Key Concept — Rauch’s Commandments: The two core tenets of liberal science from Jonathan Rauch’s book “Kindly Inquisitors,” which I have simplified to “No one gets the final say,” and “No one has personal authority.”
And the winner of my first-ever Excessively Prestigious Award is…“Kindly Inquisitors” by Jonathan Rauch!
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that one of the best books on free speech of the last 50 years was the clear winner of the popular vote for my first-ever book of the year award. To be honest, I was expecting one of the newer books to win the vote, as opposed to a classic like KI, which came out when I was still a freshman in college (1993). But it is an extraordinarily important book, unlike other, often sensationalist and often partisan, polemics written during what I have called the “first great age of political correctness on campus” (roughly 1985-1995).
“Kindly Inquisitors” gets right to the intellectual heart of the matter. Rauch argues that the West enjoyed an epistemological system that was so widespread and so successful that it didn’t even have a name. Rauch dubbed it “liberal science.” While I have talked about liberal science in many other articles and all of my books, I wanted to make his two commandments more accessible to readers, so I created this little gif to really underline what the two basic rules of liberal science are:
- No one gets the final say.
- No one has personal authority.
A common objection to Rauch’s two commandments is the issue of personal experience or expertise: Aren’t experts able to claim special authority? Rauch writes in response:
It is important to note that “no personal authority” says nothing against expertise. It only says that no one, expert or amateur, gets to claim special authority simply because of who he happens to be or what he is saying. Whatever you do to become an expert must thus be something that others also could do. You may have a Ph.D., but I could get one. The views of experts, no less than those of laymen, are expected to withstand checking.
Given Rauch’s forthcoming book and his appearance discussing it on FIRE’s So to Speak podcast, the timing of this award is almost suspiciously convenient, but I swear on the soul of Spider-Man’s Aunt May that was just the way it worked out. The good news for Rauch fans is that he has a new book coming out in June that I believe everyone and their sisters, mothers, uncles, and aunts should pre-order ASAP.
Rauch’s “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth” explains how both the right and left have conspired over the last decade to undermine yet another important epistemic system that Rauch calls the “constitution of knowledge.” This phenomenon is a true disaster, with long-term negative repercussions unless we see a recommitment to the arduous process of knowing the world as it really is — not as a political process to reevaluate the world according to what we think would be the most politically useful.
The book is also a tremendously fun read and has that unique power of excellent nonfiction to be both pleasurable and profound! I believe it is nothing less than the most important book of 2021. (Jon Rauch will be speaking to FIRE’s Faculty Network about his book on June 8. Pre-register here — you don’t need to be in our Faculty Network to join!)
And now to the runners-up!
The winners of our More than Sufficiently Prestigious Award (because they were tied for second place in the Excessively Prestigious Award voting) are Joseph Henrich’s “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous” and Martin Gurri’s “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.”
“The Revolt of the Public” has fundamentally changed my analysis relating to the shifts we saw among generations in “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Gurri shows how the explosion of social media around 2011 had surprisingly similar effects all over the world, starting most noticeably in the Arab Spring, but also in Occupy Wall Street, as well as for movements in both Israel and Spain. This movement also hit college campuses.
When an unprecedented number of people can communicate all at once, what you’re left with is a powerful system for tearing down institutions, ideas, and even people. Unfortunately, as of yet social media has had a terrible track record when it comes to actually building institutions to replace the old, flawed ones. I dubbed this “Gurri’s negation.”
I remain hopeful that such a powerful mechanism for tearing things down will eventually be found to have some beneficial uses. After all, whether it’s the scientific method or the Wisdom Traditions, a lot of learning is not so much about learning what is objectively true, but finding through subtraction a clearer picture of what might be true. Negation can be a powerful force for seeing the world as it is, but it will never work unless we change some of the informal rules for how we engage productively in a truly global media.
I say “informal” rules because I think that despite all its flaws, some of the attempts to regulate social media are going to be a cure worse than the disease. It’s going to have to come from people using the resource better and standing up to the conformity engine that is Twitter. More thoughts on that later.
The second book tied for second place is Joe Henrich’s revelatory “The WEIRDest People in the World.” I spent a lot of time explaining why this is such a spectacular and profound book, but I did want to thank Prof. Henrich for one other thing: This book made me hate Plato a lot less.
What? I hate Plato?
Yes, I tend to agree with Karl Popper that he was a totalitarian elitist who was afraid of change, and who genuinely thought that not only people like him, but, perhaps, Plato specifically should be in charge.
One of the things that has bothered me the most about Plato is his idea of the forms: In an eternal reality that is unchanging and created by God, in which things are “real” in the most profound way, and in everyday life, what we see as reality is a degradation of those eternal forms. This idea always seemed to me like an excuse for monstrous behavior. Believing that ideas are more solid and of greater importance than the welfare of individuals seem to be behind some of the most horrific totalitarian ideologies, particularly Communism and Nazism in the 20th century.
However, while I think Plato’s totalitarian outlook is underrecognized, I have to remember that, as a constitutional lawyer, I very much believe in principles and ideas that, while not as important as people, are extraordinarily important in their own right. Henrich helped me understand that for society to become less clan-based and less based on family ties, it is essential to view abstract and universalist ideas of justice and decency and the proper limits of coercive power as of transcendent importance.
This does not mean that, of course, I believe Plato’s ideas are in any sense true, and I still think that they’ve been used as excuses for great evil. But they have also been useful to societies as they struggle to expand the circle of humanitarian concern beyond just one’s relatives and into an increasingly inclusive society. So, thank you Prof. Henrich: I now have a teeny tiny warm spot in my heart for Plato thanks to you.
Join us again next month, when we return to the familiar and comfortable merely Prestigious Awards and begin the twelve-step march to next year’s Excessively and Sufficiently showdowns (and find some great books along the way).