From Nullius in Verba to Settled Science

The modern age is sometimes said to have begun with the founding of the Royal Society in 1670.  The motto of that society, nullius in verba, is usually translated as “take nobody’s word for it”  This insolent attitude of skepticism and free enquiry drove the Liberal revolution that transformed our material, political, social and spiritual worlds.

A little more than a century later, Immanuel Kant gave the Liberal revolution another slogan when he challenged men to “sapere aude,” by which he meant they should have the audacity to think for themselves.

“Have courage to make use of thy own understanding!”*

It is therefore ironic, if not surprising, that the Liberal revolution produced our world, in which we are slaves to credentialed experts, and sapere aude is not so much a challenge as a dare.

“Have courage to make use of thy own understanding.

You are going to need it!”

Serious thinkers always understood that this would happen.  In every great revolution, the initial, critical phase gives way to a “legislative” phase in which an ever-widening domain of public doctrine is placed “beyond discussion.”  More and more science is “settled,” more and more history is “ended,” more and more dissent is outlawed as “superstition,” “prejudice” and “hate.”

This is why it nowadays takes more and more courage to follow Kant’s dictum and make use of one’s own understanding.

* * * * *

The trick for the Liberal revolution is that it must allow thoughtful men and women to feel they are following Kant’s dictum, and making use of their own understandings, while the judgements delivered by that understanding are in fact “legislated.”  It does this by legislating approved methods of understanding.  It calls these approved methods, “reason,” “rationality,” “science,” and “critical thinking.”

Liberal totalitarianism is methodological rather than dogmatic.**

The difference between telling us what to think and telling us how to think is, in fact, no difference at all.  The intellectual freedom afforded by Liberalism therefore resembles the freedom Henry Ford gave his customers when he said they could purchase a model T in any color they liked, so long as it was black.  We are likewise free to think anything we like, so long our thinking follows the methods that Liberal thinking approves.

For the many who would prefer to do no thinking at all, Liberalism of course publishes the answers produced by its methods; and many are, indeed, happy to accept these answers without doing the math.

This is how Liberal public doctrine is “legislated” without apparent coercion or control.  The multitude thinks what it is told to think; the intellectual minority thinks how it is told to think; and a decisive majority ends up thinking more or less alike.

* * * * *

You have likely read the quote of Amschel Rothschild saying,

“Permit me to issue and control the money of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws!”

This neatly expresses the idea that the real seat of power is very often hidden—and nowhere more completely hidden than in a “free” society.  To adapt Rothchild’s dictum to the world of thought:

“Permit me to issue and control the methods of thought, and I care not who does the thinking.”

*) Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightening” (1784).
**) Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism, second edition (1990).

13 thoughts on “From Nullius in Verba to Settled Science

  1. Pingback: From Nulis in Verba to Settled Science | Reaction Times

  2. Liberal totalitarianism is methodological rather than dogmatic.

    A brilliant aphorism. In other words, “Think whatever you want, as long as you think about things the same way we do, that leads to the same set of conclusions every time.” Or, “Intolerance is intolerable.”

    Back when I was a puerile Marxist, I coined an aphorism that had the same practical gist, to great acclaim from my elders in the local Movement in Chicago:

    A radical is never comfortable with the *content* of history, but always comfortable with the *process* of history.

    The aforesaid content being the state of affairs at any given time, and the process being the way that any such state of affairs is eventually and inevitably obsolesced in favor of some other, somehow or other equally objectionable (because imperfect) state of affairs. A nod to Hegel, i.e.; so, to Marx.

    The result: the radical is comfortable only with revolution. It is the only state of affairs in which he can find any sort of rest. So he must pursue revolution without end or surcease. There is no goal state. The goal is constant turmoil.

  3. ‘It does this by legislating approved methods of understanding. It calls these approved methods, “reason,” “rationality,” “science,” and “critical thinking.”’
    This is a dim view of some important principles. I’ll happily grant you “critical thinking.” That has a pedigree from hell. That’s not true of the others. There’s an argument that reason, rationality and science will eventually fall foul of truth if people forget their genesis. But the officially approved reason, rationality and science are unreasonable, irrational and unscientific.
    I think it’s important to keep stressing that. It is important to claim, for example, that Christianity is both rational and reasonable, and there “science” appears to contradict, for example, the particular revelation of Christ, science is out of its depth.

    • I naturally believe that I have good reasons for believing the things I believe, and doing the things I do. So I think my life is reasonable. There are, however, people who would say that my life is shot through with unreasonable absurdities and irrational contradictions. I cannot redeem myself in their eyes, they cannot bring me to condemn myself in mine. I continue to think that my reasons are true reasons, and that their reasons are false, but do not attempt to reason with them. So I am a theoretical absolutist, but a practical relativist.

      There is a good deal of overlap between reason and rationality, but I’m using the word rational here to mean subject to planning and intellectual control. Think, for instance, of “rational” city planning, which has produced efficient but repellant urban machines. We may all advocate rationality, but we disagree profoundly about what aspects of life should be rationalized, and to what ends.

      I would say much the same thing about science. We can agree that modern science does a good job of predicting behavior, but still disagree profoundly about the importance of behavior and the significance of such predictions.

    • I think the point being made isn’t that, “reason,” “rationality,” & “science,” aren’t useful or good, but that the things the nominalists in charge of our culture promote via those words aren’t.

  4. For the sake of diversity we must all utter the same platitude. Or better yet — wear a mask so that no one can discern what you are saying.

    I am now seeing the phenomenon of masks with platitudes printed across their fronts.

  5. Pingback: From Nullius in Verba to Settled Science | Reaction Times


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