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The Political Import of Jonathan Rauch’s “The Constitution of Knowledge”

Rauch takes as his subject how we know what we know in public life, and what the greatest contemporary threats to our shared public knowledge are.”

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the seven words from the Declaration of Independence that have deservedly garnered the most attention and praise from Americans throughout our history. They have always served as a moral lodestar, guiding us toward better approximating a regime of true equal liberty. 

But there are another seven words that flowed from Thomas Jefferson’s pen that might deserve renewed attention today: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” In addition to their radical content of equal human dignity, the very proposition of “these truths” was similarly earth-shattering in 1776. Jefferson and the Founders were purporting to legitimize a political movement and construct a new political regime on the basis of universal truth—not hierarchy, not tribe, not tradition. Truth—derived from human experience and reason—was the supposed progenitor of this new type of regime, an American one. That regime would coalesce around the Constitution of the United States in 1787, uniquely founded on the basis of “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 1.

While reading the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch’s brilliant new book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, it is essential that we keep this point in mind—that ours was a politics born of certain truth claims. Rauch takes as his subject how we know what we know in public life, and what the greatest contemporary threats to our shared public knowledge are. He stresses that knowledge is a social process—something we acquire together, arguing and debating our way through key mediating institutions like newspapers, academia, and scientific journals. These institutions and the values and mores undergirding them, argues Rauch, collectively form the “Constitution of Knowledge,” the life-giving structure to epistemic liberalism, just as the Constitution is the life-giving structure to political liberalism. Members of the “reality-based community” uphold the Constitution of Knowledge, just as citizens must uphold the Constitution of the United States. Rauch writes: 

“The United States Constitution and the Constitution of Knowledge differ in many respects, but in the end what they do is the same: they compel and organize social negotiation. Each forces competing people and factions toward compromise, or at least accommodation, in order to achieve something they want to accomplish, whether to pass a law or claim knowledge. In doing so, each answers a fundamental challenge for any large and diverse and contentious society: how to provide dynamic stability?” 

By working through Rauch’s core arguments and keeping Jefferson’s words in mind, we might find that the analogy of the Constitution of Knowledge to the Constitution of the United States may have deeper roots than even Rauch himself appreciates. 

Institutions and Virtues Upholding The Constitution of Knowledge 

In surveying psychology’s findings on the nature of human rationality, from David Hume to Jonathan Haidt, Rauch acknowledges our myriad biases and the fact that we often deploy our reasoning capacities not to seek truth and follow the facts but, rather, to rationalize and defend our prior convictions, prejudices, identities, and the like. Yet “bit by bit,” a liberal epistemic regime has emerged, whereby we “outsource our interpretations of reality” not to our in-group, kin, or tribe but to “a liberal network, one which is large and global and impersonal and public and critical.” While the members of that social network—the reality-based community—are all individually biased, together they check and critique one another’s arguments about the world to conceive of reality as “a set of propositions” validated in some way to be “conditionally true.” Rauch writes:

“Although members of the reality-based community may be as blind to their own errors and biases as anybody else, they are not blind to the errors and biases of those with whom they disagree. What matters is not that individuals in the community be unbiased but that they have different biases, so that I see your mistakes and you see mine.”

Under the Constitution of Knowledge, then, we submit our propositions about truth and reality to the reality-based community, where two key rules govern: “No one gets the final say” and “No one has personal authority.” The process of truth seeking and knowledge creation is never ending, and it is not the divine right of some king. 

In conceiving of a Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch offers readers two further insights: (1) The acquisition of knowledge is a social process filtered through institutions, and (2) that process relies on our upholding certain virtues.

In explaining the communal nature of knowledge acquisition, Rauch begins by looking back to a truth-seeking dialogue between Socrates and a student, Theaetetus, which ends with Socrates saying, “Let us meet here again.” Building off this line, Rauch posits that “acquiring knowledge is a conversation, not a destination. It is a process, a journey—a journey we take together, not alone. Others are always involved. Knowledge is not just something I have; more fundamentally, it is something we have.”

Nor is it something we produce together as disembodied, detached beings, he adds. Rather, we produce knowledge via institutions. These institutions (and the values that undergird them) keep the Constitution of Knowledge afloat. This is a key insight. Rauch pushes back against the notion that the “marketplace of ideas” is self-organizing. Yes, there absolutely must be freedom of thought and speech, but there also must be structures and rules. Every day, Rauch notes, we float countless hypotheses, conjectures, and ideas. Our propositions do not randomly interact with one another out in space. Instead, we filter them through institutions like journalism, law, and academia where they are vetted in accordance with certain norms like objectivity, exclusivity, and disconfirmation. Rauch explains this with a helpful analogy:

“The reality-based community is a network of…nodes: publishers, peer reviewers, universities, agencies, courts, regulators, and many, many more. I like to imagine the system’s institutional nodes as filtering and pumping stations through which propositions flow. Each station acquires and evaluates propositions, compares them with stored knowledge, hunts for error, then filters out some propositions and distributes the survivors to other stations, which do the same.”

In addition to pointing out the importance of institutions in the Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch argues that it cannot stand if we do not uphold its requisite virtues like open-mindedness, intellectual rigor, and humility. The same goes for the Constitution of the United States: “Both constitutions rest, ultimately, on versions of what the American founders thought of as republican virtue: habits and norms like lawfulness, truthfulness, self-restraint, and forbearance.” Both come with rights and responsibilities, and “the responsibilities are heavy and tempting to shirk.”

This is especially the case when the Constitution of Knowledge and the institutions and virtues that comprise it are under attack. And it turns out they are.

How Is The Constitution of Knowledge Under Assault?

Rauch points to Trumpian disinformation and the rise of left-wing cancelation as the twin threats to the Constitution of Knowledge in America today. 

Using Steve Bannon’s infamous advocacy to “flood the zone with s—” as his touchstone, Rauch explains how former President Donald Trump and portions of the right-wing media ecosystem have transported Russian-style disinformation tactics to the United States. Specifically, Rauch argues that President Trump is a master of the “firehose of falsehood” technique, whereby he puts out so many misleading statements and outright lies over the course of a single day that he overwhelms the nodes of the Constitution of Knowledge. Truth-seeking institutions lack the capacity to keep up with the sheer amount of mendacity. The goal here, writes Rauch, is “not to persuade but to confuse: to induce uncertainty, disorientation, and attendant cynicism” on the part of citizens. In other words, people are left unsure as to whom they should trust. They throw their hands up, disaffected from the Constitution of Knowledge, saying everyone is full of it. And some then turn to President Trump himself as the sole truth-giver, since his overarching schtick, even if riddled with small-f falsehoods, accords with their sense of capital-T Truth. Vesting someone with personal authority to define the truth in this manner runs directly contrary to the Constitution of Knowledge. And when that personal truth-giver turns out to be a liar, suddenly large swaths of the population can grow disconnected from reality. 

We see precisely this dynamic at work with the proliferation of Trump-led conspiracy theories within the Republican Party regarding the “stolen” 2020 election. Indeed, Rauch connects January 6th’s assault on the Constitution with its assault on the Constitution of Knowledge: “At the Capitol that day, the rebellion was against the Constitution of Knowledge no less than the Constitution of the United States, and what we saw—the use of force and intimidation to settle disputes about reality—was what we always see, sooner or later, where the Constitution of Knowledge loses its sway.”

Much like the “troll epistemology” of the MAGA-verse, the “coercive conformity” of left-wing cancelers is also a form of “information warfare” at odds with the Constitution of Knowledge. Rauch writes:

“Cancelers and trolls share the goal of dominating the information space by demoralizing their human targets: confusing them, isolating them, drowning them out, deplatforming them, shaming them, or overwhelming them so that they give up on pushing back. Demoralization is demobilization. At bottom, individuals must decide whether to submit, and so the most important thing to say to individuals is this: don’t be a snowflake.”

Here, drawing on his own personal experience as a leading member of the gay marriage advocacy movement throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Rauch counsels those who come into cancelers’ crosshairs not to stand down. It takes courage, but the Constitution of Knowledge needs defending if it is to stand tall against its foes. Cancelers flourish in environments riddled with social conformity, like much of academia today, where saying the right things and nodding to the proper shibboleths is prized above all, including truth-seeking. That is why, in riffing off John Stuart Mill, Rauch argues persuasively that the only system-level cure for the “thought vigilantism” of the cancelers in, say, academia, is genuine pluralism and intellectual diversity. In the meantime, as the extremist cancelers only constitute a minority on campus, it is incumbent upon the individual members of the silent majority to begin speaking up. Again: Quit being snowflakes.

Bridging the Constitution and the Constitution of Knowledge

Understanding the Constitution of Knowledge—and the threats posed to it from within (by cancelers) and from without (by trolls)—is essential if we are to defend and fortify it going forward. With the publication of The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch has provided us with an invaluable tool to foster such understanding. But it might be worth drilling just a bit deeper and further fleshing out the connection between the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Knowledge. When we do, we might find that, to some degree, explicit political action on behalf of the Constitution of Knowledge may be warranted. 

Rauch writes that the Constitution of the United States provides “a system which forces anyone who wants power or influence to persuade others, thereby harnessing personal ambition to stimulate dynamism and organize cooperation. The Constitution of Knowledge works the same way, except the product is not governance but reality.” But if we think back to the opening paragraphs of the Declaration that I referenced in the introduction, we might remember that the line between governance and reality in America is not a hard and fast one. And thank God it isn’t. 

Steeped in their studies of human nature, history, and political theory, the founding generation brought forth a polity that was quite explicitly attempting to accord with certain universal truths of the human condition. American government was not designed to override sociopolitical reality—artificially suppressing it through the power of tribe or hierarchy—but to cope with it. Madison, the consummate coper, put it best in Federalist No. 51 when he asked, “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” The goal of the Founders, as Rauch notes explicitly in the book, was to strike a balance between our very human needs for both liberty, or dynamism, and stability, or order. Striking a republican constitutional balance between order-heavy authoritarianism and liberty-heavy democratic chaos was the solution. Facts, common sense, and reason—the results of free inquiry—informed this balance.

As Rauch acknowledges, the Constitution of the United States needs the Constitution of Knowledge if it is to persist in striking that balance, and vice-versa. Political liberalism and epistemic liberalism need one another. If either falters, our grip on reality will further wane, and a polity detached from reality tends to slide in some pretty scary directions. As Rauch writes, “Mass alternative realities are common and resilient, and they tend to end badly…losing touch with reality never works out well.”

Perhaps what we need is an explicitly pro-reality force in American politics, one that attests to the fact that in American politics, truth is supposed to matter more than tribe. This is why I have previously proposed the formation of a “Truth Seeking” faction in American politics. If something like this faction were to take hold, we could begin giving voice to the fact that, to some degree, politics is a long running truth-seeking enterprise itself. Through politics, we make sense of our world, our polity, and our places within them. We reflect on what it means to be human, what it means to live together as humans.

Perhaps a vigorously pro-free speech, pro-“go where the facts lead” force in American politics could not only help enrich our political debates but also remind us that political debate need not consist solely of self-assertion and in-group promotion—that it, too, can be a vehicle for provisionally fleshing out a truth or two regarding the world and our place within it. That is the promise of our constitutional order premised on “these truths.” We would do well to get back in the habits of truth-seeking and open-mindedness and intellectual humility in politics. If we do not, we might continue chipping away at the foundations of the Constitution of the United States—and the Constitution of Knowledge along with it.

Thomas Koenig is a student at Harvard Law School and the author of the free “Tom’s Takes” newsletter on Substack. He can be found on Twitter @thomaskoenig98

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