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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Liberal Thursday IV:  Special Travel Edition!

As some of you have surely gathered by now, a good chunk of What’s Liberal? deals with the question of how to conceptualize intractable disputes.  I say “conceptualize” rather than “resolve” or “negotiate,” because the moment you’ve decided that a dispute can be resolved or negotiated, you’ve determined that it is not actually intractable.  The Habermas - Lyotard impasse thus seems to me to be more important than anything else that came out of the postmodernism debates of the early 1980s, precisely because it presents us with a debate that questions the purpose of debate itself.  (Habermas v. Foucault is not similarly recursive with regard to the metatheorization of debate.  That one can be summed up, quick and dirty fashion, as “ought one speak in sentences that include the word ‘ought’?”)

So, then, in the postmodernism chapter of What’s Liberal?, I rehearse a brief history of the term “postmodernism” before declaring my impatience with a great deal of what goes under the name and moving to the Really Good Stuff, namely, the impasse over how to think about impasses.  Here’s how I presented Habermas-Lyotard to my undergraduate honors students in the fall of 2001:

We can say neither that the debate is resolvable nor that it is unresolvable.  It is impossible not to take a position on this one, and worse, it is impossible not to take a position that betrays the nature of the debate. . . .  If you say that the dispute between Lyotard and Habermas can in fact be resolved by recourse to principles on which both parties can ultimately agree, you are, in effect, awarding the palm to Habermas and the pro-consensus, pro-communicative action party.  If, on the contrary, you give up and say that this one is simply a fundamental impasse and can’t be resolved, you have in effect resolved it, by awarding the palm to Lyotard and the pro-incommensurability, pro-heterogeneity party.  And you can’t say “neither of the above,” because that too defaults to Lyotard.

OK, hold that thought, if you would.  And now let’s turn to Maximilian Pakaluk’s recent review of my book in the National Review Online.

Mr. Pakaluk seems like a smart young man, having graduated from Harvard in 2005, and like Jonathan Liu, the young Harvard man who reviewed my book caustically in the New York Observer, he sounds like the kind of student who’d enliven any classroom.  And I should make it clear before I discuss his review that I am not surprised or dismayed by his dismissal of my book.  On the contrary, I am reassured, because anything else but dismissal in the pages of the National Review would produce a profound epistemic crisis—either on their part (we agree with Bérubé!  this calls our very existence into question!) or on mine (they like me!  they really like me!  what have I done to deserve this?)

Still, even though Mr. Pakaluk seems like a smart young man, he does make a few mistakes.  Here’s a small one:

Michael Bérubé argues that it is not only harmless that departments of liberal arts are rife with liberalism, but proper and to be expected. He doesn’t see this state of affairs as contrived, but as the natural outcome of the commitments entailed in pursuing the liberal arts. The corollary is that efforts at making the liberal arts more conducive to conservatism would require altering them—destroying them, even.

That’s a strange thing to say about a book which includes, among other things, this passage:

These days, I often think my field is so pervasively liberal/left that smart young conservatives will shun it altogether.  I know there are still some conservatives out there who truly love the arts and humanities—“old school” arts and humanities, usually, more Augustan than modern, or more Chaucerian than Kafkaesque, but I’ll settle for what I can get, and besides, some of those old schools were pretty good.  They may be a dying breed, as “conservatism” in America becomes more and more associated with the know-nothing, Tom DeLay wing of the Republican Party; as University of Texas philosophy professor Brian Leiter wrote in November 2004, “Perhaps . . . the ratio of Democratic voters to Republican voters in the academy has increased over time because the Republican party has gone increasingly bonkers, such that educated and informed people by and large can’t stomach it any more?” But when they disappear from the earth altogether, along with conservative American economists who believe in honest budgets and honest business practices (an endangered species) and conservative American environmentalists who respect scientific evidence (already extinct), I know that I will miss them terribly.  Or, to put this another way, I often wish I had more conservative colleagues in literary study.

I’m serious about this.  I don’t mind in the least having substantial political disagreements with colleagues, just so long as they’re smart colleagues who hit the rhetorical ball back over the net with gusto and topspin.  I already have plenty of these on the left, even though Horowitz and company would have you believe that a department of Democrats is somehow a department in which everyone agrees with one another.  But when all the substantial intellectual disagreements in a discipline are arguments among leftists and liberals, the premises of argument are inevitably skewed– especially in those lefter-than-thou circles in which the most “oppositional” position claims for itself the greatest moral authority.  And when an entire department or an entire field of inquiry produces a uniform moral mist, it’s no wonder that after a while, it will attract only those aspirants who like breathing the air.

Here’s another of Mr. Pakaluk’s mistakes:

The connection between, say, reading Shakespeare and supporting socialized medicine may not be immediately apparent. To make it so is Bérubé’s aim.

Mr. Pakaluk seems like a smart young man, but this is not a very smart sentence.  For there is nothing in my book that will support the claim that I see any such connection, let alone the claim that I am trying to make one.  In fact, I don’t really understand why anyone would try.

Unfortunately, Mr. Pakaluk then compounds this error by laying out the structure of the book he thinks I meant to write, a book in which I argue for what he calls “the underlying incompatibility of conservatism and academia.” First, Pakaluk talks himself into believing I have argued that “the problem facing conservatives in the liberal arts is not an abundance of Ward Churchills, but something that runs much deeper. The liberal arts are by their nature liberal.” (These are his words, of course.) Then, he maps out the road this argument should take:

A straightforward argument to that effect would take the following structure: specification of the essential characteristic of the liberal arts, followed by demonstration of how these characteristics lead to liberal political views.  Bérubé is not quite so systematic, and he offers almost nothing by way of a developed explanation of what he takes the liberal arts to be—a curious omission, given the book’s title. To the extent that he makes a clear argument, it is this:  procedural liberalism—“ensuring that wide, vigorous, and meaningful discussion” about political and ethical questions of all sorts can take place—naturally gives rise to substantive liberalism — generally put, “that humans should be considered to have equal claim to basic human rights such as food, shelter, education, health care, and political representation.” While this procedural liberalism may be a necessary condition for the liberal arts (it would certainly have to be further specified), it is hardly sufficient.

Mr. Pakaluk seems like a smart young man, but here he does a quite terrible job of paraphrasing my argument about the relation of procedural liberalism to substantive liberalism.  In fact, he gets it completely wrong.  There is no necessary correspondence between the two whatsoever, which is why—as I have argued time and again on this blog, for example— traditional conservatives (as opposed to the radical right that currently runs the country) are procedural liberals.  In fact, I speak at the end of chapter one about the tensions between substantive and procedural liberalism:

The practice of critical thinking, after all, is not contentless:  it can and does challenge unreasoning prejudice of all kinds, and without it neither the Enlightenment nor the contemporary English department is thinkable.  And insofar as it places additional moral burdens on certain kinds of conservatives whose opposition to homosexuality stems from deeply held religious belief, yes, this kind of critical thinking can appear to such students to be a form of prejudice in itself. 

This conundrum, forged in the gap between procedural liberalism’s openness to debate and substantive liberalism’s opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia, seems to me one of the most difficult moral and intellectual quandaries any liberal teacher has to face. [Emphasis added for the benefit of Mr. Pakaluk, who may have missed this passage the first time around.] In the “political correctness” debates of yesteryear, it sometimes took the form of the mind-bending charge that liberals were the truly intolerant forces in American society, because they failed to tolerate certain forms of intolerance that were grounded in conservative religious belief.  This phrasing of the problem has befuddled more than one liberal, leaving such liberals not only befuddled but committed to finding better (and more liberal) ways of including the voices of people whose most cherished aim is to silence us forever.  Liberals are required to foster and practice a kind of critical pluralism with regard to social and cultural disputes, but they are not and should not be required to promote—or protect from criticism—the views of radicals and authoritarians who construe all forms of liberalism either as treason to the Republic or as grounds for eternal damnation.

Later in the same paragraph, I speak of procedural liberalism as “a form of pluralism and reasoned debate that does not always culminate in liberal conclusions.” My guess is that Mr. Pakaluk missed this passage too.  But I won’t italicize this one.  I think it’s pretty clear.

And then Mr. Pakaluk makes one really big mistake, and this one is kind of obnoxious.

Instead of speaking more about what the liberal arts are, Bérubé presents to the reader an extended recounting of the discussions he has led in his class on postmodernism. The aim, apparently, is to accomplish through description what is not accomplished through argument. Though postmodernism is an enigmatic and ill-defined designation, as Bérubé himself points out, he does a fine job of getting across the general idea. The reader is left with a good sense of the sort of professor who is uninterested in reality, truth, and other such antiquated ideas. Yet it is never made quite clear why becoming entangled in such confusion should be taken as a prerequisite for studying the liberal arts.

Interjected occasionally into the classroom discussions are Bérubé’s thoughts on why reality, etc., should be abandoned. They are revealing, but hardly convincing. Bérubé is an English professor, not a philosopher, and his arguments are less than rigorous. At one point, after quoting an author’s description of what it means to be a realist, he offers the rebuttal:  “This makes sense, I think, only if you don’t consider things like gravity and slavery to be qualitatively different things.” It is a coarse formulation of an argument that has been stated, and disputed, with far more refinement and insight. Bérubé is certainly entitled to arrive at his own conclusions about these questions, but it is absurd for him to posit them as essentially characteristic of the liberal arts, especially when they have been defended with the analytical rigor proper to an undergraduate seminar.

It is almost ridiculous that a book about liberalism in the liberal arts ends up being an apology for postmodernism.

Construing my argument about antifoundationalism as “thoughts on why reality, etc., should be abandoned” is not something that a smart young man should do.  It’s kind of intellectually dishonest, actually, because it entails saying things that are untrue, and when I say “untrue” I mean “false.” And you know, you don’t actually have to believe in the correspondence theory of truth in order to use the words “true” and “false”!  That’s a little game that especially annoying foundationalists like to play, just to see if we antifoundationalists will get angry or something.  (For more on the asymmetry involved in this misconstrual, see Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy. And for a brisk reply to Smith, see my friend Amanda Anderson’s The Way We Argue Now:  Studies in the Culture of Theory.)

So here, for the record, is the passage to which Mr. Pakaluk is referring.  It starts with Sam Harris’s brief for what he calls “ethical realism,” and my response.  First, Harris:

Realists believe that there are truths about the world that may exceed our capacity to know about them; there are facts of the matter whether or not we can bring such facts into view.  To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them.

Now, me:

This makes sense, I think, only if you don’t consider things like gravity and slavery to be qualitatively different kinds of objects—the first a natural phenomenon whose laws can be discovered by humans with great diligence (and which we still haven’t quite gotten the hang of, as the string theorists search for the principles of quantum gravity, and the advocates of a point theory of space search for principles that don’t involve vibrating strings), the other a cultural object created by humans, contested by humans, and gradually—and fitfully, and still not universally—abolished by humans.  The reason I disagree with Harris, the reason I am not what he calls an “ethical realist,” is that I believe that gravity and slavery are different kinds of things, and that objective, observer-independent knowledge about gravity is possible (this puts me at odds with Rorty) but should not be taken as a model for knowledge about human affairs.  I believe there are mind-independent entities, and that you can check this for yourself by kicking a stone; but I do not understand how people like Harris, who are so stringently skeptical about religious belief, can insist on the existence of mind-independent concepts.  And this, as my students gradually come to understand, is an incommensurability.  It is not an incommensurability about slavery itself; both the “ethical realists” and I are against it.  It is an incommensurability with regard to how one justifies one’s being against it.

I wrapped up this part of the course by telling my students that if they wanted to pursue this further, with real philosophers, they should consult Richard Rorty for (most of) my end of the discussion, and Thomas Nagel—in The View from Nowhere, for a start—for one of the most salient responses to Rorty.  (Today, I would also mention Simon Blackburn’s 2005 book, Truth: A Guide.  But I added, back in 2001, that many philosophy professors don’t even bother to consider Rorty a “real” philosopher, and that this too was evidence of the depth of the impasse.

As I explain in What’s Liberal?, there’s another reason I don’t share Harris’s faith (or that of any other “ethical realist") in mind-independent concepts: I think that believing in them can have nasty consequences.  That is, people who believe that they’ve discovered objective moral principles out there in the ether (as distinct from people who think they’re working out sublunary moral principles with their fellow human beings) are especially likely to think of people who believe otherwise—or who simply believe in other principles—as not merely mistaken about this or that but objectively wrong as measured by some nonhuman, observer-independent criterion.  Or, as I write elsewhere in the chapter, “you might conclude that people who disagree with you are not simply working from different moral premises but, rather, are alien—or opposed—to morality itself.  It then becomes all the easier to exclude them from the conversation, from all forms of human community.” And one of the purposes of the liberal arts—golly, but I thought this argument was as clear as a mountain stream—is to teach people how to think about fundamental disagreements in human affairs, and how to conceptualize fundamental disagreements without coming to the conclusion that the people who disagree with you must be expelled or exterminated.

Mr. Pakaluk missed all this, I suppose, just as he missed the passage in which I note that the foundationalist often relies on the shabby strategem of construing the antifoundationalist/ pragmatist as someone who, as Mr. Pakaluk writes about me, “is uninterested in reality, truth, and other such antiquated ideas.” Of course, I’m sorry that Mr. Pakaluk found my defense of pragmatism insufficiently rigorous for him.  But I’m informed that he majored in Sneering, which also explains that little “it is almost ridiculous that a book about liberalism in the liberal arts ends up being an apology for postmodernism” bit.

And then Mr. Pakaluk’s review just falls off the cliff:

It is a fascinating and difficult question, whether for certain professions, a person’s ability to do his work well depends on his views about fundamental principles. It is usually thought that the so-called “radical conservatives” are the ones who claim that the atheistic relativist could never be a good professor. How odd, then, to find Bérubé suggesting a similar claim, except under the opposite conditions, when it comes to the liberal arts.

If the work of an English professor can be done equally well by the realist and the postmodernist, then Bérubé’s explanation of liberal dominance in the universities falls flat. If it cannot, and one’s understanding of what an English professor should do depends entirely on one’s fundamental principles, then liberal dominance in the universities is arbitrary, a sort of intellectual Stalinism. Liberalism would be prevalent in the liberal arts because it is liberals who are deciding what the liberal arts are.

Folks, at this point the good Mr. Pakaluk is just making stuff up, attributing bizarre arguments to me and then finding “contradictions” in them.  Of course the work of an English professor can be done equally well by “the realist and the postmodernist,” though I hope I’ve shown (to quote a film that often gets cited on these here Googlenets), that although Mr. Pakaluk keeps using those words, I do not think they mean what he thinks they mean.  And I never claim that “the atheistic relativist could never be a good professor.” That would be just silly.

I do, however, believe that some intractable disputes are indeed intractable, which is why it is so very foolish of Mr. Pakaluk to write, in conclusion, “Bérubé’s book, while interesting enough, will do little to bridge the ‘intractable’ divide he describes.” Yet again (indeed, it seems by now to be something of a rhetorical tic), Mr. Pakaluk ascribes to me an aim I do not profess.  For those of us who know what “intractable” means do not go around trying to “bridge” intractable divides.  We do, however, try to clarify them, to describe them accurately, and to explain what is at stake in them.  For these, too, are among the tasks of the liberal arts.

Posted by Michael on 10/26 at 11:59 PM
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