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Reason and the Republic of Opinion

"At this period ... of wreck and ruin, the one power that can save, can heal, can fortify, is clear and intelligent thought,” the editors of The New Republic wrote in 1915, in a promotional letter to its first subscribers “to state again the general purposes of the paper.” The statement is not as banal as it may seem. There are people who prefer ardent thought to clear thought, and loyal thought to strict thought. There are people who mistrust thought altogether and prefer the unarguable authenticities of the heart—the individual heart and the collective heart. There are people who regard thought, at least as the editors of The New Republic conceived it, and as the “public reason” of which philosophers now speak, as an activity of an elite; and there is some sociological truth to their misgiving, though the social provenance of an idea says nothing about its value. (Hardship may make one wise, but it does not make one smart.) Yet the ideal of “clear and intelligent thought,” stripped of its condescension and its indifference to the non-rational dimensions of human life, deserves to be defended. We need not be a nation of intellectuals, but we must not be a nation of idiots.

The task is not to intellectualize humanity. It is to humanize intellectuality. To this end, the cultural reputation of reason needs to be revised. Reason is an intensely romantic pursuit, especially if one finds romance in struggle. Reason’s victories are almost never final. It is always surrounded by unreason, which is always more popular. Reason is the stout resistance, the flickering lamp in the darkness, the perpetual underdog, the stoic connoisseur of defeat, the loser that dusts itself off and fights another day. If, as some of its enemies claim, reason aspires to control, it is a futile aspiration. The anti-rationalist mob in contemporary thought can relax: reason will never come to rule. Not a chance. Thomas Mann once remarked, against Nietzsche, that the world never suffers from a surfeit of reason. And he never went online!

If the world were rational, there would be no need for rationalism.

Feeling may be a relief from reason, but where is the relief from feeling?

One of the most absurd charges against reason is that it is authoritarian. The postwar Marxist intellectuals who conflated reason with “instrumental reason” and “instrumental reason” with authoritarianism helped to perpetuate this canard. There is nothing rational about tyranny: it is stupid and it is mad. Its “rationality,” which is to say, its internal coherence and its capacity to function, is not the same as reason. Quite the contrary: it is reason that exposes this rationality for what it really is. More importantly, reason is essentially anti-authoritarian because a rational discussion is never closed. (Whereas nothing shuts down a conversation more brusquely than an emotion.) That is why modern thinkers still engage with ancient thinkers. That is why science never ends. New objections and new findings are always welcome. In the war against reason in much of contemporary philosophy, one of the cleverest tricks is to present reason’s rigor, its insistence upon the importance of the inquiry into truth and falsehood, as discouraging to thought. But the contrary is the case. What could be more encouraging to thought than the belief in the possibility of intellectual progress? This is a gathering to which all minds are invited. They have merely to agree to behave like minds. But then minds are not supposed to behave like hearts.

Reason frightens some people, but reason is never as frightening as its opposite.

“The God of my heart is the God of my mind,” wrote Hermann Cohen. Leave God out of it for a moment: I have never known quite how to read that sentence. The union that it extols seems to liquidate the benefits of our multiplicity. Did he mean that the mind will be like the heart or that the heart will be like the mind? Either way, he was performing an amputation.

The application of reason to public affairs is sometimes confused with technocracy. Yet there are no technocrats of first principles, no specialists in what to believe. Some people regard themselves as such experts, of course; but too much authority is conceded to them. Good judgment cannot be prescribed or outsourced. There are no blue-ribbon panels on truth and goodness. The responsibility for belief falls equally on all of us. The search for values, and for the grounds of values, is catch-as-catch-can: it may lead the thoughtful individual to books, to films, to travel, to participation, to conversation, to friendship and love, as the long work of mental clarification proceeds. A sense of the provisional about one’s view of the world is usually a sign of intellectual probity: most conviction exists in the vast cold space between perfect obscurity and perfect certainty. The thoughtful individual is condemned to an existence of corrections and amplifications, both analytical and empirical, in which Jamesian leaps are the selfish indulgences of impatient minds.

An open mind is not an empty mind.

There are many questions that call for expertise, but this does not settle the matter: there arise warring experts. Sometimes the disagreement is honest, sometimes it is not. The dissent from a scientific or scholarly consensus is sometimes nothing more than the doubt that powerful interests cunningly sow for their own purposes. (Where there are experts there are pseudo-experts.) But the work of natural scientists and social scientists will never relieve the ordinary citizen of his obligation to arrive at some basis for a view. It falls to us, who are not economists or biologists or climatologists, to support a position. We must support what we cannot ourselves verify.

By what authority do we choose between authorities? And yet an open society is founded upon the faith in precisely such a choice. The confidence of an open society in the intellects of its citizens is astounding. Has it ever been completely vindicated?

Morton Feldman once had a spirited argument with Stefan Wolpe about the ends of art. Feldman, the avant-gardist, championed a conception of art for beauty’s sake, whereas Wolpe, the Marxist, insisted that art was for the people—for the man in the street—for that guy over there, he said, pointing out the window of his austere studio in Greenwich Village to a pedestrian at the corner waiting to cross. When they looked more closely at him, at the random figure who was representative of the people, they saw that he was Jackson Pollock. A funny story, except that the dream of democratic deliberation is something like it.

Here is Mill’s version of the dream: “to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of.” The egalitarianism of the intellect! The aim of freedom of thought, Mill contended, is not “solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers,” but to create “an intellectually active people.”

“An intellectually active people”—is this idealism, or is it a hallucination?

A democracy imposes an extraordinary intellectual responsibility upon ordinary people. Our system is finally determined by what our citizenry thinks. This is thrilling and this is terrifying.

A thoughtless member of a democracy is a delinquent member of a democracy. Anti-intellectualism has been one of the regular features of populism, but in this respect populism is an offense against the people, because it denies their mental capability and scants their mental agency. Anti-intellectualism is always pseudo-democratic. In enshrining prejudices and dogmas, it robs the citizen of his exacting and proper role.

What was the democratic breakthrough? Among other things, it was the triumph of opinion. We are governed by what we think. What is wrong with being opinionated? Opinionation is an expectation of democracy. But the triumph of opinion was a mixed blessing, or at least a tremendous gamble. Opinion, after all, is fantastically manipulable. In 1920, Walter Lippmann wrote glowingly of “the manufacture of consent”—the phrase was made famous in his book Public Opinion two years later—but for us the phrase is infamous, and more than a little sinister. For this reason, there is nothing more consequential for the workings of a democratic order than its methods of opinion-formation. Lippmann, again: “The protection of the sources of its opinion is the basic problem of democracy. Everything else depends upon it. Without protection against propaganda, without standards of evidence, without criteria of emphasis, the living substance of all popular decision is exposed to every prejudice and to infinite exploitation.”

The fickleness of public opinion about even the most momentous issues of the day should make politicians despair of it as a guide to policy. But how can they despair of it if they must answer to it? Their mistake is to forget that they can influence it. It is their obligation to influence it. The dynamic character of public opinion is more than collective moodiness: it is an opportunity for suasion. Intellectual leadership is a central element of political leadership.

What is the difference between an opinion and a belief? Let us say that a belief is an opinion with reasons. One of the objectives of public debate in a democracy should be to promote opinion into belief. We must demand reasons. But many Americans are not comfortable with this demand. “It’s just my opinion”: this bizarre American locution, which is supposed to provide an avenue of escape in a disputation, suggests that there is something illegitimate, even disrespectful, about insisting upon the defense of a proposition. Yet the respect we owe persons we do not owe their opinions. Political respect is axiomatic, but intellectual respect must be earned.

Here is how Socrates cornered Gorgias: “Would you like us, then, to posit two types of persuasion, one providing conviction without knowledge, the other providing knowledge?” The sophist was undone. He was revealed as offering nothing more than “the persuasion that comes from being convinced.” But I cannot be persuaded by the fact that you are convinced. If you seek my agreement, you will have to give me more than your sensation of being right. The intensity of a conviction is irrelevant to the merit of a conviction. People have given their lives for illusions. (When it is our people and our illusions, we call them martyrs.)

Passion reveals a lot about its subject but little about its object. It has absolutely no bearing on the justification of belief.

In their letter to their subscribers in 1915, the editors of The New Republic continued: “Opinion is no longer a parlor game, a matter of dinner-table conversation; it is a relentless necessity if we are to keep flying the flag of sanity above this tortured world.” The necessity is no less relentless now, and the world is no less tortured. The refinement of American opinion remains one of the primary duties of American intellectual life. In the issue of the magazine that appeared in that same week in November, Philip Littell elaborated on the mission: “We have tried to cultivate in ourselves and in our readers a habit of looking hard at opinions, of realizing how small a percentage of reasoning and accurate knowledge enters into most of them, how largely every belief as actually existing in any believer is a prejudice. ... The special task calls for a special technique, which we are far from having mastered, which we must invent by trial and error as we go along.”

The refinement of opinion cannot be accomplished except in a spirit of criticism. Describing and explaining will not suffice (though they may account for whole genres of journalism); the moment must come for judging. It was a dark day in America when “judgmental” became a term of opprobrium. In a universe without judgment, what is admiration worth?

Long live negativity! We must learn again to think negatively. Negations may be emancipations. Negations may operate in the service of affirmations. But happy talk, the uplift of pure positivity, is the rhetoric of the status quo.

The polemical temperament advances the aims of an honest and decent society more than the blurbing temperament.

An aversion to controversy is an aversion to democracy. Since all the views do not go together, and since the stakes in the validity of the respective views are very high, a free people should be a quarrelsome people. The quarrels of an open society are evidence of extraordinary philosophical and political development. They are the proof of our progress. The quarrels are not the problem, they are the solution.

Are our fights nasty? Not as nasty as their absence would be.

The most inspiring hour in American history, the true founding, was not the writing of the Constitution but the magnificent debate about its ratification. The scriptures of our political order are the writings of the Federalists and the anti-Federalists—the entirety of the disputation. It was the contentiousness about the character of the republic that established the character of the republic: it would be a contentious republic. We were designed for adversarialism. Jefferson abhorred “uniformity”; Madison provided for “faction.” The ferocious arguments about what the United States would be were evidence that the United States already was.

Ferocity is as essential to our system as civility. It is easy to be tolerant of ideas about which one is indifferent. Disinterestedness is an achievement only where there is interestedness; objectivity is stirring because it is an overcoming. Still, the overcoming need not be total. Perfect impartiality, if such is possible, has a dehumanizing effect. Heartlessness is not one of the conditions of intellectual responsibility. The bitterness of a bitter debate, though it may be disagreeable, is not always to be deplored. Bitterness may be the mark of an attachment to a cause, and the capacity for causes must be cultivated in the population of a consumer society, which promotes less deferred and less demanding satisfactions.

A lucid mind, an engaged heart, a thick skin: the equipment of citizenship. Or what Lippmann called “the omnicompetent citizen.”

Walter Lippmann’s claim on our continued interest is owed to the inconsistency of his thinking about the mind in an open society. In a short period of intense reflection, he articulated all the democrats’ moods—the exhilaration and the doubt. He had faith in “the omnicompetent citizen,” upon whose power of reasoning and maturity of feeling a democracy could rely; and then he announced his “abandonment of the theory of the omnicompetent citizen,” of “the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs,” and championed instead the competence of experts, “because increasingly the relevant facts will elude the voter and the administrator”; and then he proclaimed that nonetheless “it is necessary to live as if good will would work. We cannot prove in every instance that it will, nor why hatred, intolerance, suspicion, bigotry, secrecy, fear, and lying are the seven deadly sins against public opinion. We can only insist that they have no place in the appeal to reason, that in the longer run they are a poison; and taking our stand upon a view of the world which outlasts our own predicaments, and our own lives, we can cherish a hearty prejudice against them.” Living in our actually existing democracy, amid its sublimities and its stupidities, who has not experienced these highs and these lows?

A prejudice for reason! Or a prejudice for the critical examination of prejudices, which of course cannot exempt itself. Reason’s sexiest feature is its ethic of self-examination.

Introspection is the antithesis of introversion: it answers to a higher authority than the self or the tribe. More than me, more than us.

Citizens are not the only ones who inquire into opinion. So, too, do marketers. Do we abhor propaganda? But we live with it, we are enchanted by it, all the time. We call it advertising. Advertising is the propaganda of the market. And only a fool would be outraged by deceit in an advertisement. The concealment of facts and flaws is how selling operates, for politicians as well as for products. They grow fat off our gullibility. (The opposite of thinking is shopping.) The malleability of public opinion is a part of their business model. Yet there is a crucial difference between the opinion research of the marketer and the opinion research of the citizen. In the market, all that matters is what works. In public affairs, by contrast, many things may work that we nonetheless reject, because they traduce certain principles. Empirical and ethical scruples can be such a drag! The citizen, unlike the salesman, needs to certify not only the efficacy of a view, but also its relation to truth and to goodness—nothing less.

A few years after Walter Lippmann propounded his mandarin skepticism about the reliance of a progressive society upon the wayward minds of the masses, his admirer Edward Bernays produced one of the most illuminating and most chilling American books of the twentieth century. It was called Propaganda, which it extolled. “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” it began. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” Bernays was writing in admiration of these “invisible governors.” He continued: “In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion without anything. We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.” Bernays proceeded to devise various techniques for the functioning of the invisible government, and in a long and colorful career he became known as the father of public relations. He saw no significant difference between politics and commerce, and agitated for commerce to become as cunning about its self-interested strategies as politics. In his day, or so he complained, corporations lagged behind politicians in venality. They soon caught up. (Bernays’ book has been rediscovered in contemporary China, where it suits the glittering and gruesome experiment in authoritarian capitalism.)

If politics was once the model for commerce, commerce is now the model for politics. The voter is studied chiefly as a consumer. Indeed, the consumer has become the paradigmatic decision-maker of the age. But is the decision-making of the consumer really like the decision-making of the voter? Choosing a president is not like choosing khakis. This is yet another instance of economicist overreach, of the obliteration of distinctions for the sake of the sale.

Bernays sincerely believed that his invisible government was compatible with democratic government. We do not altogether disagree. We merely demand transparency: the “unseen mechanism” should be seen. We abhor the invisibility but not the manipulation. Behavioral economics is the new science of candid manipulation.

The commercial approach to non-commercial things is a socially reputable form of cynicism.

The imperialistic extension of the notion of entrepreneurship into activities and callings that cannot be properly understood in material or monetary terms is one of the characteristic mistakes of our wealth-worshipping society. A thinker is not an ideas-entrepreneur. A writer is not a words-entrepreneur. A painter is not an images-entrepreneur. A pastry chef is not a desserts-entrepreneur. The translation of all human expression into the vocabulary of business narrows the understanding and damages the culture.

The democratic trust in the intellectual competence of ordinary people is easily shaken by the spectacle of those people themselves. These days many of them seem like walking anthologies of electronic influences. They are built of references and brands, and merrily they brand themselves, in a sorry misapplication of another category of the market to the realm of personal identity. It is an iron law of media history: the greater the reach, the greater the conformity. (In the canonical discourse about the Internet, these conformities are euphemized as “communities.”) This is an old story, of course: there never was, and there never will be, a nation of free-thinking originals. We used to describe the problem as the tyranny of society over the individual. But the digital media have accelerated the problem, the way they have accelerated everything else. They have also opened an unprecedentedly large space for discussion and the dissemination of information. If life online is a form of democratic participation, then democracy has never had it better. (“Invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable,” proclaimed Carlyle.) The Internet is surely the grandest experiment ever conducted in meaningful communication in the mass. But like all revolutions, the digital revolution prefers to ignore its continuities with what came before it. For example: the question of the quality of thinking on the new platforms is no different from the question of the quality of thinking on the old platforms. Lies and errors must still be recognized and refuted, not least because they travel farther now. There is no escape from the toils of individual judgment.

There is the theory of public reason and the practice of public reason. Perhaps the most significant fact about our political discourse now is how little the latter resembles the former. Is it public reason that we see on the Internet, and on cable? In some cases, it is: there are stubborn islands of seriousness, in which everything is not settled before the discussion begins and the excellence of the arguments matters as much as the excellence of the jokes. But it is absurd to regard the media as the fulfillment of the dream of democratic deliberation. For the purpose of critical thinking, the media must often be resisted, and even despised.

Baudelaire once remarked that you can learn a great deal from a newspaper if you read it with the proper contempt.

These days the sign of an honest man is that he is sick of media.

It is beneath the dignity of writers and thinkers to acquiesce in the description of what they produce as “content.” This is yet another term that has been smuggled across the border from commerce to culture. “Content” is contentless. It is just the media’s new name for merchandise. But the strenuous work of public persuasion cannot be shaped by the needs of the market. It must be shaped by the needs of the argument. If the quest for profit is allowed to deform the arguments that are presented to the public, to make them shallower and therefore easier to sell, then our politics will be disfigured by our economics.

Not everything that is sold is made only to sell.

The life of ideas—and it ranges from philosophy to journalism—is lived in part for its own sake, that is, for the sake of understanding things. But there are ideas that are developed and espoused also for their impact upon things, for their consequences—because they will bring about change. Yet do ideas bring about change? Are they causes of individual behavior or group behavior? The materialist tradition in modern thought, particularly the Marxist doctrine, denied that ideas play such a formative role. But the rejection of the view that ideas are historical causes—and that they are to be taken at face value, for their sincerely avowed substance, rather than regarded as expressions of more fundamental and less abstract forces—was shared also by some opponents of Marxism, notably the British historian Lewis Namier, who painted a sordid portrait of politics in which politicians disguised their venal interests with the edifying but epiphenomenal vocabulary of principle. In his account of politics, as he elaborated it in his famous studies of Parliament in eighteenth-century England, the “motives of action” were “dreams of office and power” and nothing more: “men went (into politics) ‘to make a figure’ and no more dreamed of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it.” (Namier was himself a man of deep conviction and nothing like the careerists that he portrayed.) Other students of political behavior, past and present, have maintained to the contrary that principles are not just masks for motives, that principles really do move events. The behavior of actual politicians offers a basis for both views, alas.

The impracticality of an idea about politics and society may rightly be held against it. A theory of justice should have some role, however distant and eventual, in the correction of injustice. But the utility that one appropriately demands of some ideas must not be demanded of all ideas. A poem may change a man, but not because it demands implementation or translation into a program. Transformations that are real but not practical: those are the accomplishments of the humanities, where ideas have no “cash value” (William James’s repellent phrase) but are nonetheless desperately sought.

“Ideas, when they achieve a very high level, can easily be accepted by a busy, practical people,” Saul Bellow wrote in 1963. “Why not? Sublimity never hurt anyone.” A little too breezy, perhaps; but he was right. Sublimity never hurt anyone—but utility did.

Even people who live with no intellectual engagement live in an intellectual climate. There are never no ideas. Ideas are everywhere. They are experienced by everybody. A concern about the intellectual condition of a society is a kind of environmental concern, an anxiety about the atmosphere and the damage to it.

What if, far from being the preserve of an elite, ideas are the commonest stuff, the most demotic stuff, of all? How could it be otherwise with self-interpreting beings? Ideas are their birthright.

In the 1950s a critic once joked that an intellectual is anybody who carries a briefcase. We may update the joke and say that an intellectual is anybody who carries a laptop. But sooner or later the contents of the briefcase and the contents of the laptop must enter into the analysis. Nobody mutilates intellectual life like intellectuals.

An open society falsifies the anti-intellectualism of the historical materialists. Even if an action is undertaken on the most unprincipled grounds, it will nonetheless have to justify itself, and seek legitimacy, in the eyes of others, and such justification can be achieved, such legitimacy can be attained, only by means of ideas and in terms of values. Anything that requires the support of society for its success, and depends upon the approval of public opinion, will have to be validated by an appeal to some consensus of meaning. It will have to demonstrate its moral and cultural plausibility, especially if it appears to be a deviation from prevailing norms. The recourse to ideas is inevitable, even strategic. A democracy makes hypocrites out of cynics.

You do not retire an argument by saying that it is cynical. Even if you expose the motives, you must still refute the reasons.

Some years ago Quentin Skinner illustrated the inalienability of ideas from public life in a brilliant gloss on Max Weber’s thesis about the adoption of Calvinist theology by early capitalism. The new capitalists—his example of what he calls “innovating ideologists”—had to justify their new commercial practices against the charges that they were avaricious and unChristian—as Skinner observes, “to apply a prevailing moral vocabulary to legitimize a questionable way of life.” This required them to invoke traditional values and words, and to reinterpret them. The word “ambition” thus began its climb to the cultural prestige that it now enjoys. The word “religiously” was expanded to imply diligence and fastidiousness. (As in: “I read the print edition of The New Republic religiously.”) Skinner concludes that “any course of action will be inhibited to the degree that it cannot be legitimized. Any principle that helps to legitimize a course of action will therefore be among the enabling conditions of its occurrence.”

Social vindication can be attained only by means of ideas, by representing (or misrepresenting) one’s interests as a social good. But to claim a social good is to hold a concept of society and a concept of goodness. There is no other way, in a society that determines its course by persuasion, to convince you that my advantage is also your advantage, if I seek your support for my advantage. That is why avarice and aggression are outfitted with ideologies, and hatreds spawn philosophies of history.

Dictators employ intellectuals, but finally they fear intellectuals. They live in dread that their liars will one day decide to tell the truth. Sooner or later, therefore, they destroy them.

A just order is an order in which truth has no need of courage.

Do not look down on nonsense. Nonsense comes to power. Nonsense murders millions. It prospers if we are too exquisite, too intellectually respectable, to bother with it.

Ideas or interests? Ideas are interests. They are the interests of all who wish to live as free and undeceived people. Happy anniversary, precious pages!