November 15, 2005
Reconstructing the Dark Ages?
As I struggled yesterday with what seemed like an impending conflation of guilt and innocence, I remembered that certain darker voices of deconstructionism would see this as an example of how the process of reason itself is invalid. That because language is so subjective (and subject to manipulation), there can be no such thing as an honest argument. Logic itself is seen as a tool of oppression.
Contempt for reason often springs from a frustration with the limitations of language. Derrida, a man considered one of the framers of deconstructionism (if such things can be), saw it this way --according to Gregg Easterbrook (writing on the occasion of Derrida's death):
Since Derrida died nine days ago, it's fair to ask whether he should be assigned some blame for the post-truth state of public debate--intellectuals, after all, must accept responsibility if their ideas do harm rather than good. Derrida was a strangely polarizing figure: His followers considered him an oracle while his detractors viewed him with absurdly exaggerated alarm. Some of what Derrida maintained was inarguably true: for example, that writers can never really escape the confines of language structure nor free themselves of the conventional assumptions of society, which impose psychological limits on creativity. That's a powerful critique. Of course, if the critique is inarguably true, then how does it jibe with Derrida's additional contention that nothing can be inarguably true? Off you go into the postmodernism hall of mirrors, and pretty soon you are all the way back to fretting about whether the chair is actually there.Much as I sympathize with Derrida's frustration over language, the reason I struggle with definitions is because I do respect truth, and I dislike it when words get in the way. When this happens, I have to choice but to attempt to reason my way through it.
What's particularly disturbing is to see that the idea of reason -- especially that which Western Civilization has valued since the Enlightenment -- is under attack by elements of the left and the right. Richard Wolin has written a book on the subject titled The Seduction of Unreason. Excerpt:
Surely, one of the more curious aspects of the contemporary period is that the heritage of Enlightenment finds itself under attack not only from the usual suspects on the political right but also from proponents of the academic left. As one astute commentator has recently noted, today "Enlightenment bashing has developed into something of an intellectual blood-sport, uniting elements of both the left and the right in a common cause."5 Thus, one of the peculiarities of our times is that Counter-Enlightenment arguments once the exclusive prerogative of the political right have attained a new lease on life among representatives of the cultural left. Surprisingly, if one scans the relevant literature, one finds champions of post-modernism who proudly invoke the Counter-Enlightenment heritage as their own. As the argument goes, since democracy has been and continues to be responsible for so many political ills, and since the critique of modern democracy began with the anti-philosophes, why not mobilize their powerful arguments in the name of the postmodern political critique? As a prominent advocate of postmodern political theory contends, one need only outfit the Counter-Enlightenment standpoint with a new "articulation" (a claim couched in deliberate vagueness) to make it serviceable for the ends of the postmodern left.6 Yet those who advocate this alliance of convenience between extreme right and extreme left provide few guarantees or assurances that the end product of the exercise in political grafting will result in greater freedom rather than a grandiose political miscarriage.Understandably, many find the author of the above annoying:
Richard Wolin is an intellectual historian with a remarkable gift for upsetting people. His work has annoyed postmodernists, outraged Heideggerians, infuriated scholars of Hannah Arendt, and provoked Jacques Derrida himself into faxing lengthy denunciations and threats of legal action.I'm sure he's at least as annoying to conservatives who believe in rule by a
tiny elite, especially those who would like to elevate their views into a realm untouchable by logic and reason. People on both "sides" of this anti-Enlightenment mindset tend to use code language which prevents people from understanding each other. Even the code language often consists of perfectly ordinary words like "family," "choice," "life," and "hate" -- to the point where people can no longer carry on reasonable conversations.
Whether discourse, as Foucault maintained, is all about "power," (another loaded word) should not end the inquiry, but just the opposite, because elevating power above reason favors those who seek power at the expense of reason.
I suspect that those who hate the Enlightenment and condemn reason are in love with power whether they admit it or not. Little wonder that they'd work in collusion from suposedly opposite sides of the spectrum.
UPDATE: To avoid ending on a dark note, I found it refreshing that Stop the ACLU, which started a delinking campaign directed against Glenn Reynolds, has now published this interview with Glenn and has relinked him. Regardless of the nature of the disagreement, such discourse is admirable. Things like delinking negate the possibility of dialogue, which means that everyone loses. (Although bloggers like me can always resort to ridicule.)
UPDATE (11/20/05): More on this topic here. (It's disturbing to find apparent confirmation of my suspicions.)
posted by Eric on 11.15.05 at 08:20 AM
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