Brevity is not only the soul of wit,
it is, on occasion such as this, plain politeness. And it is prudent.
I am the last impediment standing between you and the world that
is, you are sure and I hope, to be your oyster. I do not want to
be trampled in a stampede, so I shall confine my remarks to a subject
of manageable scope.
My subject is the nature of knowledge
and the nature of our nation. This may seem like a subject sufficiently
broad to consume this afternoon and many more, but fear not. I
know the rules of academic ceremonies such as this.
I am, or at least I once was, what
used to be called a "faculty brat." Which is to say, I am a child
of a professor - of philosophy, retired, at the University of Illinois.
Worse still, obedient to the current practice of ruthless full
disclosure, I confess to being a former professor - of political
philosophy, at Michigan State University and the University of
Toronto. I mention this part of my checkered past diffidently because
in recent decades the public has come to look askance at the academic
community. The public's suspicions is that campuses have become
incubators of intellectual strangeness, and worse.
I well remember an evening in 1976
when I saw how much of a problem the professoriate had. That night
in 1976 was when Pat Moynihan, late of the Harvard faculty, won
the Democratic nomination to run against the incumbent U.S. senator
from New York, James Buckley. Over at Buckley headquarters Jim
said he looked forward to running against Professor Moynihan,
and he was sure Professor Moynihan would run the kind of
high-level campaign one could expect from a Harvard professor.
A few minutes later, back at Moynihan headquarters Pat met the
press. A reporter informed him that Jim Buckley was referring to
him as "Professor Moynihan." Pat drew himself up to his
full, considerable height and said with mock austerity, "Ah, the
mudslinging has begun."
Pat Moynihan was being droll. But beneath
his wit there lurked a sobering point: Something has caused a dark
lowering cloud of suspicion to gather over the academic community.
Today the could is larger and darker.
Is the educated, temperate public right
to wonder about the temperateness of many educators? Is it reasonable
to wonder whether many educators are remaining faithful to their
traditional mission? That mission is the conservation, enlargement
and transmission of the ideas, understandings and values on which
a society such as ours - a society based on persuasion and consent
I believe the educated public is rightly
worried. The problem is that a particular cluster of ideas, and
a concomitant sensibility, have gained currency in some academic
circles. If the ideas are not identified, understood and refuted,
they can seep like slow, cumulative poisons into the larger society,
with large and lasting consequences in our politics, our governance
and our tradition of civility.
The ideas advance under the banner
of "postmodernism." That is a faith with many factions, but it
claims to have had one founding prophet. His name was Nietzsche.
He proclaimed the words that postmodernists have made their core
tenet. His words were: "There are not facts, but only interpretations."
Now, Nietzsche is here conscripted
as a prophet without his permission. In fact, regarding Nietzsche
the postmodernists are guilty of philosopher-abuse. They are saying
something silly: Nietzsche was no. He was not asserting, as postmodernists
do, a kind of epistemological despair arising from a radical indeterminacy
about reality. Rather, he was making a sober epistemological point.
It was that facts are never only facts, naked and pristine and
self-evident and immediately apprehended by all minds in the same
way in all circumstances and contexts. Rather, he said knowledge
is conditioned in complex ways by the contexts in which what we
call facts are encountered, and by mental processes, not all of
them conscious mental moves, that can be called interpretations.
The postmodernists' bowdlerizing of
Nietzsche distills to a simple, and simple-minded, assertion. It
is that because the acquisition of knowledge is not a simple process
of infallible immediacy, there can be no knowledge in any meaningful
sense. Therefore, we are utterly emancipated from rules of reasoning
and may substitute willfulness for rationality. All interpretations
are let loose to play in a theater of unrestrained semantic egalitarianism.
Not that postmodernism has an almost
comically unpromising beginning in its understanding of Nietzsche.
Postmodernism is erected on the rickety scaffolding of what is
less a paradox than an absurdity. It is the assertion that it is
a fact that there are no facts. Unfortunately, the fact that something
is absurd does not mean it is inconsequential. Indeed, much of
modern history is a sad story of absurdities that managed to become
cloaked with power.
Postmodernism is all about the wielding
of power, because it is not - it cannot be - about anything other
than power. It has no content other than the assertion that the
content of any proposition, any book or any mind is arbitrary,
or the result of race or ethnicity or sex or class, and deserves
no more respect than any other content of any proposition, book
It may seem to sensible people that
I must be caricaturing this idea of postmodernism, or exaggerating
its prevalence. As evidence to the contrary, consider a pamphlet
issued by the American Council of Learned Societies. The pamphlet
baldly asserts that "the most powerful modern philosophies and
theories" are "demonstrating" that "claims of disinterest, objectivity
and universality are not to be trusted, and themselves tend to
reflect historical conditions." The phrase "local historical conditions" is
generally understood to mean "power relations."
Now, "the most powerful modern philosophies
and theories" demonstrate no such thing. Nevertheless the crux
of postmodernism is the postulate that any supposedly disinterested
deliberation actually is merely self-interest disguised. And, postmodernists
say, it is a duty of "realists" to "unmask" the "power relationships" and "power
struggles" that are the reality beneath every pretense of reasoned
Concerning these ideas, let us not
mince words. The ideas are profoundly dangerous. They subvert our
civilization by denying that truth is found by conscientious attempts
accurately to portray a reality that exists independently of our
perception or attitudes or other attributes such as race, ethnicity,
sex or class. Once that foundation of realism is denied, the foundation
of society based on persuasion crumbles. It crumbles because all
arguments necessarily become ad hominem; they become arguments
about the characteristics of the person presenting a thought, not
about the thought.
Once a society abandons its belief
in facts and truths, and its belief in standards for distinguishing
facts and truths from fictions and falsehoods; once intellectuals
say, "We are all Nietzscheans now, and there are no facts, only
interpretations"' once this occurs, then, as Professor John Searle
says, "it seems arbitrary and elitist to think that some theories
are simply true and others false, and that some cultures have produced
more important cultural products than others."
Searle, a philosopher at the University
of California at Berkeley, knows what follows form the postmodern
fallacies. If there are no standards rooted in reason, if there
are only preferences and appetites arising from "solidarity" and
interests, then there can be no education as education has traditionally
For example, until recently it was
believed that, Searle says, "the study of the great classics of
literature gave the reader insights into human nature and the human
condition in general." But nowadays many intellectuals consider
it arrogant folly to speak of the "classics" or "great works." Indeed,
as Searle says, many people avoid the word "works," preferring
to speak merely of "texts." That word has the "leveling implication
that one text is as much a text as another." Therefore the works
of, say, Walt Whitman or Walt Disney are all, and equally, texts.
Clearly some of the ideas of postmodernism,
by infusing academic life with politics and frivolity, subvert
the function of, and dissipate the social support for, colleges
and universities. And when the relationship of such institutions
to the surrounding and sustaining society becomes problematic,
those institutions swiftly learn a painful lesson about the perishable
nature of prestige.
A few years ago I stood with a friend,
a teacher at Brasenose College, Oxford, looking out from his study
window at those "dreaming spires" of the University. My friend,
worried about the decreasing public support for that University,
said: "This is the prettiest view in Oxford. Hence the prettiest
view in the south of England. Hence the prettiest view in Europe.
Hence the prettiest view in the world. And yet," my friend continued, "the
time may come when young people and scholars will no longer beat
a path to our many doors." "Remember," he said, "three centuries
ago everyone wanted to go to the university of Padua."
Who in a future shaped by the postmodern
sensibility will want to attend any college or university steeped
in the idea that "there are not facts, but only interpretations"?
What society will devote scarce resources to the support of institutions
that regard the intellectual life as a sublimated - a barely sublimated
- power struggle over competing political agendas of racial, ethnic
or sexual groups asserting solidarity against one another?
I ask these warning questions as an
admiring friend of academic life. I write a syndicated newspaper
column; I write a column for a national weekly news magazine; I
appear every week on a network television news program. Yet no
matter how much journalism I do - newspaper, magazine and broadcast
- the more certain I am that a fourth mode of communication matters
more than those three. It is books I have in mind. And books are
the business of colleges and universities.
Or should be. Unfortunately, we are
witnessing, on campuses and throughout society, the displacement
of books and all they embody - a culture of reason and persuasion
- by politics. And it is politics of a peculiar and unwholesome
kind, called "identity politics." The premise of such politics
is that the individual is decisively shaped, and irrevocably defined,
not by conscious choice but by accidents. The premise is that people
are defined not by convictions arrived at by processes of reason
and persuasion, but by accidents of birth and socialization - by
their race, ethnicity, sex or class. The theory is that are whatever
our group is, and that we necessarily think and act according to
the circumscribed mental makeup of the groups' interests. This
theory is starkly incompatible with, and subversive of, the premises
of American democracy.
More and more intellectuals are receptive
to the idea that all politics is, or should be, "identity politics," and
that all intellectual life is really politics. The idea is that
intellectual life is really politics. The idea is that intellectual
life may be unconscious politics, but it is politics nonetheless
- a struggle for power, for power - and should become conscious
politics. Furthermore, we are told it is simple honesty to get
the struggle aboveboard, front and center, by calling every intellectual
distinction and dispute what it is - a political move in a power
We see such thoughts institutionalized
in our politics, in the doctrine of "categorical representation." That
doctrine holds that people can be properly represented, and their
values can be truly understood and empathized with, only by people
who are from the same "category" of people - women by women, African-Americans
by African-Americans, Hispanics by Hispanics, homosexuals by homosexuals,
and so on. This doctrine fuels the fracturing of the American community
into mutually suspicious and truculent factions, each proclaiming
itself irremediably at odds with - ever incomprehensible to - all
persons who are not members of that faction.
Often nowadays we hear a question posed
that is not really a question. It is an oblique assertion of what
the ostensible questioner considers a self-evident truth. The question
is: Should we not all respect and honor one's differences? The
gravamen of the "question" invariably is that differences of race,
ethnicity and sexuality all should be "respected" and "honored."
I disagree. Why should respect and
honor accrue to accidents of birth? Given that they are accidents,
what, precisely, is there to honor? Surely, respect is owed to,
and honor should flow to individuals, for their attainments
of intellectual or moral excellence, not merely because of any
membership in any group.
Professor Searle draws the correct,
and dismaying, conclusion about the idea of organizing society
around, and basing politics on, "respect" for group "differences." If
identity politics is valid, then "it is no longer one of the purposes
of education.. to enable the student to develop an identity as
a member of a larger human intellectual culture." If the premise
of identity politics is true, then the idea on which America rests
is false. If the promise of identity politics is true, then there
is no meaningful sense a universal human nature, and there are
no general standards of intellectual discourse, and no possible
ethic of ennobling disputation, no process of civil persuasion
toward friendly consent, no source of legitimacy other than power,
and we all live immersed in our groups (they once were called tribes),
warily watching all other groups across the chasms of our "differences."
No sensible person wants to live in
such a society. Therefore all sensible people should be worried.
I am temperamentally inclined
to worry. That is why I am a conservative. Proper conservatives
subscribe to the "Ohio in 1895 Theory of History" - so named, by
me, because of this: In 1895 there just two automobiles in Ohio
- and they collided. Conservatives expect trouble and are rarely
disappointed. They understand the universal application of the
Buttered-Side Down Law, which is: The chance of the bread falling
buttered-side down is directly proportional to the cost of the
Still, even discounting the conservative
propensity for worrying, reasonable people of all persuasions,
conservatives and liberals alike, should see that there is a clear
and present danger in the sprouting of "identity politics" in the
social soil fertilized by postmodernism. The result of such politics
can eventually be the Balkanization of our nation.
Note the word "Balkanization." What
that term derives from is much in the news just now. A geographical
expression has become a political pathology. And if you want to
see the world that the postmodernist sensibility could make, look
If you want to what happens when all
differences immediately become power struggles and nothing but
power struggles, look at the Balkans. There "identity politics" is
practiced with the ruthlessness that comes with the belief that
there can be no other kind of politics - no disinterested politics
of ideas and persuasion. When groups assume that they are locked
in their mutually unintelligible differences, you get the nasty
and brutish state of nature that Hobbes depicted. Odd, is it not,
how the postmodern sensibility seems suited to, and conducive to,
a world of postmodern tribalism.
A society steeped in postmodern sensibility
will have an uneasy conscience about teaching certain great truths,
values or works because it will wonder: Who are we - who is anyone
- to say that anything is greater than anything else? And a postmodernist
community cannot long remain a community. It will lose the confidence
necessary for the transmission of precious things - tested ideas
and values - held in common.
This subject is endlessly fascinating.
However, a speaker should never use the word "endless" when addressing
a restive audience. Every such speaker should remember the story
of White Sox manager Jeff Torborg's trip to remove pitcher Jim
Kern. Kern told Torborg he wasn't tired. Torborg said, "I know,
but the outfielders are."
I am not tired, but you have every
right to be tired of me holding up your just reward for four years
well spent at this splendid college which has prepared you well
for success in our magnificent nation.
Our nation is, I passionately believe,
the finest organized expression of the Western rationalist tradition,
the tradition that is the soul of what we call Western civilization.
I do not describe our nation because it always behaves reasonably.
Rather, I do so because our nation incarnates steady confidence
in the capacity of people to guide themselves by deliberation.
Three hundred and one years ago this
institutions embarked upon its great work. That work involved conserving
and conceiving and refining and transmitting the ideas and understandings
that nourish freedom. This institution's early work helped give
rise to this Republic that remains the most important thing that
ever happened in all of mankind's quest for the good life. Many
people around the world remain unconvinced of, even hostile to,
the meaning of our Republic. Therefore William and Mary's work
for freedom is far from done. Neither is yours, Class of 1994,
as you bear this college's high standards into the world.
But, you will doubtless be delighted
to learn, my work, for today, is done. Thank you for letting
me do it.