterion of truth by which to identify or judge “error,” or even to create and use the category, “error.” It’s an insupportable Mt. Olympus position. It’s more of an attitude than a serious intellectual position.

            Your reference to Pascal reminds me of Heidegger, who said something very similar. We just can’t deny that we’re alive, and that we’re in a world. We can’t deny our own consciousness. Those who use their minds to deny this, can they deny the mind they used to make the denial?

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