To save public debate, we must rescue academic philosophy from its self-induced irrelevance.
Earlier this month, I took part in a lively panel discussion concerning polarization in the church and civil society during the 2018 Catholic Social Ministries Gathering in Washington, D.C. A person in a job like mine is often called upon to take part in events like this. As a result, I often find I am repeating myself, though I may be the only one in the room who knows it. After all, how many fresh insights into faith and public life can one individual have? Still, from time to time, something new hits me—not exactly an epiphany, perhaps, but some greater clarity about a problem.
Just a few minutes into our conversation about the causes of polarization, as I surveyed the crowd of 300 or so Catholic ministers, it dawned on me that one of the primary causes of polarization is the almost instinctive belief that it is something that is mainly caused by someone else. It seemed that few of us in the hotel ballroom thought that we might in some way be a part of the problem, by what we have done and failed to do. Our presupposition was that polarization was something that was happening to us, rather than something we might be causing. And we were quick to point the finger at various suspects, President Trump chief among them. But while Mr. Trump is an uncommonly cynical manipulator of polarization—and its principal beneficiary—he is not its primary cause.
The first causes of polarization, as well as of the fierce ideological partisanship that fuels it, antedate Mr. Trump’s political ascent by decades. It reminds me of something the late W. Norris Clarke, S.J., used to tell me during my philosophy tutorials: Moral crises are preceded by metaphysical and epistemological confusion. In other words, the cause of the present lies in our past: more tectonic social changes; previous shifts in our collective and individual understandings of the nature of the world and how we come to know it. What I like about this way of thinking is that it is inclusive. These social and political phenomena, in other words, are not things that merely happen to us, but events we actively participate in and are responsible for. It puts the “we” back in “we the people.”
These social and political phenomena, in other words, are not things that merely happen to us, but events we actively participate in and are responsible for.
There is also a “we” in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” As the late John Courtney Murray, S.J., observed, that famous phrase involves an important philosophical presupposition—namely, that truths exist and that we hold some of them. If they are self-evident, moreover, then these truths are objective realities; they exist independently of whether we think they do. In recent decades, however, an important socio-cultural shift has taken place. More and more we now live in a world where truth, rather than something we discover, an objective reality that presents itself to our subjective judgements, is instead something individuals make and determine for themselves. If that is the case, then the claim that there are self-evident truths that we collectively hold becomes meaningless, and the public argument descends into a cacophony of emotive self-assertions, which lend themselves to polarization.
You see the problem. The solution is not so clear. A recovery of the philosophical milieu of the Declaration of Independence seems unrealistic. Still, even if the solution is unclear, the method of devising the solution is well established. It is called philosophy. By philosophy I do not mean wearing a black turtleneck, smoking clove cigarettes and wondering whether trees dream. I mean rather the art and science of argument, which exposes the deeper meaning, coherence and relevance of various propositions, like “all men are created equal.”
What’s clear to me is that the public debate is devoid of such rigor and that we must restore it if we are to discern a collective path forward. In order to do that, however, we must first rescue academic philosophy from its largely self-induced irrelevance.
Here is where Catholic schools especially can make a difference. “The truest boast of the Catholic university,” Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. once wrote in America, “is that they are committed to adequacy of knowledge, which in effect means that philosophy and theology are cherished as special ways of knowing, of ultimate importance.”
Of course, one can be an informed and engaged citizen without philosophical training. Most of us are. But without public intellectuals trained in philosophy and its methods to guide our public argument, chaos will surely ensue. “As a public philosophy,” Father Murray wrote, “the American consensus needs to be constantly argued. If the public argument dies from disinterest, or subsides into the angry mutterings of polemic, or rises to the shrillness of hysteria, or trails off into positivistic triviality, or gets lost in a morass of semantics, you may be sure that the barbarian is at the gates of the city.”