“Once one actually delves into the positions put forward by many of members of the Intellectual Dark Web, it becomes clear they are just as fallible as their intellectual opponents.”
Earlier last week Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs published a provocative analysis of Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. The op-ed went by the provocative title “The World’s Most Annoying Man.” Robinson made the case that Steven Pinker was prone to presenting contentious political and social claims as though they were self-evidently reasonable. He castigated Pinker and affiliated thinkers for the bad habit of simply assuming that their conclusions would be acceptable to all individuals who think reasonably and concurrently suggesting that anyone who disagrees with them is simply being unreasonable.
As a matter of full disclosure, I should highlight that I haven’t read Pinker’s latest opus. But Robinson’s analysis did strike a chord with me, since the characteristics he described with impressive bite were all too familiar. Pinker is often associated with the other members of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” who made a name for themselves by challenging certain conventions and belief systems typically associated with post-modern leftism. Individuals associated with the Intellectual Dark Web hold a variety of substantive political positions. But what is common to many of them is an insistence that their arguments are based on “reason” or “logic,” while their political opponents are apparently relying on more specious modes of justification. A characteristic statement of this position was given by Sam Harris in an interview with The Sun magazine, which included over a dozen invocations of the notions of reason, reasonableness, and factual reasoning:
“So we need a language that expresses a reasonable awe at the nature of the cosmos and our existence in it. And we need to make this language emotionally moving for people. I think it would be thrilling if we had a temple of reason that presented through ritual our growing scientific understanding of ourselves in the cosmos. Surely we could think of profound, uplifting, scientific things to say at the occasion of somebody’s death.”
In this brief article I want to show why these various appeals to reason and logic by the Intellectual Dark Web are more of a rhetorical trope than a sustained argument. Once one actually delves into the positions put forward by many of members of the Intellectual Dark Web, it becomes clear that they are just as fallible as their intellectual opponents.
The Problem With Reason
“I am afraid it is a practice much too common in inquiries of this nature to attribute the cause of feelings which merely arise from mechanical structures of our bodies, or from the natural frame and constitution of our minds, to certain conclusions of the reasoning faculty on the objects presented to us; for I should imagine that the influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed.”
– Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry Into the Sublime and the Beautiful
One of the problems with all these myriad invocations of reason, logic, and facticity, is that they are relatively surface appeals which evade complex difficulties. I will analyze several of these before discussing how these difficulties pertain to the Intellectual Dark Web.
Firstly, one of the questions immediately raised when someone is ostentatious enough to identify as the “reasonable” party in the room is who actually dismisses reason? Is there any serious commentator who claims to be opposed to reason, or to base their positions purely on irrational faith or emotion? That is a highly implausible claim. What often happens in these circumstances isn’t that the opposing party doesn’t care about reason—but that they believe the proper employment of careful reasoning would lead to different conclusions. Or in more difficult cases, an opposing party may simply reject the conception of reason they are confronted with.
Consider a few examples from the Intellectual Dark Web. Ben Shapiro is known for his mantra that, “Facts don’t care about your feelings” and his denigration of leftists as relying primarily on emotion rather than logical reasoning. Yet in the abortion debate, he has consistently missed the main point that very few people argue that a fetus isn’t a certain kind of life. What they contend with is that it is a fully human life which warrants the same moral consideration and legal protections as anyone else. This is, in part, because Shapiro has reasoned to different conclusions than his opponents relied on a highly contentious vision of what constitutes a fully human life. It is not because his opponents are driven by an excess of emotion towards women’s liberation.
Post-modern genealogists like Foucault believed that history is the ultimate discipline since only it can showcase the way different discourses about the world emerged and fell. Empiricists like Stephen Hicks insist that the real world is the objective one we experience. Given these striking divergences, simply invoking reason as a trope clarifies very little about why we should take one’s opinion as true.
Or take the more difficult example of Jordan Peterson’s consistent denigration of post-modern neo-Marxism as a kind of relativistic claim that any argument is as good as another. Ignoring that this is not actually what figures like Foucault and Derrida said, what becomes obvious is that Peterson’s objection is not really the argument put forward for these skeptical conclusions. It is that he does not like the conclusions, and so he rejects the conception of reason he thinks leads to them. But this is not really an argument. One may be faced with conclusions one seriously dislikes but nevertheless has to concede that the argument for them is strong or at least plausible. In this case Peterson is simply unwilling to concede that there might be some argumentative validity to a conception of reasoning he rejects because the conclusions they reach strike him as dissatisfying. Actually debunking the so-called post-modern neo-Marxists would mean thoroughly engaging with their work to show where they made serious errors in their historical and philosophical reasoning.
In each of these cases, we are not really confronted with a contest between reason and unreason, so much as between different argumentative conclusions in the first place and different conceptions of reasoning in the second. Shapiro and his opponents in the abortion debate are both trying to make reasoned arguments; the question is which is more convincing. In the second case, Peterson and the post-modernists reach divergent conclusions based on different conceptions of sound reasoning, and the question becomes which is more philosophically rigorous and helpful. This brings me to my second point.
Invoking reason and logic doesn’t really make sense unless you are able to articulate and defend the particular conception of reason you are actually relying upon. This is important because, as already mentioned, there have been many different conceptions of what constitutes proper reasoning in the history of Western thought. Naturally these differing conceptions have reached starkly divergent conclusions about the nature of the world. Modern Platonists like the logician Kurt Gödel and the physicist Roger Penrose believe that the empirical world is ultimately a screen above the deeper world of pure mathematical truth. Post-modern genealogists like Foucault believed that history is the ultimate discipline since only it can showcase the way different discourses about the world emerged and fell. Empiricists like Stephen Hicks insist that the real world is the objective one we experience. Given these striking divergences, simply invoking reason as a trope clarifies very little about why we should take one’s opinion as true.
Different members of the Intellectual Dark Web have delivered variably sophisticated philosophical arguments for what they mean by reason. In The Right Side of History, Ben Shapiro argued that the most impressive variant of reason originated in Ancient Greece—and that we need to look back to figures like Aristotle for guidance on how to think properly. Shapiro is also quite willing to admit that this Grecian reason must be complemented by faith in Judeo-Christian theology. Sam Harris and the aforementioned Stephen Hicks would likely disagree with this position most staunchly, preferring the representational certainty provided by early modern empiricism. Jordan Peterson has occasionally characterized himself as a pragmatist, though this self-identification is notably free of references to the more contemporary post-modern iterations of American pragmatism in the thought of philosophers like Richard Rorty. And, of course, Steven Pinker associates his conception of reason with the thinking of the Enlightenment.
These views differ wildly from one another, often in quite philosophically substantive ways. Moreover they differ from one another almost as radically as many of these figures deviate from the post-modern leftism they claim to disdain. Indeed, many of these authors are, in fact, closer to the post-modern theorists they disdain than their apparent allies in the Intellectual Dark Web. Peterson would probably find that his “functionalist” pragmatism is actually quite a bit closer to that of Jacques Derrida’s, who enjoyed a warm relationship with philosophical pragmatists like Rorty, than it is to the empiricism of Sam Harris. If he looked deeply into their work, Ben Shapiro would likely recognize that his critique of modernity and the meaningless of consumerism is anticipated in the works of the Frankfurt School.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that the Intellectual Dark Web requires a philosophically convincing system to be shared by each member. But what it does demonstrate is how slippery just invoking reason and logic happens to be—when there is widespread disagreement on exactly these questions even within the movement. In some cases, the differences seem irreconcilable, such as when the more religiously inclined Shapiro and Peterson are juxtaposed against militant atheists like Sam Harris. Given this, it would be admirable were these figures to cease presenting their arguments as just basically “reasonable.”
As Robinson pointed out in his initial essay, there is a sense in which invoking reason and logic has become something of a trademark which is asserted and marketed rather than argued for. This has obviously worked out quite well for many members of the Intellectual Dark Web, who have made considerable careers of presenting themselves as the adults in the room. Unfortunately, significant philosophical problems emerge when one looks more deeply into the contentious nature of these claims. One quickly recognizes that the pretense to superior reasonableness is simply that, and that it often distracts from deeper questions, which should be analyzed more carefully and soberly.
One might contend that, even if this were all true, much of this is simply harmless posturing. Even if the Intellectual Dark Web is not characterized by its commitment to reason so much as Reason (TM) does this really matter for all practical purposes? Unfortunately, it does since much of this is not simply harmless posturing. The Intellectual Dark Web is not just concerned to put forward constructive ideas and stimulate debate. Their efforts are aimed at denigrating those on the Left as emotional and irrational, while simultaneously presenting themselves in a more flattering light. These rhetorical tropes may well be effective at selling the brand. But they also make it more difficult to have a serious argument which examines that actual issues at play in these disputes.
If your brand is based on denigrating the opposition as irrational and presenting yourself as reasonable, then naturally no serious argument between positions can be had. One cannot argue with a position that has no rational basis. This may seem like an ideal way to position oneself, until, of course, the same reasoning is applied back to you. For example, members of the Intellectual Dark Web like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro have understandably commented on the lack of fair criticism of their work coming from many progressive commentators. They have also protested that their work is not simply polemic but based on sustained intellectual arguments that warrant being taken seriously. There is some truth to this, and simply dismissing their arguments is a temptation those on the Left would be well advised to avoid.
The problem is that members of the Intellectual Dark Web have contributed to precisely this culture through their own posturing and barbs, not to mention not being especially rigorous or even-handed in dealing with their opponents arguments. If they are genuinely interested in having—dare I say it—a reasonable argument with progressives, they are going to need to take far greater efforts to drop the pretenses and work on actually engaging with what their opponents have to say. Otherwise, their claims to reasonable high mindedness come across as empty.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf