Autonomy Is Not Optional
I've been a bit tied up recently with two in-depth book reviews, and before I get to a new round of news updates (which are coming in the next edition), I wanted to pull out a couple of interesting ideas from those reviews.
I haven't been writing reviews very often recently, and I shall have to remind myself in the future that they take three to four times as long as regular articles, because before you write a single word, you have to do this.
What really caught my eye about Rauch's book is this:
"Rauch's most intriguing idea is to give James Madison credit, not just for the genius of the American political system, but for the extension of his principles into the epistemic realm, where America's constitutional system has served as an implicit model on which we have built our system for the discovery and validation of knowledge."
Longtime readers—and I mean very longtime—will find some of this familiar. "Epistemological Madisonianism" is a term I coined ten to fifteen years ago, and I was very interested to see Rauch thinking along the same lines and expanding on the idea. So I took the opportunity to describe a little of the difference between my version and his.
"I can claim to have anticipated this in a small way, playing around with an idea I called 'epistemological Madisonianism.' In an article about 15 years ago, for example ['Three Elections: America, Ukraine, Iraq and the Politics of Persuasion,' The Intellectual Activist, Vol. 18, No. 12 (December 2004)], I argued that the Constitution's system of counterbalancing factions, as explained by Madison in Federalist No. 10, has an epistemological impact.
"'Because political leaders can take no action without a public debate that achieves a "broad national consensus," they must seek to persuade voters with a variety of ethnic backgrounds, religious faiths, and regional interests. This means that they cannot appeal merely to the preconceived notions, unquestioned values, and narrow prejudices of their own group. Instead, leaders who want to enter the national political arena are required to name a more general justification for their policies, one that can be understood and accepted by the members of any group. In other words, they must appeal, on some level and to some degree, to abstract, universal principles....
"'One of the crucial foundations of representative government is a respect for the faculty of reason and for the individual judgment of a country's citizens. The practice of representative government reinforces this foundation by requiring men to appeal to what President Bush calls "the free exchange of ideas and the peaceful resolution of differences," i.e., to persuasion—which ultimately means: to facts, to reason, and to universal abstractions. Representative government encourages the kind of mental activity on which it depends.'
"I had applied this only to political debate. The central achievement of The Constitution of Knowledge is that Rauch applies it to the entire structure of public discussion in a free society.
"'Requiring compromise contains ambition, as Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, and in fact it is the only way to do so. Less widely appreciated, but just as important, is a positive advantage: more than just containing ambition, compromise also harnesses it and puts it to work....
"'[T]he Madisonian system does not assume, expect, or even desire that every person should be a deal-cutting moderate. In fact, it assumes the opposite: that people are naturally inclined to hold strong beliefs and usually enter into negotiations reluctantly. They compromise not because they want to but because they have to, and their firm convictions ensure that multiple views receive energetic advocacy. Political zeal is to Madison's political system what the profit motive is to Adam Smith's economic system and what strong opinions are to Locke's epistemic system: an energy source. Like all energies, ambition and zeal can be destructive; compromise contains, channels, and exploits them.
"'So that, in (very) brief, is Madison's plan: a system which forces anyone who wants power or influence to persuade others, thereby harnessing personal ambition to stimulate dynamism and organize cooperation. The Constitution of Knowledge works the same way, except the product is not governance but reality.'
"Rauch explains in detail how this works in the media, in academia, in government bureaucracy, in the courts. A system of checks and balances harnesses ambition to motivate people to counter each other's biases and factionalism, leading to a system that produces more reliable knowledge than any system run centrally by authorities."
The other main difference is that I emphasize how the counter-balancing of factions requires us to go back to reality as our final arbiter—whereas Rauch emphasizes the need for social compromise and consensus. He does that because his ability to defend reality has been undercut by conventional philosophy.
"'Reality, in common parlance,' he writes, 'is that which is reliable and intractable and cannot be wished away: the rock we stub our toe on, the abrupt encounter with the ground when we fall.' So far, so good. Yet he avers that 'such colloquial definitions are not very helpful.' Why? 'The whole problem is that humans have no direct access to an objective world independent of our minds and senses.' That we have no access to the world except our senses is the very formula of empiricism. Since when did that become a 'problem'? Yet Rauch concludes that philosophers have stopped 'thinking about reality metaphysically, as an external if unknowable "world out there."'
"Students of philosophy will recognize the philosophical footprints of the 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the one who taught us to think about the 'world out there'—a revealing formulation in itself—as a mere theoretical abstraction that is unknowable on principle. And it was he who taught us that having direct access to the world through our senses was a 'problem.' He promoted the disastrous inversion in our understanding of consciousness that led us to believe that only perception without any specific mechanism would be valid, and thus that we are blind because we have eyes."
I want to emphasize how strange a phrase "the real world out there" actually is, how divorced it is from experience. It would be far more accurate to talk about "the world around us," or better yet "the world in which we live," because that is how we actually experience it. We experience reality as something in which we are immersed and which we are ourselves part of. To describe it as something "out there" is an indication that one's thinking has already gone off the rails, that one has already begun to divorce abstractions from the concretes from which they were formed.
Similarly, consider that other sentence, "The whole problem is that humans have no direct access to an objective world independent of our minds and senses." As opposed to what? How else are we supposed to have access to reality, except by means of our consciousness? Again, the more accurate version, one that sums up the Aristotelian outlook that was revived in the Enlightenment and has produced the achievements of modern science, would be something like this: "Humans have no direct access to an objective reality except through the senses and reason." If you want to understand how Immanuel Kant ended the Enlightenment, it's all summed up in the transition from that sentence to Rauch's version: "The whole problem is that humans have no direct access to an objective world independent of our minds and senses."
I'm not saying this to beat up on Rauch, because overall I think his book is valuable and important. But it goes to show how Kantian philosophy undermined reason, and is still undermining it by disarming its would-be defenders.
The second book I am reviewing is less rewarding: Sohrab's Amhari's The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. I might not have bothered with this one, except that the folks at Discourse asked me to, and my review will be appearing soon. Expect to see a lot more of my writing there in the future. It's a relatively new publication that has been receptive to my pitches, is very interested in pieces with a more philosophical angle, and frankly pays a little better than some of the other places I write for.
With some of those other publications, I have an arrangement that allows me to send out an advance version to my own subscribers. I don't quite have that ironed out with Discourse yet, so I'll just share a few key excerpts and previews before the final version goes up.
Here's my basic estimate of the book.
"The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill famously warned that 'he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.' If you want to see what Mill meant by that, I submit as a practical illustration Sohrab's Amhari's book... Ahmari sets out to defend not just tradition but traditionalism, as opposed to the freethinking liberal ethos that animates the modern world. Yet he does so by knocking down a series of straw men, on the theory that if he seeks out the weakest arguments and make his opponents look bad enough, a return to tradition will seem like the only viable alternative. In the process, he renders his own side of the case vague, facile, and unconvincing."
If you've been following my coverage of the "nationalist" conservatives like Ahmari, you know that their big target is "the autonomous individual," so the part of my draft I wanted to share is the section where I consider this issue of autonomy.
"Ahmari loves to borrow from the lively leftist genre of corporate conspiracy theories. Thus, he attempts to portray thinking for yourself as some form of corporate serfdom. 'Large corporations, especially, want nothing more than for our minds to be independent—that is, unmoored from absolute, unbendable moral authorities that might challenge corporate agendas.'
"You have to admit there's a certain ingenuity in using the old 'Wake up, sheeple,' routine as an argument in favor of authority, but this really sums up the contradiction of the whole enterprise. Ahmari is attempting to reason us into subordinating our reason, he is trying to get us to surrender our individual will of our own free choice. He is forced to acknowledge, implicitly, that we actually cannot divest ourselves of the autonomy he wants us to renounce.
"This is particularly true in Ahmari's own case. He begins by describing his background as an Iranian immigrant coming from a Muslim culture with secular parents. In converting to Catholicism, he has adopted traditions that are very much not his own, ones that were chosen by him rather than for him, making his conversion yet another phase of his own personal 'reinvention,' another assertion of his autonomy."
That's an issue I'm doing a lot of thinking about right now. On the deepest level, railing about the autonomy of the individual is like railing against the blueness of the sky. We have to observe, we have to weigh alternatives, we have to make choices because we cannot do otherwise. Telling us to defer to authority doesn't get around that because we still have to think for ourselves about why we should accept authority, which authorities we should accept, and why we should listen to you about it.
As I put it in my review of Rauch's book, in the context of the idea that knowledge is a social product, "Knowledge may be gained through cooperation with many other people, just as the sandwich you eat for lunch is produced through cooperation with many other people. In either case, you can only digest it as an individual."
Individual autonomy is not just an ideal, it's a basic fact—so basic that its opponents can't help acknowledging your autonomy and being examples of autonomy themselves. That's what leads them into a mass of contradictions, and I'll link to the final version of the review once it is up. But it is also what make their efforts as futile as if they had formed some quixotic society crusading to change the hue of the sky.