Urbanities

Roger Scruton
What Ever Happened to Reason?
Spring 1999

The Enlightenment made explicit what had long been implicit in the intellectual life of Europe: the belief that rational inquiry leads to objective truth. Even those Enlightenment thinkers who distrusted reason, like Hume, and those who tried to circumscribe its powers, like Kant, never relinquished their confidence in rational argument. Hume opposed the idea of a rational morality; but he justified the distinction between right and wrong in terms of a natural science of the emotions, taking for granted that we could discover the truth about human nature and build on that firm foundation. Kant may have dismissed "pure reason" as a tissue of illusions, but he elevated practical reason in the place of it, arguing for the absolute validity of the moral law. For the ensuing 200 years, reason retained its position as the arbiter of truth and the foundation of objective knowledge.

Reason is now on the retreat, both as an ideal and as a reality. In place of it has come the "view from outside"—which puts our entire tradition of learning in question. The appeal to reason, we are told, is merely an appeal to Western culture, which has made reason into its shibboleth and laid claim to an objectivity that no culture could possess. Moreover, by claiming reason as its foundation, Western culture has concealed its pernicious ethnocentrism; it has dressed up Western ways of thinking as though they had universal force. Reason, therefore, is a lie, and by exposing the lie we reveal the oppression at the heart of Western culture. Behind the attack on reason lurks another and more virulent hostility: the hostility to the culture and the curriculum that we have inherited from the Enlightenment.

If we examine the gurus of the new university establishment, those whose works are most often cited in the endless stream of articles devoted to debunking Western culture, we discover that they are all opponents of objective truth. Nietzsche is a favorite, since he made the point explicitly: "There are no truths," he wrote, "only interpretations." Now, either what Nietzsche said is true—in which case it is not true, since there are no truths—or it is false. Enough said, you might imagine. But no: the point can be stated less brusquely, and the paradox concealed. This explains the appeal of those later thinkers—Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty—who owe their intellectual eminence not to their arguments (of which they have precious few) but to their role in giving authority to the rejection of authority, and to their absolute commitment to the impossibility of absolute commitments. In each of them you find the view that truth, objectivity, value, and meaning are chimerical, and that all we can have, and all we need to have, is the warm security of our own opinion.

It is vain to argue against these gurus. No argument, however rational, can counter the massive will to believe that endears them to their normal readers. After all, a rational argument assumes precisely what they put in question—namely, the possibility of rational argument. At least one of them—Michel Foucault—has been the subject of a hagiography, Saint Foucault by David Halperin, on account of the liberating message contained in his assault on structured thinking. But each of them owes his reputation to a new species of religious faith: faith in the relativity of all opinions, including this one.

Truth, Foucault tells us, is not an absolute, which can be understood and assessed in some trans-historical way, as though through the eye of God. Truth is the child of "discourse," and as discourse changes, so does the truth contained in it. What does the term "discourse" signify? Look at any academic journal in the humanities, and you will find it at the center of a thousand factitious debates: "Western phallocentrism and the discourse of gender," "White supremacist discourse in the novels of Conrad," "The discourse of exclusion: a queer perspective," and so on. By describing arguments as "discourse," you go behind them, to the state of mind from which they spring. You no longer confront the truth or reasonableness of another's opinion but engage directly with the social force that speaks through it. The question ceases to be "What are you saying?" and becomes, instead, "Where are you speaking from?" This was Foucault's triumph, to provide a word that would enable us to re-attach every thought to its context and make the context more important than the thought.

Discourse, for Foucault, is the product of an epoch, and exists by virtue of the prevailing social "power." It is what Marx called "ideology": a collection of ideas that have no authority in themselves but that disguise and mystify the social reality. There is no more to truth than the power that finds it convenient; and by unmasking power, we disestablish truth. In any epoch, there are those who refuse the prevailing discourse. These are denounced, marginalized—even incarcerated as mad. Theirs is the voice of "unreason," and, for those in authority, what they utter is not truth but delirium. However, Foucault makes clear, there is nothing objective in this denunciation of madness: it is no more than a device whereby the established power, the power of the bourgeois order, sustains itself, by safeguarding its own "truth" against the rival discourse that rejects it.

Foucault and his followers generalize this argument, to suggest that the traditional views of man, of the family, of sexual relations and sexual morality, have no authority beyond the power that upholds them. In his three-volume History of Sexuality, Foucault goes one step further. Sexual pleasure, he argues, is not intrinsically problematic; there is no reason in the nature of things for controlling or suppressing it. If sex is "problematized," so as to forbid some pleasures and encourage others, then this is a curious social fact, which can be explained but never justified. He describes his own study of sex, borrowing from Nietzsche, as a "genealogy" of morals—an explanation of beliefs that, because they have no intrinsic validity or truth, must be explained in terms of their social context, and so explained away.

Such an outlook was extremely useful to Foucault, whose rampant homosexuality would suffer no rebuke. His death from AIDS brought an end to his predations. But it did not curtail his influence: on the contrary, it crowned his thinking with a halo of political correctness. Foucault was not merely an advocate of instant pleasures but a martyr to them. Still, this nimbus of righteousness should not lead us to accept his debunking of sexual morality. For Foucault's "genealogy" makes no distinction between cause and effect. For all Foucault says to the contrary, it might be objectively true that human society and personal fulfillment are more easily guaranteed by heterosexual marriage than by sexual transgression, and that the cultural and political capital of an epoch is more easily passed on where people devote themselves to bringing up their children in the home. Rather than being the effect of social power, the old morality could be its cause. As to which it is—cause or effect—nothing in Foucault's diagnostic method could possibly tell us. The assumption throughout is that, by tracing a belief to the power of those who uphold it, you undermine its claim to objectivity. But this assumption might be the polar opposite of the truth.

Popular for the same reason as Foucault's power analysis is the deconstruction associated with Jacques Derrida. Nobody knows—or at least nobody has explained—what deconstruction is. But its very obscurity constitutes a large part of its appeal. By offering reams of gobbledygook, the deconstructionist is able to fortify his all-important assumption: that meaning is impossible. There is no such thing as the objective, decidable meaning of a word or argument. In the official jargon, there is no "transcendental signified." Every word, once uttered, is hostage to interpretation, and the decision to interpret the word one way rather than another is in the last analysis political—the only real questions are the old ones uttered by Lenin: Who? and Whom? Who is doing the interpreting, and against whom as his victim? If Dead White Males have monopolized the interpretation of Jane Austen, for example, is it surprising that the "official" readings of Austen's novels give no real place to women and their aspirations? Is it surprising that these novels are construed as vindications, rather than repudiations, of bourgeois marriage? Confronted by a text from the traditional canon, we can proceed to deconstruct it as we will, for the only constraints that bind us are those that we ourselves have chosen. Deconstructive criticism is like modern productions of traditional theater: the text is read against itself, so as to mean anything that the critic or producer should choose. And invariably the purpose is political: to debunk the old authorities, in the name of liberation.

The "pragmatism" of Richard Rorty operates in a similar way, reaching foregone political conclusions by a repeated sleight of hand. But since pragmatism is a native American product with a respectable history, people do not always regard it with the suspicion that it now (thanks to Rorty) deserves. It is therefore worth examining its subversive credentials.

Crudely put, pragmatism is the view that "true" means "useful." The most useful belief is the one that gives me the best handle on the world: the belief that, when acted upon, holds out the greatest prospect of success. Obviously that is not a sufficient characterization of the difference between the true and the false. Anyone seeking a career in an American university will find feminist beliefs useful, just as racist beliefs were useful to the university apparatchik in Nazi Germany. But this hardly shows those beliefs to be true.

So what do we really mean by "useful"? One suggestion is this: a belief is useful when it is part of a successful theory. But a successful theory is one that makes true predictions. Hence we have gone round in a circle, defining truth by utility and utility by truth. Indeed, it is hard to find a plausible pragmatism that does not come down to this: that a true proposition is one that is useful in the way that true propositions are useful. Impeccable, but vacuous.

The threat of vacuousness does not deter Rorty, who sees pragmatism as a weapon against the old idea of reason. Even though he fails dismally in the attempt to say what pragmatism really is, this failure is of no interest to his followers, who take it in their stride, just as they take in their stride the emptiness of Foucault's "genealogy" of morals and the impenetrable nonsense of deconstruction. It is enough that Rorty invokes his pragmatism as a kind of magic spell against the old idea of reason and in the cause of cultural relativism. It is this that qualifies him for guru status in our departments of humanities.

In his words: "Pragmatists view truth as . . . what is good for us to believe. . . . They see the gap between truth and justification not as something to be bridged by isolating a natural and trans-cultural sort of rationality which can be used to criticize certain cultures and praise others, but simply as the gap between the actual good and the possible better. . . . For pragmatists, the desire for objectivity is not the desire to escape the limitations of one's community, but simply the desire for as much intersubjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of `us' as far as we can." In other words, pragmatism enables us to dismiss the idea of a "trans-cultural . . . rationality." There is no point to the old ideas of objectivity and universal truth; all that matters is that we agree.

But who are we? And what do we agree about? Turn to Rorty's essays, and you will soon find out. "We" are all feminists, liberals, advocates of gay liberation and the open curriculum; "we" do not believe in God or in any inherited religion; nor do the old ideas of authority, order, and self-discipline carry weight for us. "We" make up our minds as to the meaning of texts by creating through our words the consensus that includes us. There is no constraint on us, beyond the community to which we have chosen to belong. And because there is no objective truth but only our own self-engendered consensus, our position is unassailable from any point of view outside it. The pragmatist not only can decide what to think; he can protect himself from whoever doesn't think the same.

A true pragmatist will no doubt invent history just as he invents everything else, by persuading "us" to agree with him. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a glance at history, if only to see how paradoxical and dangerous is Rorty's view of the human intellect. The Islamic ummah—the society of all believers—was and remains the most extended consensus the world has ever known. It expressly recognizes consensus (ijma`) as a criterion of, and indeed a substitute for, truth, and it is engaged in a never-ceasing endeavor to include as many as possible in its comprehensive first-person plural. Moreover, whatever Rorty means by "good" or "better" beliefs, the pious Muslim must surely count as having some of the very best: beliefs that bring security, stability, happiness, a handle on the world, and a cheerful conscience as one blows up the kafirs who think otherwise.

Yet still, is there not a nagging feeling somewhere that those heartwarming beliefs might not be true, and that the enervated opinions of the postmodern atheist might just have the edge on them? On Rorty's account of pragmatism, this is not something a pragmatist can say. After all, postmodern atheists, unlike pious Muslims, don't compose a community—not even an imagined community. They have no credo or catechism, no sacred text, no established consensus. Yet Rorty is a postmodern atheist. Why? Not because he belongs to a community of unbelievers, but because he thinks that atheism is true. The pragmatism that puts consensus in the place of truth turns out to be a sham.

In its own eyes, the Enlightenment involved the celebration of universal values and a common human nature. The art of the Enlightenment ranged over other places, other times, and other cultures, in a heroic attempt to vindicate a vision of man as free and self- created. That vision inspired and was inspired by the old curriculum, and it has been the first concern of the postmodern university to put it in question. This concern explains the popularity of another relativist guru—Edward Said, whose book Orientalism showed how to dismiss the Enlightenment itself as a form of cultural imperialism. The Orient appears in Western art and literature, Said argues, as something exotic, unreal, theatrical, and therefore unserious. Far from being a generous acknowledgment of other cultures, the orientalist art of Enlightenment Europe is an attempt to belittle them, to reduce them to decorative episodes within the great imperium of Western progress.

Said's argument goes hand in hand with the advocacy of a multicultural curriculum. The old curriculum, a product of the Enlightenment, is, we are told, monocultural, devoted to perpetuating the view of Western civilization as inherently superior to its rivals. It is also patriarchal, the product of Dead White European Males, who have since lost all authority. And its assumption of a universal rational perspective, from the vantage point of which all humanity can be studied, is nothing better than a rationalization of its imperialist ambitions. By contrast, we who live in the amorphous and multicultural environment of the postmodern city must open our hearts and minds to all cultures and be wedded to none. The inescapable result of this is relativism: the recognition that no culture has any special claim to our attention, and that no culture can be judged or dismissed from outside.

But once again there is a paradox. For those who advocate this multicultural approach are as a rule vehement in their dismissal of Western culture. Said is no exception. While exhorting us to judge other cultures on their own terms, he is also asking us to judge Western culture from a point of view outside—to set it against alternatives and to judge it adversely as ethnocentric and racist.

But the criticisms offered of Western culture are really confirmations of its claim to favor. It is thanks to the Enlightenment and its universal view of human values that racial and sexual equality have such a commonsense appeal to us. It is the universalist vision of man that makes us demand so much of Western art and literature—more than we should ever demand of the art and literature of Java, Borneo, or China. It is the very attempt to embrace other cultures—an attempt that has no parallel in the traditional art of Arabia, India, or Africa—that makes Western art a hostage to Said's caviling strictures. And it is only a very narrow view of our artistic tradition that does not discover in it a multicultural approach that is far more imaginative than anything now taught under that name. Our culture invokes an historical community of sentiment, while celebrating universal human values. It is rooted in the Christian experience but draws from that source a wealth of human feeling that it spreads impartially over imagined worlds. From Ariosto's Orlando Furioso to Byron's Don Juan, from Monteverdi's Poppea to Longfellow's Hiawatha, from The Winter's Tale to Madama Butterfly, our culture has continuously ventured into spiritual territory that has no place on the Christian map.

The Enlightenment, which set before us an ideal of objective truth, also cleared away the mist of religious doctrine. The moral conscience, cut off from religious observance, began to see itself from outside. At the same time, the belief in a universal human nature, so powerfully defended by Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume, kept skepticism at bay. Their Enlightenment contemporaries would have regarded as absurd the suggestion that, in tracing the course of human sympathy, Shaftesbury and Hume were merely describing an aspect of "Western" culture. To them, the "moral sciences," including the study of art and literature, embodied what T. S. Eliot later called a "common pursuit of true judgment." And this common pursuit occupied the great thinkers of the Victorian age, who, even when they made the first ventures into sociology and anthropology, believed in the objective validity of their results and in a universal human nature that would be revealed in them.

All that has changed utterly. In place of objectivity we have only "inter-subjectivity"—in other words, consensus. Truths, meanings, facts, and values are now regarded as negotiable. The curious thing, however, is that this woolly-minded subjectivism goes hand in hand with a vigorous censorship. Those who put consensus in the place of truth find themselves distinguishing the true from the false consensus. Thus the consensus Rorty assumes rigorously excludes all conservatives, traditionalists, and reactionaries. Only liberals can belong to it; just as only feminists, radicals, gay activists, and anti- authoritarians can take advantage of deconstruction; just as only the opponents of "power" can make use of Foucault's techniques of moral sabotage; and just as onlymulticulturalists can avail themselves of Said's critique of Enlightenment values. The inescapable conclusion is that today's gurus advocate subjectivity, relativity, and irrationalism not in order to let in all opinions but precisely to exclude the opinions of people who believe in old authorities and objective truths.

If you study the opinions that prevail in modern academies, you will discover that they are of two kinds: those that emerge from the constant questioning of traditional values, and those that emerge from the attempt to prevent any questioning of the liberal alternatives. All of the following beliefs are effectively forbidden on the normal American campus: (1) The belief in the superiority of Western culture; (2) The belief that there might be morally relevant distinctions between sexes, cultures, and religions; (3) The belief in good taste, whether in literature, music, art, friendship, or behavior; and (4) The belief in traditional sexual mores. You can entertain those beliefs, but it is dangerous to confess to them, still more dangerous to defend them, lest you be held guilty of "hate speech"—in other words, of judging some group of human beings adversely. Yet the hostility to these beliefs is not founded on reason and is never subjected to rational justification. The postmodern university has not defeated reason but replaced it with a new kind of faith—a faith without authority and without transcendence, a faith all the more tenacious in that it does not recognize itself as such.

The religion of political correctness is not confined to America. Recently Glen Hoddle, the English soccer coach, expressed the view (perfectly acceptable when uttered by a representative of some ethnic minority) that disabled people are suffering in this life for sins committed in another. He was at once castigated by his employers, by the media, and by the government, in a remarkable series of show trials. He was then fired. Such witch trials are more and more frequent in Britain, conducted outside the courts by bureaucrats and quasi-independent commissions like the Commission for Racial Equality. And the guiding principle is always "Guilty until proved innocent."

Similarly, you will find that almost all those who espouse the relativistic "methods" that Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty have introduced into the humanities are vehement adherents of a code of political correctness that condemns deviation in absolute and intransigent terms. The relativistic theory exists in order to support an absolutist doctrine. Hence the extreme disarray that entered the camp of deconstruction when it was discovered that one of the leading ecclesiastics, Paul de Man, once had Nazi sympathies. It is manifestly absurd to suggest that a similar disarray would have attended the discovery that Paul de Man had once been a communist—even if he had taken part in some of the great communist crimes. In such a case he would have enjoyed the same compassionate endorsement as was afforded to communists and fellow travelers Lukacs, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre. The assault on meaning undertaken by the deconstructionists is not an assault on "our" meanings, which remain exactly what they always were: radical, egalitarian, and transgressive. It is an assault on "their" meanings—the meanings sequestered in a tradition of artistic and philosophical thinking and passed on from generation to generation by the old forms of scholarship.

All that is worth bearing in mind when we consider the current state of intellectual life in Europe and America. Although areas like philosophy have been for many years immune to the prevailing subjectivism, they too are beginning to succumb to it. Teachers who remain wedded to what Rorty calls "a natural and trans-cultural sort of rationality"—in other words, who believe they can say something permanently and universally true about the human condition—find it increasingly difficult to appeal to students for whom negotiation has taken the place of rational argument. To expound Aristotle's ethics and to point out that the cardinal virtues Aristotle defended are as much a part of happiness for modern people as they were for ancient Greeks is to invite incomprehension. The best the modern student can manage is curiosity: That, he will acknowledge, is how they saw the matter. As to how I see it, who knows?

From this state of bewildered skepticism, the student may take a leap of faith. And the leap is never backward into the old curriculum, the old canon, the old belief in objective standards and settled ways of life. It is always a leap forward, into the world of free choice and free opinion, in which nothing has authority and nothing is objectively right or wrong. In this postmodern world there is no such thing as adverse judgment—unless it be of the adverse judge. It is a playground world, in which all are equally entitled to their culture, their "lifestyle," and their opinions.

And that is why, paradoxically, the postmodern curriculum is so censorious—in just the way that liberalism is censorious. When everything is permitted, it is vital to forbid the forbidder. All serious cultures are founded on the distinctions between right and wrong, true and false, good taste and bad, knowledge and ignorance. It was to the perpetuation of those distinctions that the humanities, in the past, were devoted. Hence the postmodern assault on the curriculum and the vehement attempt to impose a standard of "political correctness"—which means, in effect, a standard of non-exclusion and non-judgment.

But the attack on the old curriculum is unfounded, for the old curriculum was far from monocultural. Our ancestors studied—and I mean really studied—cultures that were entirely strange to them. They learned the languages and literature of Greece and Rome; came to understand, love, and even in their own way to worship the pagan gods; translated from Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Arabic; and roamed the world with an insatiable curiosity, believing on the best of grounds that nothing human would be alien to them. It was second nature to the nineteenth-century graduate to learn the language of a country to which he traveled, to study its literature, religion, history, and customs—often to the extent of going native, like many of the British in India and many of the Indians in Britain. The European Enlightenment, transferred by trade and colonial adventure to the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, inspired the intellectual class of Egypt and Lebanon with the vision of universal learning. Edward Said is a product of this: a living disproof of his own favorite theories.

All that returns us to the deeply paradoxical nature of the new relativism. While holding that all cultures are equal and judgment among them absurd, the new relativism covertly appeals to the opposite belief. It is in the business of convincing us that Western culture, and the traditional curriculum, are racist, ethnocentric, patriarchal, and therefore beyond the pale of political acceptability. False though these accusations are, they presuppose the very universalist vision that they declare to be impossible.

The subliminal awareness of this paradox explains the popularity of the gurus I have discussed. Their arguments belong to a new species of theology: the theology of political correctness. As in all theology, it is not the quality of the argument, but the nature of the conclusion, that renders the discussion acceptable. The relativist beliefs exist because they sustain a community—the new ummah of the rootless and the disaffected. Hence, in Rorty, Derrida, and Foucault, we find a shared duplicity of purpose: on the one hand to undermine all claims to absolute truth and on the other hand to uphold the orthodoxies upon which their congregation depends. The very reasoning that sets out to destroy the ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes political correctness as absolutely binding and cultural relativism as objectively true.

What should be our response to this? Surely the first conclusion we should draw is that the new relativism is self-contradictory. Its absolute censoriousness is already proof of this; so too is its constant assumption of the "trans-cultural" perspective that it denies to be possible. Without such a perspective, the very idea of a plurality of cultures could not be expressed. And what is this perspective—the "point of view beyond culture"—if not the perspective of reason?

The second conclusion to draw is that, intellectually speaking, the Enlightenment project, as Alasdair MacIntyre has called it—the project of deriving an objective morality from rational argument—is as much a reality for us as it was for Kant or Hegel. The problem lies not in giving rational grounds for morality or objective principles of criticism. The problem lies in persuading people to accept them. Although there are those, like John Gray, who tell us that the project has failed, the failure lies in them and not in the project. It is possible to give a reasoned defense of traditional morality and to show just why human nature and personal relations require it. But the argument is difficult. Not everyone can follow it; nor does everyone have the time, the inclination, or the requisite sense of what is at stake. Hence reason, which stirs up easy questions while providing only difficult replies, will be more likely to destroy our pieties than to give new grounds for them.

What is wrong with the Enlightenment project is not the belief that reason can provide a trans-cultural morality. For that belief is true. What is wrong is the assumption that people have some faint interest in reason. The falsehood of this assumption is there for all to see in our academies: in the relativism of their gurus and in the misguided absolutism—absolutism about the wrong things and for the wrong reasons, absolutism that excludes all but the relativists from their doors.

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