In an age of polarizing ideas and drive-thru catchphrase-solution politics, it is difficult oftentime to engage in a meaningful philosophical debate. What is it to engage fully in meaningful debate? There are often very visible but trite attacks aimed toward one side or another in political debate, as though the meme of the day or a quirky bumper sticker are wholly sufficient to change the course of human discussion. It is entirely a rare commodity to find an evocative debate, not just with those with opposing views to our own, but also with oneself; with your own tightly held beliefs of the way the world should operate. It seems counter intuitive to our own knowledge and understanding that we would question ourselves and our opinions in the search of further knowledge and understanding, especially when that journey may threaten our already cherished belief system.
The domain of the public intellectual is an arena where we would understand such exercise to take place. In a recent blog post writer Stephen Mack explores the possibility of the decline of the public intellectual. He denies such an occurence is happening and in his article argues,
The fiction of America’s anti-intellectualism has been debated adnauseam since Richard Hofstadter popularized the phrase a half-century ago. Without replaying the whole debate, two points will suffice: One, the fact that academic institutions wield enormous financial, technological, and cultural power—and the fact that, more generally, education continues to be the centerpiece of some of our most cherished social myths (i.e., “the “American Dream”)—are both powerful reasons to doubt that Americans suffer from some instinctive hostility to intellectuals. Two, what is sometimes identified as anti-intellectualism is in fact intellectual—that is, a well articulated family of ideas and arguments that privilege the practical, active side of life (e.g., work) over the passive and purely reflective operations of the mind in a vacuum. Hence, for example, when John Dewey built his career as a philosopher on a thoughtful, systematic, elegant, and sustained repudiation of the Cartesian notion of mind and, instead, argued for “experience” as the foundation of human endeavor—he was hardly exposing himself as an anti-intellectual bigot. ‘Nuff said.
The point is a valid criticism. Intellectualism has many forms, and with experience comes reason. In order to sustain my argument I will enlist, who I will argue, is an example of modern public intellect, Charles Taylor…no not that one! The Canadian philosopher known for his opposition to conventional naturalism and his exploration of behavioral attitudes in humanity wrote a series of papers beginning in 1985 entitled Human Agency & Language – Philosophical Papers. In the first paper he argues that man is best understood as both existing as an agent as well as a person. The distinguishing narrative he creates separating the two can best be understood as seeing the agent as a creature able to strategize to achieve its goals and a person as furthering that ability and having a sense of himself and having the ability to choose his values. He affirms that man and animal can each be regarded as agents. In his article, speaking of agents, he states,
To say things matter to agents is to say that we can attribute purposes, desires, aversions to them in a strong, original sense. There is, of course, a sense in which we can attribute purposes to a machine, and thus apply action terms to it. We say of a computing machine that it is, for example, calculating the payroll. But that is because it plays this purpose in our lives. It was designed by us, and is being used by us to do this. Outside of the designer’s or user’s context, the attribution could not be made. What identifies the action is what I want to call here a derivative purpose. The purpose is, in other words, user-relative. If tomorrow someone else makes it run through exactly the same programme, but with the goal of calculating pi to the nth place, then that will be what the machine is ‘doing’.
By contrast, animals and human beings are subjects of original purpose. That the cat is stalking the bird is not a derivative, or observer-relative fact about it. Nor is it a derivative fact about me that I am trying to explain two doctrines of the person.
The distinction that he builds onto man to separate him from the animal world is that he is also able to reason and to choose values, that he can ultimately answer to someone else and explain his situation. He is seen as a respondent and can think critically; he can create subjects of significance; he can attribute meaning to his emotions, and attribute emotions to his meaning.
What is striking about persons, therefore, is their ability to conceive different possibilities, to calculate how to get them, to choose between them, and thus to plan their lives. The striking superiority of man is in strategic power. The various capacities definitive of a person are understood in a terms of this power to plan. Central to this is the power to represent things clearly. We can plan well when we can lay out the possibilities clearly, when we can calculate their value to us in terms of our goals, as well as the probabilities and cost of their attainment. Our choices can then be clear and conscious.
On this view, what is essential to the peculiarly human powers of evaluating and choosing is the clarity and complexity of the computation. Evaluation is assessment in the light of our goals, which are seen ultimately as given, or perhaps as given for one part, and for the rest as arbitrarily chosen. But in either case the evaluation process takes the goal as fixed. ‘Reason is and ought to be, the slave of passions.’ Choice is properly choice in the light of clear evaluation. To the human capacities thus conceived, the power of clear and distinct representation is obviously central.
And here is the point: ‘Reason is and ought to be, the slave of passions.’ There is much by way of criticism toward narrowly defined intellectual endeavor, but Taylor’s assessment that reason is a marker of higher intellectual ability should be used as a modern standard of public intellect.
However, criticism should be due when appropriate. Modern political discourse taking place in the public realm is often colored with an emphasis on passion and not reason. Emotionally charged and polarized discussion often obscures pragmatic discussion with emphasis on supplanting reason for passion. Whether it be the birther movement or the discussion of Mitt Romney’s tyrannical corporate raiding history, the limited scope of public attention afforded to political discussion is often saturated with passionately fused intellectually flatlined partisan smokescreens. Certainly real and meaningful intellectual public discourse often falls far short of the standard needed for effective change to occur, but that is not to say that public intellectuals such as Taylor do not make effective and important contributions to the field of philosophical discussion.
To return to Stephen Mack’s discussion of the decline in public intellectualism in another post he discusses the cleric as a public intellectual. Here he rails against the premise that to be a public intellectual one must leave religious belief at the door. Here he argues,
But Reason has its own set of problems: First, there is America’s own liberal history. In many ways, American political history is the history of activist theologians from the right and the left. These men and women have been intellectuals of a special kind—people whose religious training and experience shaped their vision of a just society and required them to work for it. They have been key players in some of our most important reform movements, from abolitionism, the labor movement, and civil rights to the peace movements of various generations. And second, there is a kind of absurdity to Beinart’s reason. As Hugh Heclo puts it, the insistence that people of faith sanitize their political rhetoric of any religious assumptions “amounts to a demand that religious believers be other than themselves and act publicly as if their faith is of no real consequence.” It’s not only absurd but unfair, some argue, to ask religious intellectuals to disarm their political speech of its fundamental moral rationale.
In an interview with Charles Taylor in 2008 he also rails against those that would attack religious inclusion in modern philosophical debate. Against these critics he says,
I happen to have quite a negative view of these folks. I think their work is very intellectually shoddy. I mean there are two things that perhaps I am just totally allergic to. The first is that they all believe that there really are some knock-down arguments against belief in God. And of course this is something you can only believe if you have a scientistic, reductionist conception and explanation of everything in the world, including human beings. If you do have such a view that everything is to be explained in terms of physics and the movement of atoms and the like, then certain forms of access to God are just closed. For example, there are certain human experiences that might direct us to God, but these would all be totally illusory if everything could be explained in scientific terms. I spend a lot of time reflecting and writing on the various human sciences and how they can be tempted into a kind of reductionism, and not only would I say that the jury is out on that, but I would argue that the likelihood of that turning out to be the proper understanding of human beings is very small. And the problem is that they just assume this reductionistic view.
The second thing I am allergic to is that they keep going on and on about the relationship between religion and violence, which on one level is fine because there is a lot of religiously-caused violence. But what they consistently fail to acknowledge is that the twentieth century was full of various atheists who were rampaging around killing millions of people. So it is simply absurd that at the end of the twentieth century someone would continue to advance the thesis that religion is the main cause of violence. I mean you’d think these people were writing in 1750, and that would be quite understandable if you were Voltaire or Locke, but to say this in 2008, well it just takes my breath away.
But then what we need to do, and this is something many religious people fail to do, is to consider why this phenomena of the new atheism is happening at this time. Atheists are reacting in the same way that religious fundamentalists reacted in the past. They are people who have been very comfortable with a sense that their particular position is what makes sense of everything and so on, and then when they are confronted by something else they just go bananas and throw up the most incredibly bad arguments in a tone of indignation and anger. And that’s the problem with that whole master narrative of secularization, what’s called the secularization thesis, that people got lulled into–you know, that religion is a thing of the past, that it’s disappearing, that it did all these terrible things but it’s going to go away and so on–because when it comes back people are just undone.
It’s an interesting perspective. It’s nigh on impossible to bring one’s own philosophical and political opinions to intense and intellectual debate without also bringing one’s own religious exposure to the mix, whether that exposure be explicit organized religion or the espousal of atheist belief. Our western culture is built upon social embryonic genes of Judeo-Christian values that forbid such absolutes as murder and theft. These values are not open for debate. They are now socially accepted norms, but they are exactly that; socially accepted, and socially constructed. In the current debates surrounding our contemporary issues the intelligent direction of discourse is to follow the admonition of such public intellectuals as Taylor and usurp passion for reason and while doing so recognize the place that religious intellectuals bring to these issues. Does Taylor see religious fundamentalists as well as militant atheists as driving forces of misunderstanding and polarization that drive wedges between opposing attitudes? In one word, “Absolutely!”