A reader who comments under the name “candles” writes in the comments box of the Moralistic Therapeutic Journalism thread:
There is a powerful strain in the academy in the humanities these days that is fundamentally antagonistic to the Enlightenment. They do believe in power and narratives. They don’t believe (when it suits them) in the possibility of empirical facts or reason – rather, they do believe that empirical facts and reason are just a narrative for perpetuating power. (My wife is an english professor, so this colors what I’m about to say)
I think you can see this split in the old C. P. Snow “two cultures” story. The sciences, whatever their limits, are based on the older Enlightenment values of scepticism – the solution to failings of human cognition and perception are to create structures, institutions, norms, and processes to try to protect us from those failings in our pursuit of truth. Journalism, at its best, by my lights, draws from that tradition.
This more recent strain in the humanities seems to take the complete opposite tack – because human cognition is so fallible, we should abandon, entirely, the possibility of finding processes that help guard us from our failings in the quest for finding better approximations for some external truth. Instead, there is only theory and advocacy.
Hence, if you ask how we can verify the existence of “rape culture”, you’re a “rape apologist”. Because suggesting that “rape culture” is something that should be verifiable or quantifiable is, already, perpetuating “rape culture”.
But this is the nut of the problem with claiming someone can’t be both a journalist and an advocate. It requires believing that the practices of journalists, the pursuit of external truth, is an actually possible activity, rather than just one more set of practices for propping up the existing hegemonic power structure. If you’re talking with someone who doesn’t believe that truth of that sort can ever exist, then those critiques obviously fall on deaf ears.
I don’t see a way out, short of flushing out the Augean Stables of the most corrupted parts of the humanities in our colleges.
The problem isn’t that people have anti-Enlightenment views. The problem is that we have credentialing bodies that propagate these views as though they were the highest achievements of human knowledge, rather than the ill-tempered secular religions that they pretty obviously are.
What a great launching pad for a discussion. There are people on the Right — traditionalists (including perennialists and Christians), neoreactionaries, et al. — who are also quite skeptical of the Enlightenment, even opposed to it, though for different reasons. The Wikipedia entry on Counter-Enlightenment is fairly helpful showing what both sides have in common:
What seems to unite all of the Enlightenment’s disparate critics (from 18th century religious opponents, counter-revolutionaries and Romantics to 20th century conservatives, feminists, critical theorists and environmentalists) is a rejection of what they consider to be the Enlightenment’s perversion of reason: the distorted conceptions of reason of the kind each associates with the Enlightenment in favour of a more restricted view of the nature, scope and limits of human rationality.
However, very few of the enemies of the Enlightenment have abandoned reason entirely. The battle has been over the scope, meaning and application of reason, not over whether it is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, essential or inessential per se. The conflict between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment is not a conflict between friends and enemies of reason, any more than it is between friends and enemies of the notion of enlightenment.
Although objections have consistently been raised against what has been taken as the typical Enlightenment view of reason by its opponents (on all points of the ideological spectrum, left, right, and centre), this has almost never been generalised to reason as such by Counter-Enlightenment thinkers. Some charge that the Enlightenment inflated the power and scope of reason, while others claim that it narrowed it.
In my view, rationality errs when it claims to be able to discover the entire truth unaided by revelation. I think we ought to be far more modest about what can be accomplished through reason alone, and generally skeptical of reason’s claims. That said, reason is a powerful tool for discovering truth, even if it cannot determine the entire truth about all things. There is no more important methodological tool for a journalist, but it must be deployed with a realization that it cannot illuminate all there is to see. There is always more to the story, more than anyone can know. The lack of omniscience does not necessitate complete ignorance.
I have found that the confessional has helped me understand both the power and the limits of the human intellect. Going to regular confession as part of my Christian life has forced me to use my reason to search my own heart critically, and to uncover ways I have deceived myself and others. This search never ends. There are things that I find in the confessional that have been there for years, but that I had never seen. I have come to be a lot more skeptical than I used to be about my ability to know things fully, especially myself. There is always more to learn. Reason is a penlight and a rope line for travelers lost on a pitch-black night. It can help you walk without falling into a ditch or off the cliff, and it can help you see where you’ve been so you don’t double back, but it doesn’t tell you where you are going, nor is it strong enough to tell you what is all around you beyond where your light can shine.
I am skeptical of the Enlightenment because I think too much has been claimed for reason’s power, absent revealed religion and tradition. But it’s not like reason only came into the world with the Enlightenment. One can be skeptical of the Enlightenment while still believing that that the world is comprehensible to us. If one believes that Truth exists, then one has to be grateful for reason’s ability to help us discover Truth and live by it. But if one believes there is no such thing as Truth, only Power, and that reason is nothing more than arguments constructed to justify will to power, we are well and truly lost.
Your thoughts are welcome.