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Philosophers as radicals.

The association between philosophy and radicalism is an ancient one and in some ways a natural one. Philosophy is in one sense an intrinsically revolutionary activity, simply because its goal is to put received authority into question. Its interrogatory approach--or, as philosophy's victims say, its methods of interrogation--and its adherence to the standards dictated by the bar of reason quickly ride roughshod over the sensibilities and sentiments of the day. And, of course, philosophers sometimes offer detailed emendations of received authority, describing what a state of affairs based on reason would look like.

Plato's Republic supplies the model in the Western tradition, but any truly philosophical tradition is bound to offer similar paradigms. We automatically characterize resistance to philosophy's needling questions as mere prejudice, close-mindedness, and irrationality. We do this because we are products of a tradition of liberalism that is inspired by a vision of the political and moral beneficence of philosophical questioning. Naturally, this vision has itself been decisively influenced by philosophers, indeed by classically trained philosophers (John Stuart Mill springs to mind).

We are no doubt the beneficiaries of this tradition of unbridled philosophical investigation even when in some particular cases we are its immediate victims. But is our occasional resistance to and indeed skepticism about philosophy's demands for rational answers to its questions altogether irrational?

The period of American history that produced many of today's middle-aged professionals--academics included, of course--certainly encouraged an affirmative answer to this question. Our college or university years were characterized in part by a systematic rejection of received authority. We radicals viewed ourselves as acting in the name of reason when eradicating, root and branch, every bit of received authority we could lay our hands on. You will certainly recollect many examples from the late 1960s and early 1970s in particular. I attended Trinity College in Connecticut and remember well how our philosophical radicalism manifested itself. I was a proud philosophy major, but the attitude that I am calling philosophical radicalism was very widespread among all "freethinkers" Its amazingly influential effects are by now woven into the structures of contemporary American academic life, and the attitude that created them continues to be revered.

The story is a familiar one even where the details vary. By 1969 nearly all course requirements at Trinity College had either been abolished or were ignored in practice; requirements for majors were to a large extent negotiable; the fraternities had either shut down or were transformed into little more than dormitories. The intervention of administrators in the lives of faculty, and of both in the lives of students, was at a bare minimum; the doctrine of in loco parentis was thoroughly and energetically suppressed; compulsory attendance at just about any college event (such as Sunday morning chapel) had been abolished; participation at most voluntary events (such as the traditional football matches with Wesleyan) were poor and the time-honored rituals associated with them largely forgotten. Dress codes (some formal, some informal) were gone. Students gained representation on a number of college committees (many of them ad hoc in nature); entire new programs (such as the "open semester" and independent study programs), new majors (such as theater and dance, comparative literature, non-Western studies, urban and environmental studies, American studies), and new methodologies and texts were introduced. Some dorms became co-ed, as, of course, did many of the dorm rooms.

Some of these changes came about through rather active student involvement--nothing of the scale or violence that occurred at Columbia and Cornell, but remarkable nonetheless. For example, members of TAN (the Trinity Association of Negroes) and the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) boasted that, thanks to their leadership, the first college president's office to be forcibly occupied was at Trinity (the event occurred in 1968). A "sit-in" of that sort would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. Some 168 students participated, and represented a cross-section of the student body (as well as of all four undergraduate classes).

The atmosphere of disdain for the way things had stood in the college was itself just an extension of the deep and widespread revulsion on the part of the young for "the establishment"--that loose nexus of customs, institutions, attitudes, and norms, that constitute the way things are. The results were felt in many ways. The authority of elders--of one's parents--was questioned and often rejected, and their assumptions about what constituted a fulfilled life (the proverbial life in the suburbs, two-car garage, gaggle of children, climbing the corporate ladder, etc.) were mocked frequently. The long hair, disheveled clothes, and propensity for nudity whenever possible represented clear rejections of the world of our parents. The so-called "sexual revolution" exhibited to an extraordinary degree the extent to which deeply established norms and expectations had been overturned. Such things as cohabitation before marriage rapidly became the norm, the definition of the "family" was questioned, homosexuality began to be accepted. Abortion became much more easily available.

In the equally defining sphere of religious worship, we saw an explosion of interest in non-Western religions, enormous skepticism about standing institutional religion of almost every stripe, and a general dissolution, or at least redefining, of religious ceremonies and their place in daily life. It goes without saying that thanks in part to the anger about the Vietnam War, and to President Nixon's conduct, established political institutions of all sorts were widely reviled and mocked. This included the armed services, all branches of the government, as well as corporations (recast as oppressive multinational criminal outfits).

Like many of my fellows, I showed my disregard for the authority of custom by skipping my own graduation ceremony. And I recall one evening--on the Spring day in 1970 that Richard Nixon ordered the "incursion" into Cambodia, as I recall--when a large number of infuriated students spontaneously marched on a symbol of the power structure, viz our college president's house. They woke the poor fellow up, demanded that he appear at his front door--which he did, tired and disheveled--and that he justify Nixon's action and explain what he intended to do in response to it. I dimly recall his standing on his stoop, trying to explain above the hoots that he really wasn't in charge of the conduct of the Vietnam War. It is with a sense of shame that I confess to standing on the edge of the crowd but not protesting the protesters' incivility and stupidity. I am quite sure this was not the only time the college's president was thus awakened.

Not all of our philosophical radicalism was uncivil and misguided. The fact is that many aspects of "the establishment" including the college, were in need of serious criticism and emendation. Some of the student protests were directed at breaking down what appeared to some as the college's indifference to the racial diversity of its student body and faculty (even though during the 1970-71 academic year, the percentage of minority students at Trinity stood at about 6.8 percent of the student body). Women had been admitted for the first time in 1969; their numbers were, of course, far from what they are now. The inclusion of art forms such as classical and modern dance in the curriculum was long overdue. And some extraordinarily fruitful, if risky, educational experiments were attempted. I owe my induction into philosophy to one of them. Indeed, the experiment in question (an "open semester" program) prevented me from taking at least a year's leave from college--and others from dropping out altogether. The graduates of that experimental program have gone on to successful careers, several in philosophy. It is inconceivable that an experimental program of this sort could be implemented now.

That said, several deep and mistaken assumptions underlay the thoroughly dismissive attitude toward received institutions, mores, and ceremonies. I do not have in mind the usual complaint about laxness of morals, but something else that is not easy to articulate concisely. The difficulty of articulating these mistaken assumptions concisely reflects something important about them, for it is in good part through experience that their character is revealed--and this is something that usually requires time to accumulate. This is why the sorts of mistakes I have in mind are bound to be repeated by those young in age or spirit.

Let me put the main point this way. At least some of us behaved like Enlightenment philosophes, just the sort of thinkers Edmund Burke feared (though his fear reduced him to quietism). The general assumption was that something that cannot be justified before the bar of reason has no validity. Nothing that is, just because it is and has been, commands your assent; only that which you could rationally justify commands assent. Tradition is prejudice until validated by philosophy. What Burke called the "common cake of custom" is stale at best and poisoned at worst, for it is likely layered with all sorts of unexamined assumptions and accumulated errors and ignorance. Custom, tradition, mores are in themselves like blind but powerful forces that impose themselves on society but should be resisted or skeptically reviewed. Unless supervised by reason, their function can only be destructive, whether straight-forwardly by authorizing immoral practices, or indirectly by tranquilizing their adherents such that they are incapable of independent thought. The liberal tradition of freethinking--praised by so many Enlightenment figures and seemingly embodied by that paradigm of all freethinkers, Socrates--was for some of us the animating spirit behind the disregard of received tradition.

Was not our hero Socrates, after all, the fellow who proclaimed publicly that the "unexamined life is not worth living"--thereby implying that the lives of most of his countrymen were worthless? Did he not look and dress and live oddly, in near complete disregard of the mores of his time? Did he not believe in strange divinities--the hitherto unheard of "Ideas" or "Forms"? And did he not propose as an ideal utopia a hitherto untried city-state ruled by philosophers, that is, by men and women who would exercise naked together but feel no erotic attraction, thanks to their being so completely governed by reason? None of us mistook himself for Socrates, or even a French philosophe. My point is that the skeptical intellectual attitude of the sort frequently attributed to Socrates easily serves as a basis for the dismissal of tradition. Like other freethinkers, he seemed to tell us that we should take our bearings not by convention, but by nature, not by nomos but by physis.

That sort of attitude rests on several mistakes. First, in opposing nature to convention so severely, and recommending only the former as a reliable basis for knowledge and action, it suggests that we can live according to nature outside of convention. But that is an illusion, as was obvious from the fact that our own philosophical radicalism was possible only from within various conventions--e.g., that of academic philosophy in an academic institution dependent on complex academic, political, economic, and cultural arrangements.

Second, the attitude of the freethinkers disregarded the fact that stability in conventions is precarious, and they were largely ignorant of the price of instability (as the flippant talk of "revolution" suggested). They were ignorant, too, of the difficulty of creating even moderately reliable conventions, as well as of the terrifying ease and quickness with which conventions and institutions can be undone. I myself did not fully understand the last of these points until I later saw Howard University, where I was privileged to teach for over a decade, deconstruct itself before my eyes. In a short few months, decades of work by honorable men and women was undone. The evils of strife, faction, and dissolution are easy to overlook, I fear, by those who have not experienced them, just as it is easy for the inexperienced to underestimate the extraordinary difficulties involved in helping worthy conventions and institutions to thrive.

Further, we "revolutionaries" failed to understand that when institutions are not wisely structured, the intellectual brilliance of the individuals who depend on them does not in itself guarantee that social life will be governed by reason. As James Madison put it in The Federalist Papers 55 (C. Rossiter edition), commenting on the defective structure of Greek political institutions,
 In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion
 never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen
 been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.


It must also be said that our enthusiastic "Socratic" attitude showed little understanding of the sense in which rituals--such as the graduation ceremonies that I unceremoniously skipped--are crucial to the flourishing of conventions. Rituals mold as well as express moral sentiments that, at least in the case of some universities, deserve praise; these include such things as admiration of achievement, gratitude toward those who made it possible, and appreciation for the institution whose existence is the prerequisite for the collaborative striving for excellence.

In sum, the life-sustaining value of the moral sentiments is often discounted in the eyes of philosophic reason. Consider the sentiment of loyalty, whether expressed toward a university or one's nation: it is essential to the survival of any institution, particularly towards those we would want to see prosper. Madison notes in Federalist 49 that without such veneration, "the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability" This was a veneration common in the World War II generation of my parents, but severely thinned out in the Vietnam War generation, as is symbolically evident in the difference between John F. Kennedy's genuine patriotism and Bill Clinton's evasions. After noting the importance of political veneration to stability, Madison goes on to note that
 If it be true that all governments rest on opinion, it is no less true that
 the strength of opinion in each individual, and its practical influence on
 conduct, depend much on the number which he supposes to have entertained
 the same opinion. The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and
 cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in
 proportion to the number with which it is associated. When the examples
 that fortify opinion are ancient as well as numerous, they are known to
 have a double effect. In a nation of philosophers this consideration ought
 to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently
 inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of
 philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings
 wished for by Plato. And in every other nation the most rational government
 will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the
 community on its side.


That is, moral sentiments are necessary not just because they support stability, but because the philosopher's replacement for the sentiments--namely, the rule of philosophical reason--is not widely enough available.

This brings me to a last and most complicated objection to the hauteur of the philosophes. The settled opinions of a culture, supported by the moral sentiments, and expressed in conventions of various sorts, may embody a wisdom that philosophic reason cannot replace. That cognitive value consists, as David Hume argued, in its being a repository of the insights and lessons learned from experience and from trial and error over time. It is remarkable but not fortuitous that Hume is quoted to this general effect in the concluding paragraph of The Federalist Papers. Thus the institution of marriage, to take another example, may represent the settled recognition of the value of such things as the commitment to one person over time, the family as the proper context for the raising of children and for their moral education, and so forth.

It will be objected, of course, that the settled opinions and customs of a culture frequently embody ignorance and mistakes, if not injustices. If Burkean quietism is the alternative to Platonic radicalism, is not the latter the better bet? A good question: the best response is to develop a theory as to how critical assessment is to be meshed, at cognitive, moral, and political levels, with a wise appreciation of the importance of tradition. Philosophy has a great deal of good work to do.(1)

(1) I have taken a stab at developing some of the themes alluded to in this paragraph in my Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment (1999).

Charles L. Griswold, Jr., is chairman of the philosophy department at Boston University. A longer version of his essay was presented t the Epsilon Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Boston University on December 9, 1998.
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Author:Griswold, Charles L. Jr.
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Words:2754
Previous Article:Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education.
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