Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Defense of Reason

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 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.

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