The Enlightenment And The Constitution

Among a number of depressing discoveries I made during two-plus decades of university teaching was the fact that most of my students had never heard of the Enlightenment.

I know, I know–that was just one of many deficiencies students brought to a class on law and public policy…so why do I consider that particular deficit to be especially depressing? Because–as I have repeatedly explained on this site– Enlightenment philosophy caused a significant shift in human understanding. Its philosophers introduced what has become the prevalent–although certainly not universal–worldview of modern  civilization. The Enlightenment introduced western civilizations to science and empirical inquiry, posited the existence of human rights and challenged/toppled belief in the divine right of kings, among many other things.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of MAGA Republicanism is its wholesale rejection of that Enlightenment worldview. There are several theories about the appeal of MAGA partisanship (I can’t dignify MAGA by suggesting it’s a philosophy–it isn’t. It’s a visceral, tribal scream…)–certainly, racism is a huge factor. But so is a primal fear of modernity, a rejection of the secular civilization that grew out of the Enlightenment.

As I’ve recently written, I tend to see much of today’s political turmoil as a fight between Puritan fundamentalism and Enlightenment modernity, so I was interested in a New York Times book review by Emily Bazelon some months back titled “Speaking Truth to Both Right and Left.” The review focused on two books, one of which–Jonathan Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge— I’d read. (The other, by George Packer, remains on my “eventual” list…)

Packer and Rauch are here to defend the liberalism of the Enlightenment — equality and scientific rationality in an unapologetically Western-tradition sense. They see this belief system as the country’s great and unifying strength, and they’re worried about its future.

I worry alongside them. A lot.

Packer expresses his deep fear that Americans have lost the “art” of self-government.

He means, with credit to Alexis de Tocqueville, “not just rights, laws and institutions, but what free people do together, the habits and skills that enable us to run our own affairs.” Self-government depends on trust, “which we’ve lost.”

The review notes that Packer’s lens is economic.

He ties his thesis about Americans’ loss of the art of self-government to the inequality that he has covered extensively and intimately in his career as a journalist. “If I had to put it in a single sentence,” he writes, “I would say: Inequality undermined the common faith that Americans need to create a successful multi-everything democracy.” He recognizes that “racism is in our marrow, and enough Americans either celebrate or tolerate this evil that it came within a whisker of gaining a lasting hold on power.” (He’s talking about Trump, though he would recognize that racism has in fact gained such a hold in other ways and times.)

Bazelon outlines what she calls Packer’s “biting” critique of the Left, and ties it to abandonment of the Enlightenment framework and the Left’s focus on subjectivity and “psychological trauma caused by speech and texts.”

Rauch addresses the Enlightenment basis of America’s Constitution more directly.

Rauch’s subject, in “The Constitution of Knowledge,” is the building of human understanding. He takes us on a historical tour of how a range of thinkers (Socrates, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montaigne, Locke, Mill, Hume, Popper) sought truth, came to embrace uncertainty, learned to test hypotheses and created scientific communities. He is astute about the institutional support and gatekeeping that sustains “the reality-based community of science and journalism.” Social media platforms are bad at this because their profits are built on stoking users’ existing rage and spreading lies faster than truth. This is not a new critique, but it’s nice to see Rauch weave it into his larger project.

Rauch describes the danger posed by Rightwing trolling and disinformation, but–like Packer–he also recognizes and criticizes the excesses of the left.

He blames it for cancel culture, defined as firing or ostracizing people for stray comments or social-media posts (some awful, some awkward, some expressing mainstream-until-yesterday views). He writes at helpful length about the difference between criticizing and canceling. “Criticism seeks to engage in conversations and identify error; canceling seeks to stigmatize conversations and punish the errant. Criticism cares whether statements are true; canceling cares about their social effects.”

Bazelon ended her review with a question I find increasingly pertinent: why do so many of today’s Americans reject the Enlightenment values of individual liberty and civic equality? She wanted both Rauch and Packer to “consider why the Enlightenment figures and values they love don’t speak to everyone.”

it’s a very important question.


Read This Book

Last week, I finished reading Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge. I highly recommend it.

The book is an extraordinarily readable primer on epistemology –how we humans know what we know, and a defense of the proposition that knowledge is a product of collective and institutional effort–what we might call the scientific method writ large. (As Rauch points out, knowledge is “a conversation, not a destination,” and falsification is an essential element in the development of knowledge.)

He begins with the thesis that the open society is defined by three social systems: economic, political, and epistemic, and that each of those systems handles social decision-making about resources, power, and truth. The book goes on to compare and contrast those social systems, and to connect today’s challenges to the long history of philosophical and scientific inquiries about the nature of reality, the differences between faith and fact, and the social and governmental importance of occupying the same “reality-based” community.

The book is also a stirring defense of free speech against assaults from both the  right (censorship) and the left (cancel culture).

Rauch warns that the real danger in a culture where lying is ubiquitous isn’t simply misdirection; it is the undermining of our ability to distinguish between fact and falsehood. As others have noted, the methodology of censorship has changed; today, rather than efforts to simply suppress uncongenial ideas (virtually impossible in our digital age), the tactic is to “flood the information zone with shit”–to confuse, undermine and paralyze rather than brainwash.

In the digital age, Rauch shares a concern that regular readers of this blog will recognize as  a preoccupation of mine–a concern that  the marketplace of ideas is in danger of being supplanted by a marketplace of realities.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the book is Rauch’s detailed explanation of why facts are–and must be– a social product.

Whether and where and how much of the time we think well thus depends not just on how biased we may be as individuals or even how we behave in unstructured groups; it also depends, crucially, on the design of the social environment in which we find ourselves. To phrase the point more bluntly: It’s the institutions, stupid.

As he says, our task is to create a” social environment which increases rightness and reduces wrongness.” Unlike our governmental constitution, the constitution of knowledge is unwritten, but no less important–it is a “social operating system” that aims to elicit co-operation and resolve differences on the “basis of rules rather than personal authority or tribal affiliation or brute force.” And he reminds us that information technology is very different from knowledge technology.

Information can be simply emitted, but knowledge, the product of a rich social interaction, must be achieved.

Rauch also reminds readers that all knowledge is necessarily provisional–that as we learn more, we revisit and refine what we “know” in light of new information and new knowledge, and that this inevitable impermanence can be very threatening to individuals who need bright lines and eternal truths.

Rauch concludes the discussion with advice on how the reality-based community can respond to and marginalize the trolls and virtue signalers and others who are using our new tools of communication to pollute the national discourse.

Speaking of that national discourse, I thought it was interesting to look at the ideological diversity of those who provided the inevitable jacket “blurbs” praising the book, because they represent a variety of (reality-based)political and social perspectives. Their range testifies to the objectivity of the content.

Bottom line, this is a truly important book, providing an essential overview of how humans know, how the “Constitution of Knowledge” overcomes individual errors and biases, allowing the collective “us” to distinguish between fact and fiction, and why that process is so essential to social construction and stability.

The foregoing description does a real disservice to the scope and richness of this book. You need to read it.