There's overlap between traditional conservatives and critical theorists. How far does it go, and where does it end?
The Old Tradition of Anti-Tradition
There’s been a lot of talk in 2020 about shattering norms and traditions.
The website of the Black Lives Matter organization once claimed that part of their mission is to “disrupt the Western prescribed nuclear family structure.”
In Forbes, Jennifer Barrett argued that the coronavirus pandemic would further upend traditional, patriarchal gender roles by forcing fathers to take more responsibility for childcare.
And there’s the tradition of America itself. Between attempts to rename cities and the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project, we’re seeing activists try to level our country for its alleged history of oppression.
Somewhat lost in these discussions is the fact that the 1960s counterculture—epitomized in such figures as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan—began promoting similar causes more than a generation ago. As Qoheleth declares: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Ironically, there is a long tradition to anti-traditionalism, one whose epistemological origins can be found in another intellectual project, the Enlightenment. As historian Brad S. Gregory expertly argues in his book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, thinkers in the post-Reformation era found themselves intellectually adrift in the wake of a theological revolution that sought to unseat not only the hierarchical Catholic Church but also its philosophical traditions.
Philosophers Against Tradition
You see this first in the writings of Rene Descartes (1596–1650), who was unnerved by the religio-political violence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in his native France. So Descartes detached, withdrawing into a meditative solitude in order to discover reality. There, In intellectual reclusivity, he decided the pursuit of truth required starting all over again: “Everything had to be torn down to the ground and I had to begin anew from the first foundations, if I ever wanted to establish anything firm and enduring in the sciences.”
The result was his famous Cartesian rationalism that rejected the Aristotelian/Thomistic thesis that knowledge begins with the senses. Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), he asserted. Yet, as Descartes’s critics have noted, this approach severs the mind and the body, and calls into question what is most evident: that things are. Indeed, Descartes tried to prove what does not need to be proved, namely, the very existence of the material world. By encouraging universal sense skepticism, Descartes furthered rather than deterred skepticism in the West.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) also sought to pursue truth apart from the received wisdom and authorities of the past. He wrote:
Those men that take their instruction from the authority of books, and not from their own meditation . . . [are] as much below the condition of ignorant men, as men endued with true Science are above it. For between true Science, and erroneous Doctrines, Ignorance is in the middle.
Only the individual’s ideas are reliable, argued Hobbes, and it is better to trust yourself than anyone who is “but a man.” Of course, notes Brad Gregory, Hobbes was himself a man, and he was more than willing to trust his own assumptions and definitions (and, one presumes, wanted his readers to do the same)! Indeed, Hobbes’s idea of the natural state of man is a fabrication—all men are born into families and societies. Society is not a human invention but part of nature.
The Dutch-born Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) also preferred intellectual originality. He claimed: “I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, but I know that I comprehend the true one.” Like Descartes, Spinoza also pursued an intellectual project of detached autonomy, claiming that
the intellect, by its innate power, makes for itself intellectual tools through which it acquires other powers for other intellectual works, and from these works other tools or the power of investigation further, and thus continues step by step until it reaches the summit of wisdom.
In Ethics, Spinoza crafted pantheist definitions and axioms about the substance of reality, Deus sive Natura. He collapsed all reality into a single thing, undermining human volition and effectively conflating good and evil, while associating the materiality of all things with divinity without any evidence.
Only a few generations later, Englishman David Hume (1711–1776) in his Treatise of Human Nature censured contemporary philosophy for its “ignorance” of “the most important questions, that can come before the tribunal of human reason,” in large part because of “principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely decided from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole.”
Hume blasted Spinoza’s “hideous hypothesis” for its pantheism and its system of thought that led to “gloomy and obscure regions.” Hume’s solution was to propose “a compleat system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one which they can stand with any security.”
Yet Hume’s claim that all knowledge is empirical is a contradiction, because it is an assertion that itself cannot be empirically known. Moreover, empiricism rejects the idea that we can know natures, while trying to make claims about the nature of knowledge. Nor is science possible in Hume’s paradigm, since we only observe particular instances, and can make no universal conclusions about nature.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) also emphasized the importance of tradition-free, independent thought. He wrote: “Their philosophy is for others; I need one for myself. Let me seek it with all my strength while there is still time, so as to have a steady rule of conduct for the rest of my days.”
Rousseau was deeply concerned about the inequality of his day. He proposed the idea of the “General Will,” in which men give up their rights and freedom to the general will of the people, who are sovereign and free. He also argued that individual sincerity was the best criterion for answering philosophical questions: “It is important to have an opinion of our own, and to choose it with all the maturity of judgment that we can muster. If despite this we fall into error we cannot justly be held responsible, because we are not culpable.”
That Rousseau’s ideas gained any traction is itself remarkable—submitting to the “general will” of the polis doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of inequality. Consider Revolutionary France, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s People’s Republic of China, or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. And installing sincerity as the criterion for authentic knowledge is patently absurd. Sincerely believing in something doesn’t make it true, nor does it make you innocent of error. Just visit any elementary school classroom.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) also argued that independence from received authorities, coupled with employment of reason, was essential to good philosophy:
Enlightenment is the exodus of human beings from their self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own reason without guidance from someone else. . . . Sapere aude! Have courage to make use of your own reason! That is the watchword of Enlightenment.
In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued for the discoverability of the universal possibility. Dispassionate reason was the panacea by which man could gain self-knowledge and evaluate all truth claims according to “reason’s eternal and unchangeable laws.”
Kant was bold: “There is bound to be not a single metaphysical problem that has not been solved here, or for the solution to which at least the key has not been provided.”
Yet the German philosopher’s thesis that knowledge is made rather than received leads to subjectivism and relativism. According to Kant, man doesn’t know things in themselves; he knows only phenomena. His “categorical imperative” ethics, in which moral actions should be disinterested and universally valid, is backward, because the goodness of our will depends on the goodness of our actions, not vice-versa. A good will does not ipso facto make good actions.
The nineteenth-century intellectual revolution was even more comical.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), another German philosopher, repudiated Kant’s epistemology. “It is time for the elevation of philosophy to the level of a science. . . . Different from and indeed entirely opposed to current conceptions of the nature and the form of truth,” he declared.
Hegel cited “the necessity of once again starting from scratch with this science” in order to determine “an altogether new concept of what it means to treat something scientifically.” His most famous student, Karl Marx (1818–1883), famously declared that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.”
Marx, who viewed the world in materialist and economic binaries, proudly explained that “up to now the philosophers had the solution of all mysteries lying on their desks, and the stupid, exoteric world only had to open its mouth wide and the roasted pigeons of absolute science flew into its mouth.”
Over in America, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was just as self-assured:
nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. . . . No law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.
In England, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) began Utilitarianism by mourning “the backward state in which speculation on the most important subjects still lingers.” Mill proceeded to propound his own “ultimate standard” for moral beliefs, which was based on a modified version of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian “Greatest Happiness Principle” of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.
In the twentieth century, German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) wrote: “Instead of continuing to build on the foundations laid by others as I would so gladly do, I have to build.”
From Descartes to the deconstructionists of the late twentieth century, philosophers have embraced an ideology of anti-tradition, rejecting the thought of earlier generations in favor of charting their own course.
Yet none of these thinkers are victors in modernism’s attempt to establish a new philosophical consensus. Indeed, schools of thought regarding epistemology, ontology, and truth have grown more divergent (and more esoteric) by the generation. Most Westerners have simply thrown up their hands and acknowledged that philosophical truth is itself a chimera, and then proceed (often unwittingly) to embrace and employ utilitarian, positivist, and emotivist premises in their daily lived experience.
However noble (or ignoble) the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment attempts at creating a new, unified philosophical system, they have only expanded upon an ever-growing list of competing schools of thought with no more purchase than any other.
As Brad Gregory writes,
In no domain of philosophy since the seventeenth century has there ever been general agreement about what reason dictates, discloses, or prescribes, whether in terms of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, or morality. To see this does not demand mastery of abstruse postmodern thought; it requires only a competent survey course in the history of modern philosophy.
Indeed, what is most remarkable about Gregory’s survey is actually how similar all these thinkers are in their desire to dispense with inherited wisdom in favor of a novelty emanating from their own intellects.
Lord Acton said: “Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas.” All these Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers, whatever their virtues, possessed a certain intellectual savior-complex, believing that their own brains possessed the undiscovered key to unlocking philosophical truth that would unify humanity.
Ending a Bad Tradition
Is there a way to break out of this cycle of banal, shallow, and destructive dead ends?
The short answer is yes. It requires, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and others have argued, a return to our intellectual and cultural roots, by studying and appreciating their ancient wisdom. Aristotle, Cicero, Moses, Jesus, Confucius, and Aquinas also offered time-tested truths regarding knowledge and ethics. And it means accepting the givenness of our world, and the intellectual tradition that enables us to understand it.
As John Henry Newman wisely reminds us, “The Greek poets and sages were in a certain sense prophets; for ‘thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given.’”
If we cannot hear them, we will appear to our descendants as vain and as foolish as Descartes, Emerson, and Rousseau, who, enamored with their own intellects, jettisoned a rich inheritance for intellectual bankruptcy.
About the Author
Casey Chalk is senior writer for Crisis magazine and a contributor at the American Conservative and New Oxford Review.
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