21 Nov

Reasoning about values

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/21/20

Revisiting a 1974 text that examined the mutual animosities of the 1960s

The word “demonstration” derives from an ancient root that means “to think.” Other English derivatives include “mind,” “mental,” “mentor,” “memento,” “comment,” and “Minerva,” the Greek goddess of wisdom. “Admonish” is a bit more obviously related to “demonstrate,” reminding us that admonishment involves the presentation of reasons and not simply an angry scolding.

In my American Heritage Dictionary, “demonstration” is defined as 1) the act of showing or making evident; 2) conclusive evidence or proof; and 3) an illustration or explanation. In these first three uses, the word retains it ties to rationality. In such usage, “demonstration” suggests the end (in both senses) of an argument. Q.E.D., Quod erat demonstrandum,  announces that the thing we set out to prove — and not simply assert arbitrarily — has been revealed to be so.

But my dictionary’s 4th and 5th definitions take an odd turn. The idea of making something evident is retained, but what is now made manifest is not truth or reality reasonably understood but a purely subjective state: “4) A manifestation, as of one’s feelings.” And then the final use of the word: “5) A public display of group opinion, as by a rally or march.”

Of course words can be wayward, prone to wander. But the fact that, in the early twenty-first century, the word “demonstration” is much more likely to suggest a passionate display of feelings or opinions than the reasonable path toward common understanding is a sign of a fundamental disorientation in contemporary society. It is a sign (among other things) of our denial of the correlativity of truth and goodness. “Truth” is at best typically regarded as a description of factuality. “Goodness” is sentimentalized or subjectivized, not a matter for public, rational discussion.

In The Desire of the Nations, moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan described the fate of political communities that have marginalized the Good and trivialized Truth:

“Because the normal content of political communication . . . has come to be the conflict of competing wills, speech has lost its orientation to deliberation on the common good and has come to serve the assertion of competing interests. . . . ’Demonstrations’ aimed at communicating anger or menace, rather than argument or reason, are viewed with complacency as proof of a liberal and open society.”

The demonstrations of recent months have obviously not promoted argument or reason about how we might improve our shared life together. The slogans that appear on placards, T-shirts, banners, and ball caps are asserted with an air of arrogant invulnerability. “Agree with me (and my thousands of co-belligerents) or else.” Some pundits have wrung their hands at the destructive spirit of these demonstrations, and seen them as a failure of civility. We cannot repair the torn fabric of our nation, they warn, until we address one another with kindness and respect. Others lament the irrational mood of these increasingly heated displays of conviction and call for a return to the values of the Enlightenment, which established political life on rational foundations. But there are good reasons to interpret the angry irrationality of these demonstrations — and the millions of similarly spirited op-ed pieces, blog posts, faculty memos, tweets, and sidewalk trash-talking — as the culmination of the Enlightenment’s fatally flawed conception of reason.

During the past year, some commentators have compared the recent demonstrations to the raucous events of the 1960s and 70s. Sometimes these comparisons are made to assure is that there really is nothing to worry about in our political life, because these sorts of things happen all the time. But the fact that symptoms are chronic is no warrant for the assumption that there is nothing seriously disordered. If our epidemic of violent demonstrations is like that of fifty years ago, maybe we can understand the ailment better with the help of thoughtful diagnosticians who observed that outbreak. 

Literary critic Wayne C. Booth (1920-2005) was on the faculty of the University of Chicago during the demonstrations of the late 1960s. He witnessed first hand the stand-off between students — who understood themselves as the defenders of values — and faculty and administrators — who saw their institution as a bastion of reason. Each side in this battle was suspicious of the other, because both sides accepted the long-standing dogma of Enlightenment culture that separated “facts” (the raw material of reason) and “values.” 

In 1971, while many cities and campuses were still roiling from violent confrontations, Booth gave the Ward-Phillips Lectures in English Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame. The content of those lectures was expanded and published in 1974 as Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (University of Chicago Press). Booth believed that the uneasy tension that was increasingly evident across the American social and political landscape — and in the West more generally — was a symptom of the fact that “we have lost our faith in the very possibility of finding a rational path through any thicket that includes what we call value judgments.” Anticipating Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, which diagnosed in philosophical terms the common assumption that all value judgments were simply expressions of irrational preference, Booth used the tools of rhetoric to critique “the belief that you cannot and indeed should not allow your values to intrude upon your cognitive life — that thought and knowledge and fact are on one side and affirmations of value on the other.”

In the book’s Introduction, Booth affirms “the belief that the primary mental act of man is to assent to truth rather than to detect error, ‘to take in’ and even ‘to be taken in’ rather than ‘to resist being taken in.’” The mental world we have inherited from the Enlightenment has made us very adept at being suspicious of claims made by others, but bereft of the skills of changing our minds when we ought to. He summarizes the project of his lectures and book as the promotion of “a view of rhetoric as the whole art of discovering and sharing warrantable assertion.”

Here are some other introductory explanations from Booth’s book:

“Instead of pursuing ways of testing values in public discourse, defenders of value have often enough simply accepted the fact-value distinction and then leapt blindly for the value side. Convinced that reason’s domain is a tiny little cold corner of man’s life — whatever can be proved or disproved by scientific method — these counter-dogmatists feel free to assert any value that ‘feels’ right. Since acceptance of the dichotomy — whether by men of reason or men of faith — is often taken as the key test of modernity, I shall call the whole collection of dogmas that spring from it modernism, even though the term has often meant other things.

“The characteristic debate of modernists is a kind of meaningless logomachy between the adherents of reason or knowledge or science and the adherents of values or faith or feeling or wisdom or ‘true knowledge.’ Each of these two main sects — which I shall for shorthand call the scientismists and the irrationalists — can easily show the absurdities of the other, but the polemical displays of either side are so far from engaging the real issues that they often seem to confirm, in their demonstration that meaningful argument about such matters is impossible, the very distinction on which the war is based. . . .

“[I]t is probably accurate to say that from the seventeenth century until quite recently, it grew increasingly unfashionable to see the universe or world or nature or ‘the facts’ as implicating values.. . .

“It is really only in the last seventy-five years or so that the fact-value split became a truism and that the split began to entail the helplessness of reason in dealing with any values but the calculation of means to ends. I cannot trace here the story of the rise and fall of the disjunction, and of various conclusions thought to follow from it. Suffice it to say that by now it has been attacked everywhere, yet it survives everywhere, survives as strongly in the thought of many who defend values as in the thought of those who cling to positivist notions of scientific value.”