Reason and Narrative

I do not write often, even privately, about political questions. I do not feel I know enough. But I am rather interested in the idea of Western culture (and, more narrowly, American culture). Can any sense be made of it? What would it mean to consider myself a specifically American poet, in some sense that goes beyond the fact that I was born here? And sometimes the fruit hangs just low enough that even I, in my relative ignorance, feel confident I can enter the fray. Andrew McCarthy’s recent piece in The New Criterion (behind a paywall here) dangles low before me, very low, and I cannot resist.

McCarthy’s piece, part of a larger symposium on free speech and the academy (summarized: The Left is killing it), argues that we can draw a divide between the West and Islam on the following grounds: the West is characterized by reason, Islam by narrative. This is the result of Islam’s endorsement of divine voluntarism, with God as the immediate cause of everything, not bound by rules of logic outside himself.

Now one might immediately be skeptical, for it is precisely a part of this view that such reason is universal. One wonders, then, how it can be specifically Western. But let us leave that aside. The West is characterized by fealty to (universal) Reason, Islam by fealty to parochial narratives. And who else should also like narratives but the social justice warriors who are overrunning our campuses, creating a chilling environment where politically incorrect ideas are verboten. Just like Islam, they have given up peaceful persuasion in favor of insidious compulsion. The core of McCarthy’s article is this paragraph:

Appeals to reason are all well and good, for even the mind of a captive is free to reason and make choices. But those choices can be confined. That does not happen in the West, or at least it did not until recent times, because here the rule of reason avails us of infinite choices. Reason, though, is very far from the most common guide for ruling societies.

The reason why this article is low-hanging fruit is that it spells out several contrasts between Reason and Narrative, and for each such contrast the article itself possesses the characteristics of Narrative. (In this regard it is impressively un-self-conscious.) I will consider two.

First, Reason involves a commitment to challenging basic assumptions, to being willing to jettison them if they should prove wrong or unwarranted. Narrative, by contrast, is happy to bend facts to fit a pre-established pattern. How well does McCarthy do on challenging and testing his basic assumptions? Not so well, I’m afraid. At the core of his argument is the view that the “backbone” of military Islam is a commitment to radical voluntarism:

Without apology, Islam spread by military conquest because the predominant conception of Allah was defined by will, not reason.

This asserts a very strong causal claim: it is because of their conception of Allah in terms of will and not reason that Islam is spread by military conquest. Without that causal claim, the rest of the article falls apart, for the inference that we are very clearly meant to draw is that the tyranny of the social justice warrior is an inevitable result of accept the ideas of Foucault and like. McCarthy, however, provides no evidence that supports this causal claim. The one thing he does say—that reason was deliberately removed from philosophical conceptions of Islam between the 9th and 11th centuries—is clearly insufficient to establish that there is a causal connection between the two at all, let alone that this connection proceeds from voluntarism to conquest.

Moreover, McCarthy ignores the inconvenient fact that there is a long tradition of voluntarism (both about morality and about causality) in Western philosophy. Malebranche’s causal occasionalism comes to mind as the instance I have read most recently. Was Malebranche inherently non-Western? Even more ludicrous is the claim that in the West ideas have, until recently, been spread by Reason alone. He must have an enviably rosy picture of the tactics of Christian missionaries (to give but one example)—or were they all secret voluntarists?

Another example. I recently read (and very much enjoyed) General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs, which covered his pivotal role in the Civil War. At several points, Sherman scoffs at those carrying on debates over whether the Union should be preserved or the Confederate states allowed to secede. Argument, he says, has been exhausted. Ultimately only force will decide the matter. And once the South has been defeated, their ideas will start to come around. Sherman’s position is precisely that pro-Union ideas are to be spread by conquest, not persuasion. McCarthy’s position seems to commit him to the claim that the Civil War (at least as Sherman understood it) was an inherently non-Western, indeed anti-Western war. I doubt he wants to accept that claim. (Or maybe Sherman was a voluntarist.)

More generally, the issue is that McCarthy is trading in nebulous claims about essences: the essence of the West is Reason (even if the actual West often failed to live up to it), while the essence of Islam is voluntarist conquest (even though both voluntarism and conquest can be readily found in the West). Such claims about essences are curiously immune to test, for all counter-instances are of course non-essential, are the outliers. In other words, the very structure of McCarthy’s argument is more suited to Narrative as he characterizes it than it is to Reason.

A second contrast between Reason and Narrative is that Reason attempts to sort out which ideas are right and which ideas are wrong, while Narrative instead favors setting up a contrast between “us” and “them.” Central to Narrative, on this conception, is the practice of condemning a view not because it is wrong, but because it has unwanted consequences. (This is the epitome of McCarthy’s caricature of political correctness.) Now there is an easy way and a serious way to mock McCarthy’s article for hypocrisy here. The frivolous way is to point out that the simplest way to state McCarthy’s thesis is that the unsullied West is under threat from within by leftists who have adopted the inherently non-Western ideas and tactics of Islam. Or, in short, us vs. them.

That is a nice little jest at his expense, but it lies on top of a much more serious criticism. McCarthy is ultimately defending the idea that there is objective truth independent of all power struggles against the idea that everything we call ‘true’ is inextricably linked to (potentially insidious) motives in such a struggle. (You will note, by the by, that these positions are obviously not incompatible.) He does so in a way that sets up an us vs. them dynamic, but that hardly is hypocritical, provided he gives us reason to think that the one is right and the other wrong. That is why I claim that it is frivolous, though amusing.

The trouble, however, is that throughout his article McCarthy provides exactly one reason to favor Reason over Narrative. Narrative has as its consequence the spread of ideas by conquest—military conquest in the case of Islam, Title IX conquest in the case of SJWs. Reason does not. So we should favor Reason. This provides no reason whatsoever to think that Narrative (or its supposed voluntarist underpinning) is wrong. It simply has unsavory consequences.

I hope it is clear that I have no general objection to this style of argument. Philosophical and factual claims may be right or wrong, but they may also be connected to concrete action and systemic structures, and it seems worthwhile to me to investigate both. As I noted above, the core claims of Reason and Narrative are just straightforwardly compatible. So perhaps McCarthy is right that voluntarism is connected to conquest, and that this should lead us to be wary of it where we find it (obviously, I don’t think McCarthy has made a good case, but my commitment to Reason, as it were, forbids me from inferring an idea’s inadequacy from its advocate’s incompetence). But for him to pretend that his argument conforms to the commands of Reason (as he characterizes it) is sheer cant.

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