CRF Blog

Reason and the Republic of Opinion

by Bill Hayes

In Reason and the Republic of Opinion for the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier looks at “how to improve opinion in a republic of opinions.”

One of the most absurd charges against reason is that it is authoritarian. The postwar Marxist intellectuals who conflated reason with “instrumental reason” and “instrumental reason” with authoritarianism helped to perpetuate this canard. There is nothing rational about tyranny: it is stupid and it is mad. Its “rationality,” which is to say, its internal coherence and its capacity to function, is not the same as reason. Quite the contrary: it is reason that exposes this rationality for what it really is. More importantly, reason is essentially anti-authoritarian because a rational discussion is never closed. (Whereas nothing shuts down a conversation more brusquely than an emotion.) That is why modern thinkers still engage with ancient thinkers. That is why science never ends. New objections and new findings are always welcome. In the war against reason in much of contemporary philosophy, one of the cleverest tricks is to present reason’s rigor, its insistence upon the importance of the inquiry into truth and falsehood, as discouraging to thought. But the contrary is the case. What could be more encouraging to thought than the belief in the possibility of intellectual progress? This is a gathering to which all minds are invited. They have merely to agree to behave like minds. But then minds are not supposed to behave like hearts.

Reason frightens some people, but reason is never as frightening as its opposite.

“The God of my heart is the God of my mind,” wrote Hermann Cohen. Leave God out of it for a moment: I have never known quite how to read that sentence. The union that it extols seems to liquidate the benefits of our multiplicity. Did he mean that the mind will be like the heart or that the heart will be like the mind? Either way, he was performing an amputation.

The application of reason to public affairs is sometimes confused with technocracy. Yet there are no technocrats of first principles, no specialists in what to believe. Some people regard themselves as such experts, of course; but too much authority is conceded to them. Good judgment cannot be prescribed or outsourced. There are no blue-ribbon panels on truth and goodness. The responsibility for belief falls equally on all of us. The search for values, and for the grounds of values, is catch-as-catch-can: it may lead the thoughtful individual to books, to films, to travel, to participation, to conversation, to friendship and love, as the long work of mental clarification proceeds. A sense of the provisional about one’s view of the world is usually a sign of intellectual probity: most conviction exists in the vast cold space between perfect obscurity and perfect certainty. The thoughtful individual is condemned to an existence of corrections and amplifications, both analytical and empirical, in which Jamesian leaps are the selfish indulgences of impatient minds.

An open mind is not an empty mind. [more]