“What makes Hochman’s essay far more interesting than the usual screed against academics and critical theory is his effort to locate the cause in the history of Western rationalism and ultimately nihilism.”
Nate Hochman’s Merion West recent article “The Predicament of Contemporary Academia” is one of the better contributions to the minor literature that is conservative commentaries on post-secondary education. Its quality stems from a willingness to actually probe beyond surface controversies about curricula and examine where Hochman believes we went wrong. This requires a deep survey of some foundational issues within Western culture, which he believes contributed to the emergence of critical theory and the propensity to denigrate the tradition as fundamentally oppressive. As Hochman puts it:
“In the modern liberal arts, the Western tradition is increasingly regarded as a symbol of oppression and suffering, and its major achievements are all thought to be emblematic of this inherently oppressive character. When the Stanford protestors petitioned their university to abolish any mandated engagement with the intellectual inheritance of the West, this was the underlying objection: the conviction that Western civilization, particularly for historically marginalized groups, is irredeemably marred by a history of racism, sexism, and any number of other mortal sins. In the context of the modern liberal arts, the consequences of this tectonic shift are difficult to overstate.”
In this piece, I will briefly examine some of the points Hochman makes about the state of the academy before moving on to the more important issues raised in his article.
The State of Post-Secondary Education
Since William F. Buckley’s 1951 book God and Man at Yale, American conservatives have lashed out against the university system. Everyone from Ben Shapiro through Dinesh D’Souza have made their mark with galvanizing works like Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth and Illiberal Education. The quality of these polemics has varied widely, with few rising to the erudition and breadth of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. It is to Hochman’s credit that his work more resembles that of the late Platonist Bloom than the many superficial partisans. Hochman argues that—with the advent of critical theory—we have moved from a classical educational model emphasizing an “initiation” into a venerated culture to a “new understanding,” which emphasized oppression. This constitutes a movement away from the Platonic “formulation of education as a search for the good, the true, and the beautiful.” The result are campuses dominated by activists and faculty determined to “deconstruct” Western civilization rather than learn from its insights.
Let us start with where I agree with Hochman. It is undoubtedly the case that most academics in the humanities and social sciences tend to support Democrats over Republicans. This has historically been true even in the science departments. There are plenty of explanations given for this, from accusations of mere bias in hiring to claims that more educated people will simply tend to have progressive politics. The key question is: Does this matter? After all, plenty of conservatives have pushed against affirmative action programs and other efforts to ensure more equal economic and political representation of minorities. The typical argument is that institutions should not be driven by politicized efforts to be representative—or, at least, not at the expense of rewarding competence. If universities are hiring faculty they think will best advance their ambitions, is it important that many of these individuals happen not to hold conservative views? Or that they are highly critical of Western civilization and its values?
My response is that this depends. Students should learn about the classics of Western civilization as well as conservative views—and should have them taught following the Millsian principle of knowing them in their strongest iterations. This is true even if the students aspire to be critical of the West and conservatism, given that understanding is the first step to criticizing effectively. With that said, students should also encounter works from different cultural and critical perspectives. This is especially true in a liberal arts context where the ambition is to provide a sweeping perspective on humanity as a whole. On the first point, students can learn about virtue ethics as readily from Confucius as from Aristotle, and encountering the former might help broaden their horizons if they have already gone through the requisite Plato. There is no reason St. Thomas cannot occasionally be swapped out for Avicenna as a good example of medieval efforts to reconcile monotheism with Greek philosophy. There is a frequent tendency on the part of right-wing media to react to any efforts to alter hallowed curricula with apocalyptic fire. The endless anxiety about how much Shakespeare students are reading is representative. However, if students are being encouraged to reach out to other cultural traditions (which may also have works of tremendous insight), I do no see that as a loss. If anything such works provide value both in and of themselves and by inspiring cross-cultural understanding.
On the point about excessive criticism, I do agree with Hochman that there is a danger in encouraging students to be critical of traditions they do no fully understand. The basis of radical is the Latin radix after all, which means root. A truly effective radicalism has to be intellectually rooted in the tradition whose limitations it seeks to overcome. This is why works like Capital and The Second Sex still resonate; the authors understood their targets well and took aim with precision. One area where I will take issue with Hochman’s unflagging arguments against critical theory is already signposted in his essay. He invokes the “Socratic love of wisdom” as the traditional guiding principle of a liberal education. Just so. But where this runs afoul is that Socrates’ wisdom was exceedingly anti-traditional. He was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and debasing its Gods: charges which are ironically not that distant from those directed at critical theorists today. Socrates claimed that the reason he was wise was that he alone knew how little he knew, and so he roamed the streets arguing with the staid doxa embodied by Athenian traditions and “conventional wisdom.” This indicates that the critical tradition Hochman takes issue with has a very deep basis within Western culture itself. Indeed one is reminded of Immanuel Kant’s insistence that the very basis of Enlightenment is the rejection of heteronomy (what we might now call ideological hegemony) and a willingness to use one’s own reason to criticize all forms of authority. As Kant put it in “What is Enlightenment?”:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment. Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians.”
This brings me to the more foundational issues brought up in Hochman’s essay.
Rationalism and Nihilism
What makes Hochman’s essay far more interesting than the usual screed against academics and critical theory is his effort to locate the cause in the history of Western rationalism and ultimately nihilism. The two are interconnected in a complex way for Hochman, and I will only be able to gesture to this briefly here. Rationalism refers to the faith that human reason can remake the world for the better. In Hochman’s words, the rationalist impulse is, “skeptical of everything but its own skepticism, which it ironically accepts without question.” Wisdom on this basis is not the contemplation of eternal and transcendent truths but, instead, a Babelian desire for data and methodologies that can be used to deconstruct and then reconstruct reality to the glory of humanity. According to this disposition, nothing is sacred for its own sake—since everything has a value which can be quantified and relativized next to other values. This leads downwards into nihilism, which is—in some respects—taking, “philosophy to the place that the rationalist could not stomach.” A rationalist is still committed in some way to pursuing the good, understood in a cold and lifeless manner ala the utility calculations criticized by figures like Oakeshott. The nihilist turns the rationalist’s skepticism against reason itself, asking why we should even bother to care about the human good. The Enlightenment had pretensions to show that all human endeavors were merely historical waystops to its embrace of reason and truth. But why shouldn’t reason then demonstrate that Enlightenment itself was just a mere historical moment committed to contingent truths? The result of this development was the “death of metaphysics” and, consequently, a belief in Truth with a capital T. This is why universities can only peddle criticism and deconstruction rather than encouraging a quest for eternal wisdom.
This is a gloomy genealogy but sadly not quite gloomy enough I would say. I think that Hochman is correct that various critical philosophies today are ultimately descended from the faltering of rationalism (something Enlightenment apologists like Stephen Hicks and Steven Pinker often fail to sufficiently acknowledge). Hochman is also correct that this can lead to a nihilistic disposition; however, I would emphatically argue that figures like Derrida and Foucault were well aware of this risk and in fact sought desperately to counter it through new forms of life affirming faith and self-creation. Where Hochman goes wrong is his demarcation of Enlightenment and modernity as the locus of the problem. Here he doesn’t follow the Nietzschean thought line far enough back to the metaphysical origins of Western civilization (whatever that means, if anything). Nietzsche observed that the original nihilistic gesture came with Plato, that most hallowed proponent of metaphysics, wisdom, and eternal truth. This is because Plato denied the reality of the world we actually inhabit, seeing it as an inadequate shadow participating loosely in the truer and more beautiful reality of the eternal forms. Our life in this world—with all its passions, loves, and trivialities—was just the moving image of eternity. The goal of the philosopher was, therefore, to gradually dedicate himself or herself to contemplation of these forms through reason—and, then, to remake the real world according to their patterns. Politically, this entailed rejecting tradition and spontaneous order for a utopian and planned republic ruled by elite philosopher kings. It sounds like a predecessor the rationalism Hochman is keen to reject. Nietzsche goes on to denigrate our Christian heritage as similarly a form of proto-nihilism as effectively watered down Platonism for the masses. Where Plato insisted only a few had the intelligence and virtue to be philosopher kings, Christianity insisted that everyone must recognize the fallen nature of this world and reject it for a spiritual beyond. This was driven ultimately by a deep and nihilistic resentment of human fragility—and, of course, by the few excellent individuals who manage to overcome these limitations to excel. For Nietzsche, the Enlightenment continued this process. Its various rationalized politics and philosophies, whether liberalism or socialism, are a kind of secularized Christian doctrine, which lack the grandeur of faith but are more honest in their acknowledgement that there is no transcendent beyond.
A similarly pessimistic narrative is found in the work of Martin Heidegger, who helped coin the term “deconstruction.” For Heidegger, modern skepticism and nihilism have their roots in Greek philosophy’s gradual forgetting of Being. Rather than asking “Why is there something instead of nothing at all?” Western philosophers and scientists came to ponder: “What is this or that being and is it good?” This culminated with modern technical reason and the triumph of thinghood. The world now consisted of things, which could be manipulated and broken down through instrumental reason to better serve human purposes. The brilliant Marxist theorist Theodor Adorno disagreed with Heidegger about much, but he did share his pessimism on this point. Modern capitalism was the culmination of a process of disenchanting the world—as collections of things became various commodities with a price which could be traded against others. Nothing could be sacred in this context since sacredness entailed being beyond price: a notion utterly alien to capitalist forms of instrumental reason.
My point in this aside is not to persuade Hochman to cease his probing analysis of civilizational problems. Far from it. My contention is that the roots of the problems he raises go considerably further in our history than even Enlightenment rationalism and its nihilistic consequences. Understanding and overcoming these limitations are the ambitions of critique at its best. So what we need now is not less criticism—but better criticism.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at email@example.com or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof