This is the fourth in a series of essays about Jonathan Rauch’s new book, The Constitution of Knowledge. This series is sponsored by Claremont McKenna’s Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom.
Aurelian Craiutu is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington and Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center, Washington, D.C. He is currently completing a new book manuscript Letters to Young Radicals: How to be a Moderate, to be published by Cambridge University Press.
“Not the violent conflicts between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil; there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides.”
J. S. Mill, On Liberty
Every year, I teach John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a classic book that defends freedom of speech and thought against the tyranny of public opinion and illegitimate government interference. This is one of the books that should be mandatory reading for all those who (still) care about the fate of our open society and liberal education today. On Liberty is often taught in universities and many profess to share its ideas in theory. But are we really willing to follow Mill’s recommendations in practice?
Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge (The Brookings Institution, 2021) and Gary Saul Morson and Morton Shapiro’s Minds Wide Shut (Princeton University Press, 2021), are not afraid to swim against the current. Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer to The Atlantic, is a classical liberal who does not shy away from criticizing the threats from both the illiberal left and right. Gary Saul Morson is a distinguished professor of Slavic literature and humanities at Northwestern University who found a perfect collaborator in Morton Shapiro, the President of Northwestern and an economist by training, to reflect on how the new fundamentalisms divide us and what can we do to resist them.
Reading these provocative books at a point in time when something is deeply wrong with our politics and public debates is particularly important and rewarding. They are critical of the effects of epistemic tribalism and digital media on our lives, that raise the specter of “epistemic secession” by creating cultic bubbles in which we live as prisoners of our own dogmas. In Rauch’s view, the best thing we can do is to defend what he calls “the Constitution of Knowledge,” based on an “open-ended, depersonalized checking by an error-seeking social network” as the only validator of knowledge in the reality-based community.
Two key rules undergird the “Constitution of Knowledge.” According to the fallibilist rule, “no one gets the final say” and everyone must assume one’s own and everyone else’s fallibility, constantly looking for errors and seeking to correct them. Knowledge advances by falsification, based on conjectures and refutations, implying that anyone can be wrong, and no one may claim to have settled a debate for good. We participate in an open-ended conversation, respect facts, and follow the standards of civility. According to the empirical rule, “no one has personal authority,” the rules apply to everybody. Claims to authority that pretend to have a privileged perspective in virtue of belonging to a profession or a group are unacceptable. “If I claim that my class or race or historically dominant status or historically oppressed status allows me to know and say things which others cannot,” Rauch comments, “then I am breaking the empirical rule by exempting my views from contestability by others.”
Along with freedom of expression and toleration of diversity, open contestation and criticism are essential components of the constitution of knowledge. We participate in “the marketplace of persuasion” in which we defend rationally our ideas, subject them to criticism, and admit error, when appropriate. In Rauch’s view, the reality-based community is represented by journalism, research, science, and law. The world of journalism is based on respect for facts and rigorous fact-checking. Governmental agencies compile statistics, conduct research, and develop scientific regulations. Finally, judges, lawyers, and legal scholars gather facts and survey legislation and regulations. The parallel with the U.S. Constitution is evident. Just as checks and balances make the latter simultaneously stable and adaptable to new developments, so public checking and accountability make the Constitution of Knowledge simultaneously firm and dynamic, by dint of “an orderly, decentralized and impersonal social adjudication.”
By drawing on a wide array of literary, economic, political and economic, sources, Morson and Shapiro’s book offers a sobering survey of the various forms of dogmatism that have come to dominate our political, economic, and academic life. It can be read as an update of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Minds Wide Shut sounds the alarm about the various forms of fundamentalisms and creed wars that threaten our democratic way of life. It provides an eye-opening portrait of the fundamentalist mindset that includes self-righteousness and absolute certainty, categorical thinking, propensity to monologue and simplification of reality, absence of doubt, intolerance toward diversity and inability to compromise, zero-sum mentality, and Manichaeism.
Both books challenge ideological litmus tests that politicize everything, beginning with our personal lives and ending with our curricula and business transactions. The authors have little patience for virtue signaling, “emotional safetyism,” and group think and question the widespread propensity to performative cancelling and the demands for ideological purity and conformity that stifle freedom of expression and originality. They call for embracing empiricism, respect for facts, genuine pluralism, and “viewpoint” diversity, but without any kind of zealotry, and never losing sight of our fallibility and biases. Both volumes suggest that it is no easier to escape our bubbles than to leave a cult. As such, they are, in different ways, timely invitations for liberals and conservatives alike to revisit their own commitments and principles at a moment when the survival of open society can no longer be taken for granted.
Although “moderation” is surprisingly absent from the indices of both books, the two volumes illustrate, in different ways, why moderation remains an indispensable virtue for courageous minds willing to swim against the current. But it is a particular type of moderation that I have in mind. Not the milk toast version that is derided in the media as the weak virtue of the lukewarm and the losers, but a “fighting faith” that does not shy away from questioning our cherished beliefs, certitudes, and tribal identities. This is a form of thinking without bannisters that represents an alternative to ideological thinking. It is not a philosophy for coddled minds that require trigger warnings and safe spaces. On the contrary, it challenges us to be simultaneously eccentric and eclectic and practice the (lost) art of civil disagreement.
What does that mean? First, to disagree well we need to cultivate the spirit of liberty. The attacks on and the erosion of our democratic institutions and norms almost always begin with assaults on the spirit of liberty closely linked to the democratic way of life. But what is the spirit of liberty? It is not easy to define it. According to Justice Learned Hand, “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of those men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own.” As such, the spirit of liberty reflects human imperfection and is inseparable from skepticism and doubt. Aware of our imperfect knowledge and limited understanding, we must always operate with a grain of doubt and a reserve clause and never forget that our points of view remain contingent, and imperfect.
Second, when disagreeing with others, we must try to understand well. While disagreement is to be expected in the open society, it must be accompanied by reliance on (real) facts and rational criticism. For that to happen, we should never think of ourselves as infallible moral authorities entitled to exclude or shut down those who disagree with us. We should admit that in normal politics, we have only opponents, not enemies. We must avoid seeing the world in black-and-white and refrain from rash pronouncements before we gather all the available facts, evaluate them, and consider all reasonable interpretations of them. We must do our homework by reading and collecting evidence and be prepared to revise our views considering new evidence while treating opponents with respect.
That is why, as Mill put it, “the steady habit of correcting and completing [our] own opinion by collating it with those of others is the only stable foundation” for our beliefs. This is a simultaneously simple and demanding requirement, and it is not a mere accident that the quote appears in both books. It reminds us that we must keep our minds open to criticism by listening to all that could be said against us. Our opponents are invaluable because they help improve our arguments and point out possible flaws in our arguments, claims, and beliefs. We should learn to treat our disagreements as a whetting stone to sharpen our own views and increase our tolerance for discordant ideas to grow and mature intellectually.
That is why viewpoint diversity is a non-negotiable principle essential to our mental and social progress. For that, we need strong and intelligent opponents and critics. If they do not exist, then “it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skillful devil’s advocate can conjure up.” We can in fact go a step further and pray with Mill “Lord, enlighten Thou our enemies!” For “we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom” what we should fear is their weakness, not their strength. If we try to censor someone, we deny ourselves and future generations the opportunity to test our beliefs and correct them.
Both books show what happens when we fail to take precautions against our own propensity to error and ignore the wise advice “May the other side also be heard!” A democratic way of life is not possible among people with no beliefs who are ready to believe anything, but it is equally impossible in the presence of those who have only certainties and are unwilling to compromise. As Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld showed in In Praise of Doubt (2009), it is always difficult to deal with people who have no doubts whatsoever. They tend to be sectarian and intransigent and embrace a politics of faith, grounded in absolute claims and litmus tests meant to sort out the impure or unfaithful ones. For them, politics is always a zero-sum game, and their moral intransigence derives from their belief that they alone possess the truth.
The spirit of moderation is opposed to all that. It understands that human and political tensions can never be solved by miraculous panaceas, be it from science, education or reason. “No panacea!” is the motto of every moderate, along with “Nobody has the final say!” As such, the spirit of moderation admits no dogmas and recognizes the relativity of all human perspectives. It embraces eclecticism and accepts the complexity of the world, refusing to over-simplify it. The world can be seen through many lenses, each of which offers a unique and potentially valuable perspective. Thus understood, being eclectic amounts to being realistic, recognizing that conflict and disagreement about varying conceptions of the good life are not only inevitable, but also healthy if they are properly channeled through solid institutions. It forces us to admit that there are no final victories, only small steps toward improvement, and sometimes setbacks.
This type of moderation as a form of eclecticism is not incompatible with the firmness demanded by those who thirst for resoluteness based on moral clarity. Nothing prevents moderates from being steadfast after having carefully considered all the facts and available options. Yet their decisiveness never turns to dogmatism, unlike those who demand moral clarity, a catchy concept but also a dangerous one. While it is true that, to use Senator John McCain’s words, “No great nation can abandon the obligations of moral clarity for the convenience of situational ethics,’ it is also true that moral clarity remains a polemical term often used rhetorically. It was initially introduced by the Right in the 1980s, in the fight against communism led by Ronald Reagan. Two decades later, it was employed in the war against terror and has been invoked to justify the use of evil and inhuman means in the pursuit of allegedly good causes.
Today, moral clarity and purity have become an obsession on the Left as well. The push for moral clarity encourages crude hyperbole and simplification. It leaves little room, for genuine disagreement and open-ended exploration once one thinks to have achieved moral clarity on any complex subject. No more questions, no more answers needed; there is only one (right) side to the story. This confidence comes at a high price. When we settle for one story, choose to see reality through one single prism, and pretend to be tolerant, our minds become “wide shut” and enter an alternative reality. If we believe (with Wesley Lowery) that the traditional view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-led type of journalism, seeking to reveal both sides of a story is a “failed experiment,” then we say good-bye to facts and step into a fictional land with heroes who must be praised and villains who should be denounced. For anyone holding such a view, there is no room for doubt or nuances; eclecticism is a sin.
But do we really need eclecticism and, if so, why? There are many possible answers to these questions. First, as Montaigne suggests, we ourselves are eclectic beings, made up of bits and pieces, woven together so diversely and so shapelessly that each one of them pulls its own way at every moment. We have overlapping identities, passions, and attachments. Second, by choosing eclecticism, we refuse to over-simplify reality and reject ideological straitjackets.
A final justification has to do with the world itself, which has many lights and perspectives and can be seen through many windows. In the great practical concerns of life, Mill argued, truth is eclectic, “a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites.” That is why we must have the courage to become politically pragmatic and refuse to blindly follow the dogmas promoted by the self-anointed priests of our tribes. In political life, unlike geometry, there are no apodictic axioms and very few straight lines. Eclecticism becomes inevitable given the complexity of political life. Every issue has so many pros and cons that it requires us to be flexible and eclectic.
When asked to define his beliefs, Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell described himself as an eclectic: “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” In Bell’s view, eclecticism was a coherent response to the complexity of modern society which has different realms responding to different norms, various rhythms of change, and is regulated by different, even contrary, axial principles. In complex modern societies in which there is no longer a single central cockpit, it is possible for someone to be simultaneously a social-democrat in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.
Dialogue, moderation, and compromise remain the lifeblood of liberal democracy that requires an unending exchange—and testing—of ideas and cannot survive without a reality-based network. All that demands a lot of effort from us. “Most people would rather have dental surgery than confront strange new ideas,” Rauch writes. Few seem ready to follow Mill’s agenda in practice, even when they profess to be open-minded and tolerant. The Constitution of Knowledge and Mind Wide Shut cannot solve all our problems, but they point in the right direction with admirable clarity. They help diagnose our current maladies and allow us to better understand the long and bumpy road ahead.