I wrote the following on Monday morning, and haven't had time to follow up on the thoughts. I'll post it now and get back to this later in case hell freezes over and someone wants to comment on it.
N.B.: The following post draws on a few gross oversimplifications. Please take these generalizations with several grains of salt. I employ them for the sake of communicating some general thoughts based on recent experiences of mine.
This semester is a strange one for me, in terms of coursework. It's far more analytic or Anglo-American than any semester I've had previously, and I find myself reading many things that I strongly disagree with.
Nevertheless, I am a firm advocate of gaining familiarity with alternative positions on just about any matter. I am not monistic regarding truth; as far as I'm concerned, there are many viable interpretations in life, even though some are better or worse in certain respects in particular contexts. In this way I view myself as something of a postmodernist, in a loose sense of the term.
That said, I am open to a wide range of views and even those views I disallow on principle (dogmatism, absolutism, anti-pluralism, etc.) I still take some interest in understanding from the perspective of their adherents. This is particularly so if a view is held by those I regard as thoughtful, generally reasonable people, but also if a belief is popular and influential.
This morning, I found myself reacting strongly to a piece of writing I was reading for the seminar I'm auditing on contemporary ethics. Suffice to say that it was the work of a very serious neo-Kantian (Christine Korsgaard) who makes outrageous claims such as, and I quote, "Enlightenment morality is true."
Dogmatism about the authority of reason rubs me the wrong way. Kant, in particular, bothers me because of his univocal approach to the interpretation of ethical action: why should I believe that my action is describable in only one particular way (i.e., that it has a unique maxim)? How can we expect to get from the most abstract formalism to concrete human experience?
Korsgaard does an admirable job bringing Kant into the 21st century, but I'm content to leave him back in the 18th. She claims to be naturalistic in a way, but real she is just trying to reintroduce teleology into nature. I mean, she even cites Aristotle as having the best account of animal life! Give me a f-ing break! She clearly doesn't have even the most basic understanding of modern biology.
So, I found myself writing all of these interjections and occasionally rude comments in the margins. It was very difficult for me to be charitable, although I occasionally felt she made some good points.
(I'll even grant that Kant has at least 2 good ethical insights: 1) that persons should never be treated merely instrumentally as things; 2) that we cannot make ethical decisions, or any decisions for that matter, without operating under the practical idea of freedom.)
I regard Kant, Korsgaard, and all these other neo-Kantians, as consummate modernists, in a broad sense. These are people who more or less accord ultimate authority to human reason.
Well, upon finishing this text, I soon thereafter began reading something different for my seminar on the philosophy of religion. Soon, I found myself longing for something Kantian!
A word to the wise: never read Cornelius Van Til. I cannot decide if he is ignorant, idiotic, or insane. Hands down, this is the worst text--the most simplistic, the most disgusting, the most offensive, and quite frankly the most dangerous--that I have ever had to read for a class.
The man claims to be Christian, but Manichaean is a far more accurate description. He distinguishes between: 1) the Christian view and 2) the non-Christian view.
Oh, but he's not quite that simple. You see, he makes a distinction between different Christian views. You have the Romanists and Protestant evangelicals who maintain that man has some degree of autonomy, and then there are the Reformists (i.e., the right ones) who uncompromisingly maintain that man is absolutely subordinate to God.
He makes no distinction between different non-Christian positions.
You see, all non-Christian positions maintain that man has the final say, that his reason is the absolute authority. Van Til mentions Kant here as the main advocate of such a position. I didn't realize that a Christian like Kant perfectly encapsulated the only alternative to a Christian position, but that goes to show what I know.
Van Til is a decidedly premodern thinker. He's so out of touch that postmodernism isn't even on his radar screen. It is unfortunate that he espouses a view that roughly parallels that of a huge swath of humanity, that is, if they had the capacity to articulate it.
I make this contrast between premodern, modern, and postmodern--and unlike Van Til I readily acknowledge that these are very loose categories that are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive of all possibilities--in the light of another recent experience in class.
I am taking a seminar on contemporary democratic theory, centering on the notion of deliberative democracy. (For those of you keeping score, my fourth seminar is on Descartes.) After reading people like Habermas, who is also very Kantian, I found myself having a very similar reaction as the one I expressed with Korsgaard. The distinction between power and legitimate authority is not so very hard and fast, as far as I'm concerned.
And yet, our professor made a very good point that really struck me. Even though some of these democratic theories may seem impracticable, compared to the naked use of power that dominates American politics today, they are far, far preferable. At least these theorists feel a need to give reasons, justifications for political actions.
This really hit a chord with me. When I was doing research for a paper on Habermas and Foucault, I was struck by how Foucault, and others who are labeled as postmodernists, are sometimes interpreted as conservatives. I've also noticed a kind of similarity in discussions with more conservative friends. We tend to be equally critical of liberals, at least insofar as we are skeptical about the primacy of "neutral" rationality and excessive individualism.
However, when I read someone like Van Til or listen to someone like Bush, I know I am dealing with positions that are far more dangerous than even the most dogmatic, scientistic, rationalistic, reductionistic modernist. Modern science may be responsible for the atom bomb, but it's the primitive Christian belief in a coming apocalypse that is more likely to result in worldwide nuclear war.
When I teach, I also find myself in this position of advocating reason as necessary for humankind. I am torn between a strategic employment of the modernist appeal to authoritative reason, and sympathies to a postmodern position that acknowledges the irrational realities of human life. However, this postmodern view has gained sway in me, largely as a result of reason's critique of itself--again, understanding this in a broad sense.