In academia, reason and its concomitants—objective truth, fact, and knowledge—are under fire courtesy of the postmodern leftists that dominant the professoriate.
From whence springs this animus against the classical ideal of liberal learning?
The initial impetus, it seems clear, was animus against the theocentric worldview—Christianity—within which the University came to be.
By the lights of the classical ideal of a liberal arts education, the essential mission of any institution of higher learning is the facilitation of the disinterested pursuit of Truth. Universities existed for the sake of cultivating within students the excellences of head and heart, the intellectual and moral virtues.
Notice, this traditional understanding relies upon an assumption that was taken for granted for much of the history of Western civilization, the assumption that between ontology and virtue—metaphysics and ethics, ultimate reality and moral goodness—there exists an indissoluble bond.
Western Man’s affirmation of the ontology-morality connection was most prominently embodied in what is widely known as “the Great Chain of Being.” The latter, endorsed by the ancients and medieval thinkers alike, is the idea that there are degrees of reality or being, and that the more reality a thing possesses, the more goodness it possesses.
Plato’s “Two Worlds” theory is the most robust illustration from the ancient world of this metaphysical vision. For Plato, reality is divided into two orders of existence. On the one hand, there’s the world of such “Universals” or “Forms” as Truth, Beauty, Justice, and, most importantly, “the Good.” On the other hand, there is our world, the world of “particulars,” a world comprised of the many individual perceptible things that we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell from moment to moment.
The Universals are most real, for this perishable world of particulars depends upon it. The Universals are also, hence, superior to this fleeting world of ours.
Christian thinkers, represented by the likes of Saint Augustine, preserved the Great Chain but made God the apex of all being. For Christians, God is most fundamentally real and, thus, maximally good.
Within the framework of the Great Chain, then, reality is of objective value. It is not subjective or otherwise “socially constructed.” Reality is a hierarchical unity. And Truth, the object of knowledge, is not comprised of propositions. Truth is being, the highest being. In Christian thought, Truth is a Person (or, more specifically, three Persons in One).
The repudiation of reason and truth as masks is a repudiation of the Christian suppositions that have underwritten Western civilization for most of its lifespan.
Karl Marx, with his “dialectical materialism” that reduced both the theistic claims of Christianity and all appeals to reason to the function of an historically-specific, dominant mode of the means of economic production, was the first to recognize that the assault against objective reason and that against Christianity are one and the same. Yet Friedrich Nietzsche, with his infamous declaration that “God is dead,” made the link between the two explicit.
In Book III of Joyful Wisdom, Nietzsche proclaims God’s death and laments that “for millenniums yet” people will have to “overcome his shadow!” He was not in doubt as to the implications of a Godless universe. “The general character of the world…is to all eternity chaos; not by the absence of necessity, but in the sense of the absence of order, structure, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever else our aesthetic humanities are called.” The universe “is altogether unaffected by our aesthetic and moral judgments” and “it…knows no law,” for “there is no one who commands, no one who obeys, no one who transgresses.”
One of the “four errors” in which “Man has been reared” is his belief that whatever “tables of values” he happened to devise at any given moment “are eternal and unconditioned [.]” The ideas of “humanity, humaneness, and ‘human dignity’” are “deducted” from this “error” and the others.
It is not coincidental that Nietzsche immediately follows his declaration concerning the morally, aesthetically, and theologically-neutral character of the cosmos as he conceives it with his attack on knowledge and even logic.
“Throughout immense stretches of time,” he writes, “the intellect produced nothing but errors [.]” Admittedly, some of these errors “proved to be useful and preservative of the species,” but they remain, nevertheless, “erroneous articles of faith” that, today, “are almost the property and stock of the human species [.]”
And what are these falsehoods? They are the notions of “enduring things,” “equal things,” “substances, bodies [.]” They as well include the ideas “that a thing is what it appears, that our will is free,” and “that what is good for me is also good absolutely.” It was until much later in time, Nietzsche continues, that this traditional conception of “truth made its appearance as the most impotent form of knowledge.” Reason is not “generally…an entirely free and self-originating activity” but, rather, “the force of the impulses in cognition [.]”
As for logic, it “originated in men’s heads…out of the illogical [.]” Nietzsche summarizes his position: “The course of logical thought and reasoning in our modern brain corresponds to a process and struggle in impulses, which singly and in themselves are all very illogical and unjust [.]” Humans “experience usually only the result of the struggle, so rapidly and secretly does this primitive mechanism now operate in us.”
In the 20th century, the French existentialist, atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre approvingly quoted Dostoyevski’s famous claim that “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.” Sartre regarded this proposition as existentialism’s “starting point.” Without God, “man” is “abandoned,” “for he cannot find anything to rely on—neither within nor without. Neither within him nor without does he find anything [objective moral standards] to cling to.”
Gone with God is “the possibility of finding value in an intelligible,” “any a priori Good,” for there is “no infinite and perfect consciousness to think of it.”
Sartre is convinced that if God does not exist, then neither does human nature. His point is that “since there is no God to conceive it, there is no human nature.”
The assault against reason is, in the last analysis, an assault against the historical Christian consciousness of Western civilization. In a future essay, we shall see that for the contemporary postmodern academic left, this attack is an attack on white people, and white heterosexual Christian men (or “males”) in particular.