I went to a conference this Saturday put on by some academics and noted (as one might expect) that there’s a definite orthodoxy that provides the assumed background for discussions. For my own purposes I decided to summarize the orthodoxy, and here’s what I came up with:
- There’s no truth except the results of the natural sciences, and those are really a matter of what’s practically reliable rather than what’s true. It follows that conflicts don’t relate to something larger that each tries to approximate but no one fully grasps, they’re just conflicts. Consequently, no enduring tradition can be the vehicle of any enduring truth. Every tradition has debates and conflicts, so it’s by nature dialogic and conflictual, and that’s all that can be said about it.
- There aren’t any essences. Things are just collections of properties that can be bundled together in any manner. It follows, for example, that there’s no “modernity” or “Islam,” there’s just different modernities and Islams and nothing much significant can be said about them collectively.
- There’s nothing that’s objectively good except people getting what they want. It follows that power and its distribution are the key political, social and moral questions. The ultimate evil is oppression, the ultimate goal liberation (or “emancipation”), and progress is movement from the one to the other. If the progress of emancipation seems to create new forms of oppression, then that just shows we have to be more creative and clever (whoever “we” are).
- The result of the forgoing is that peace and rationality require neutral tolerant secular institutions that reject the absolutes that create insoluble conflicts. You can take the claims of such institutions at face value, they’re not based on concealed intolerant metaphysical and moral assumptions, and they’re what “we” want. American fundamentalists, who are extremely influential in the Bush administration, are a basic threat to the stability and further development of such institutions. To the extent they are taken seriously they must be viewed as fundamental existential enemies.
I should add that these were mostly intelligent and somewhat dissident academics, and most of them, especially the smarter ones, reject large parts of the orthodoxy. Still, it was that orthodoxy that determined what could be assumed good and true even in that setting, and deviations had to be specifically asserted and justified.
To my mind such a situation shows that the orthodoxy is mostly a consequence of the understanding of reason and evidence that now orders academic life, to the extent it remains somewhat sane, and the institution of expertise as it now exists. The key point in the orthodoxy is, I believe, the first one I mention. All the others follow from it more or less directly.
If that’s right, and the problem is that basic, any cure for the PC mindlessness that has recently caused the Harvard and Duke faculties to disgrace themselves would have to be quite radical. As things stand, any randomly-chosen group of experts and academics is likely to act at least like the Harvard faculty, if not necessarily as badly as the Duke faculty. When they get together to discuss things they have to assume a common rationality, and the one now institutionalized has definite substantive consequences. There’s no truth, essence or common good, just power, so the only standard you can appeal to is equality, and opposition is necessarily ignorant or malicious and must be crushed.