Skirmishes between the two cultures in an anti-intellectual age

The two cultures are, of course, those identified by C. P. Snow half a century ago:  the humanities and the sciences.  A lament of Snow and others is that the practitioners of these cultures are drifting apart, making an integrated intellectual life impossible.  There are worse things than ignoring each other, though.  Resources are finite, and status is always a zero-sum game, so competition and fighting are to be expected.  Snow himself thought English universities favored the humanities too heavily; proposals for reconciliation are usually to be on one party’s terms or the other’s, with a corresponding adjustment of relative status.

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Cross-post: a question of expertise

This recent post by Professor Cocks relates to something I wrote recently at Throne and Altar.

Contemporary society is unofficially organized by two principles.

  1. Authority, competence, and trustworthiness is established solely through the possession of credentials testifying to a relevant education and training.
  2. Ultimate authority over the entire social order belongs to the media, which adjudicates social status of both individuals and groups and tells people what their opinions on all matters of the day should be.

These two principles are not obviously in harmony.  What training do opinion journalists have to justify their vast power?  What credentialing process qualifies one to be a philosopher king?

The question will probably strike readers, as it would have struck Plato, as grotesque.  Surely the qualification to be a philosopher king, or more generally to have one’s opinions on all subjects taken seriously, is wisdom, something more likely to come from hard experience than from any university degree.  That’s not the point though.  The point is, if you were on board with the program of the modern world, you would respect only credentialed expertise.  You would also read the New York Times religiously and believe whatever you read there.  However, it is quite doubtful that the writers at the Times can boast any expertise that would justify such credulity.

We could easily look up the degrees and academic publication history of the writers at the major journals.  Some would be impressive, although I expect most wouldn’t be.  However, as soon as one poses the question, one realizes that no list of degrees would justify the obeisance these journals receive.

The Times and other big newspapers could claim expertise as journalists.  It’s what some of their employees were trained in, and they have interviewed their subjects and thus have the “expertise of direct witness” to report what they’ve seen and heard.  If they were humble newsmen just reporting what they’ve seen and heard, this would be enough.  But they also endorse political movements and candidates, propose an authoritative interpretation of American history, declare scientific hypotheses off limits, and in many other ways behave as if possessed of a universal competence of judgment.

Amusingly, one of the things they do with this universal competence is ridicule people who defy expert opinion.  Only experts are qualified to have opinions according to the most influential people, who have no relevant expertise on most of the subjects they write on.

The liberals’ dilemma

At Quillette, Yoram Hazony concludes an excellent article with

Marxists will not be appeased because what they’re after is the conquest of liberalism itself—already happening as they persuade liberals to abandon their traditional two-party conception of political legitimacy, and with it their commitment to a democratic regime. The collapse of the bonds of mutual legitimacy that have tied liberals to conservatives in a democratic system of government will not make the liberals in question Marxists quite yet. But it will make them the supine lackeys of these Marxists, without the power to resist anything that “Progressives” and “Anti-Racists” designate as being important. And it will get them accustomed to the coming one-party regime, in which liberals will have a splendid role to play—if they are willing to give up their liberalism.

I know that many liberals are confused, and that they still suppose there are various alternatives before them. But it isn’t true. At this point, most of the alternatives that existed a few years ago are gone. Liberals will have to choose between two alternatives: either they will submit to the Marxists, and help them bring democracy in America to an end. Or they will assemble a pro-democracy alliance with conservatives. There aren’t any other choices.

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freedom to speak literally

For a while, when I saw another article claiming that such-and-such famous artist, writer, or scientist was actually a horrible reactionary, I would post a link at Throne and Altar with almost no commentary, and a title like “one more for the deplorables”.  The ongoing joke was, of course, that eventually it would occur to these censorious Leftists that they were raising the status of their enemies.  At the New York Times, Professor Agnes Callard points out that Aristotle is really very deeply inegalitarian.  Another for my series?  Thankfully, it turns out not.  Professor Callard makes some very good points about the current climate, in which (as we have had occasion to point out) speech acts are more often intended as demonstrations of virtue than expressions of truth.

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Do not surrender your body carelessly.

They found Lucretia sitting in her chamber, melancholy and dejected: on the arrival of her friends, she burst into tears, and on her husband’s asking, “Is all well?” “Far from it,” said she, “for how can it be well with a woman who has lost her chastity? Collatinus, the impression of another man is in your bed; yet my person only has been violated, my mind is guiltless, as my death will testify. But give me your right hands and pledge your honour, that the adulterer shall not escape unpunished. He is Sextus Tarquinius, who, under the appearance of a guest, disguising an enemy, obtained here, last night, by armed violence, a triumph deadly to me, and to himself also, if ye be men.” They all pledged their honour, one after another, and endeavoured to comfort her distracted mind, acquitting her of blame, as under the compulsion of force, and charging it on the violent perpetrator of the crime, told her, that “the mind alone was capable of sinning, not the body, and that where there was no such intention, there could be no guilt.” “It is your concern,” said she, “to consider what is due to him; as to me, though I acquit myself of the guilt, I cannot dispense with the penalty, nor shall any woman ever plead the example of Lucretia, for surviving her chastity.” Thus saying, she plunged into her heart a knife, which she had concealed under her garment, and falling forward on the wound, dropped lifeless. The husband and father shrieked aloud.

What Lucretia knew is that there is no self hovering aloof from the body; we are our bodies, and to violate the body is to violate the person, mental guilt or not.  Such is the unique horror of rape. Continue reading

Book review: The Idea of a University

The Idea of a University in Nine Discourses
by John Henry Newman (1858)
available online

At a time when the proper mission of a university has been obscured by commercial and ideological interests, we can with profit consult the classic lectures on this topic delivered by Cardinal Newman to commemorate the establishment of a Catholic university in Dublin.

It is unfortunate, as Newman points out, that English lacks a convenient word for what he means as the distinctive excellence of the intellect, the equivalent of what “health” is for the body, because this is what a university education is meant to cultivate.  Intellectual cultivation might aid professional success and moral refinement, but it is a separate good worthy of pursuit in itself.  Newman refers most often to two particular facets of the properly formed mind.  First there is what one might call a philosophical enlargement, an appreciation for the validity and proper limits of each discipline.  Second, there is what he sometimes calls discipline of the mind, the habit of precision and systemization.

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Where is God in the loss of faith?

The Social Pathologist has made an intriguing point about the secularization of the West.  Explanations of the disappearance of Christianity, whether provided by unbelievers or by believers, operate entirely on the natural plane of sociology and culture.  They give reasons why, for example, changes in social structure or technology might make the Christian God less plausible or attractive.  However, Christians believe that faith is a gift from God, a supernaturally infused virtue.  Purely natural explanations of secularization don’t necessarily assume that divine stimulus to faith is unimportant, but they implicitly assume that it is roughly constant, an assumption with little scriptural or theological warrant.  Should we not instead entertain the hypothesis that God has simply withdrawn the grace of faith from mankind?

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Cross-post: the real battle lines in Renaissance philosophy

Historians of Renaissance and early modern philosophy often try to give a unity to their subjects by framing the creative elements of these periods as engaging in a revolt against “scholasticism”.  However, this only gives as much intelligibility to the Renaissance as is granted to its foil, and historians usually assign scholasticism any negative quality needed to keep the narrative going;  it can be mindlessly dogmatic or aridly intellectual or both at once, despising all nature or assigning fanciful hierarchies within it, servile or unfaithful to Aristotle, holding an opinion of man that is irrationally low (when the opponent is humanism) or high (when the opponent is science).  Ernst Cassirer in his 1963 book The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy tries to fit his material into this standard narrative, but he provides a great deal of interesting material, so that a more interesting story begins to emerge.

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The pride of the homosexuals

Pride is, of course, the distinguishing quality of the homosexual.  Indeed, the very word “pride” has become synonymous with homosexuality.  When I was young, “school pride” meant pride in one’s school.  Now “pride events” at any institution exist to celebrate its homosexuals.  It is a remarkable thing to take pride in one’s sexual appetites.  I find it difficult to imagine, even though I’ve never been as ashamed of some of my sexual appetites as I probably ought to be.  And yet pride is what gays say they feel toward their inclination and what friends and relatives say of one who “comes out”.  Nor is the self-exaltation of the homosexual a new thing, as one can see from homosexuality through the ages.  From ancient Greek and modern Afghan pederasts to the Bloomsbury Group, homosexuals have seen their relations as more sublime and spiritual than those of the breeding masses.  Given how openly heterosexuality is ordered to biological continuation, how could they not despise it as such with gnostic scorn?

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