I’m just getting back from a 10-day trip to Scandinavia. The first five I spent in Stockholm and Vaxholm at Future Perfect, a festival focused on the subject of sustainability; the second five in Denmark at Kaos Pilots, a social entrepreneurship school based in Aarhus. At Kaos Pilots, I put on a two-day workshop on the art of inquiry in the context of social enterprise. It was a joy from beginning to end thanks in no small part to the inquisitive students and to Pete Sims, the team leader who invited me to teach there.
As I reflect on my experience, I return to one kind of reply that I heard frequently and found bewildering. One example will illustrate the kind of experience I kept having. On the second day, I asked students to consider what makes a wrong question wrong, and one student asked, at the very outset, whether this question isn’t already assuming that I’m making universal moral judgments concerning right and wrong. I replied, in the spirit of Aristotle, that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are said in a number of ways. “Wouldn’t we say that 2 + 2 = 5 is a wrong answer? Don’t we hear, ‘I put in two teaspoons of nutmeg, right? Can’t we say that someone has done a good job? And didn’t Michael Jackson teach us to ask, ‘Who’s bad?'” Quite possibly, right and wrong answers, as well as good or bad answers, also admit of this variety.
The student was, I believe, satisfied with this reply, but it still left unexamined the ‘public philosophy’ (cf. Walter Lippmann) that many young Europeans have received: some admixture of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. By ‘public philosophy,’ I mean both the general scaffolding of someone’s or some group’s thought and the reception of a set of lived-out ideas. Mind you, this ‘reception of lived-out ideas’ may bear only a passing resemblance to a robust conception of, say, relativism or pragmatism, but even in its attenuated form it suffices for an individual to make sense of a set of lived experiences.
I do not see it as my task to provide knockdown arguments against the public philosophy whose main ingredients are relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. So, in what follows I do not weigh in on the merits of more robust, more defensible versions of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. Rather, I find it more prescient to examine their hand-me-down appeal to young persons: what, after all, draws young people to these philosophical ideas, and why might it be crucial to let go of them once one has arrived at greater intellectual maturity?
In a word, the appeal of relativism is that it gives the young person reason to reject traditional forms of authority such as parents, educational institutions, and political organizations. None of these can be the ultimate arbiter over my life, I think, and so I am able to distance myself from these standards by which we determine the value of things. In this space of transition, I also admit the variety and complexity of human life: the values we ascribe to lives, persons, and objects can vary, based on a number of factors; the value that one person affixes to one object may not be the same for another; the things one used to value may not be those that one now values; etc. In the odyssey of self-understanding, relativism turns out to be an important way station whose purpose is to permit me to reject old forms of authority and to think seriously about the nature of values.
Postmodernism provides further buttressing for relativism. In Richard Rorty’s version, the postmodernist perceives that there is no ‘final vocabulary’ (or way of speaking or set of values, etc.) that can trump or outweigh all others. The postmodernist, accordingly, takes seriously the Death of God thesis and manages to live, or so it is said, with a greater sense of play and possibility. Where the relativist has time to put to question old values and think about moral complexity, the postmodernist–one step farther down the road–has a chance to say that no values are ultimate or backstop or, let’s say, worth dying for. The postmodernist is an ironist till the end.
Pragmatism, the last received philosophy, leads the young person to identify what is true with what is useful. ‘What can I do with this?’ or ‘How far can this take me?’ become relevant questions for him to ask. No more need I consider Truth with a capital T or knowledge as justified true belief or whatever. Far better to think about the tools with which I have been equipped, the uses to which they can be put, the practical changes I can effect.
There is considerable appeal in this public philosophy: rejection of the old, relief of metaphysical burdens, and usefulness in connection with one’s plan for life. The appeal seems to be that I can get on in this all too human world and find a place within the existing social fabric. (Alasdair MacIntyre might quip that it is an education for middle managers or consultants and he would be right.) I needn’t challenge others or be challenged in turn (relativism); I needn’t be puzzled about questions concerning what matters most because nothing anymore matters most (postmodernism); and I can be a hired gun whose task is to consider what works for this organization or what is useful in terms of bottom lines or what can be delivered on deadline (pragmatism).
But what if the world were crumbling?
Tomorrow, I want to explore why this public philosophy is out of step with the unsettled age in which we live. We are in need of big thinkers to help us navigate through a space of uncertainty–let’s think again of Kaos Pilots, of pilots navigating through chaos–and this cannot happen unless we are staked (pace relativism) to something of ultimate importance (pace postmodernism) without resorting to what is to be done forthwith (pace pragmatism).