After this week’s debate, Marco Rubio unveiled his newest attack ad.
This video is, of course, an old philosophy joke that’s been floating around the Web for years. But it just may have a point. It turns out that the nineteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant really is wrong for America (and wrong on all those other things, too). If you want the proof, look to the new wave of campus turmoil spreading out from Yale and the University of Missouri.
I say this, by the way, as someone with a degree in philosophy who has a firm belief in its value (although I can also attest that it has less economic value, at least at first, than learning how to weld). We desperately need a discipline that teaches people to understand big ideas and to subject those ideas to rigorous rational evaluation. If only somebody would do that.
We can tell they’re not doing it from this week’s growing campus race hysteria, which is notable for the total absence of critical evaluation and the suppression of rational discourse.
All of these cases begin with anecdotes, rumors, and innuendo, like the alleged “whites only” comment at Yale, where Emily Shire notes that “the lack of consistent, corroborated evidence of the party has not quelled Yale students’ outrage.” Or consider Mizzou’s “poop swastika,” where it took about two weeks to get any kind of independent verification, by which point the university’s president had already been forced to resign.
But once the mob gets going, facts don’t matter, and you will be made to confess. No, really. The guy at Yale who was denounced because his wife wrote an e-mail telling everyone to lighten up about Halloween costumes? He eventually appeared, flanked by his superiors, to deliver a groveling apology.
“I mean, it just broke my heart,” Christakis said. “I thought that I had some credibility with you, you know? I care so much about the same issues you care about. I’ve spent my life taking care of these issues of injustice, of poverty, of racism. I have the same beliefs that you do…. I’m genuinely sorry, and to have disappointed you. I’ve disappointed myself.”
It is also reported that Christakis has won the victory over himself and loves Big Brother.
The hysteria is spreading to other campuses, with students eager to get in on the revolution whether they have anything to rebel against or not. The newest chapter in the Halloween Costume Inquisition comes from Claremont McKenna college, where a student was forced to resign from the exalted position of junior class president because she appeared in a photograph alongside two girls wearing mustachioed Mexican peasant costumes. As usual, the show trial ends with a confession of one’s counter-revolutionary crimes.
Brackmann wrote, in part, “As a bystander I did not assertively speak out against the costumes, despite knowing that they were disrespectful. Even worse, I associated myself with the offensive message by willingly standing in a photo with the costumes. My actions poorly represented me as someone who is supposed to represent all students. I am regretfully sorry to have been associated with this harmful incident, and after thoughtful consideration I have decided to leave my position as the Junior Class President.” In her email, she also asked those who have come to her defense for the photo to “stop blaming discrimination on ignorance. Please learn from my mistakes in order to best help me create a safe environment for everyone.”
In an e-mail, the president of Claremont McKenna announced “I’m holding a sit-in in my office,” to which students were invited to bring their grievances. This is what happens when old ’60s radicals become faculty and administrators and set the whole tone for campus culture. University presidents hold pre-emptive sit-ins in their own offices. Today’s students are so coddled that they no longer have to make the effort to take over university buildings. Their elders will take it over for them. It’s like a weird kind of helicopter parenting: “Here, let me rebel for you, sweetheart.”
I once intended to become an academic philosopher, before deciding that—how shall I put this?—I didn’t quite have the temperament for academia. I’m glad I didn’t go that route, because if I had, they would have had to build a permanent protest village outside my office.
But of course it never would have gotten that far. These forced confessions, and the near-total absence of anyone standing up to tell the protest mobs to shove it (with one exception) is proof that most universities have long since turfed out anyone on the Right. All that’s left are good, obedient lefties who thought they were supposed to be “liberals”—and are discovering, too late, that the system they created is totalitarian.
It’s actually a specific variant of totalitarianism. The show trials and forced confession may seem Stalinist, but the spectacle of students turning on their teachers and denouncing them as counter-revolutionaries should remind us of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It’s not just totalitarianism, it’s mob-rule totalitarianism.
For this, we can blame those damned philosophers.
After his comment on welders and philosophy majors—followed by Ted Cruz denouncing “philosopher-kings” and John Kasich declaring that “philosophy doesn’t work”—Rubio came under criticism from the right, including James Taranto and The Federalist‘s Rachel Lu, for failing to appreciate the value of a liberal arts education, and for not standing up for Western Civilization, some of the crowning achievements of which were produced by philosophers.
For example, recognize this?
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The Founding Fathers got that from a philosopher, John Locke. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words into the Declaration of Independence, hailed Locke as one of “the three greatest men that have ever lived.” So we owe a lot to philosophers and, yes, Senator Rubio, that includes the Greek ones.
Yet there is a reason the field of philosophy has fallen so far into disrepute that it has become the butt of presidential debates. It ends with the current campus insanity, but it begins with that scoundrel Immanuel Kant.
The joke attack ad sums up Kant’s views in the kind of technical gobbledygook Kant loved to write in. One of the odd pleasures of studying philosophy is that when you finally understand this type of philosopher, you feel like the guy who cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics. So let me translate Kant for you.
According to the ad, “Mr. Kant would have you believe that reality is purely noumenal and beyond the reach of our phenomenal consciousness, thereby being inherently unknowable.” The idea is that we can’t know things as they really are, what he calls the “noumenal” world, because all of our information about those things comes to us through our senses, our eyes and ears, and our own consciousness, which shapes and distorts that information. So all we can see is the distorted version, a realm of appearances (“phenomena”) shaped by our own nature, not by the nature of the things we are perceiving.
At the heart of Kant’s system, there is a radical skepticism: perception is inherently distorting, so there is no indisputable reality we have access to. There’s only the truth as it appears to you, filtered through your own consciousness.
You might notice that this is inherently self-refuting. Ayn Rand, who regarded Kant as the worst philosopher in history, summed up his philosophy as the argument that we are blind because we have eyes, deaf because we have ears, and deluded because we have a mind. But the idea that there is no truth, only people’s perception—well, I think you can begin to see how we get to Yale, Mizzou, and the current grievance culture.
Kant’s skepticism was mitigated by his belief that the filters that distort our perception of reality are universal, so we’re all living in a shared delusion. But subsequent philosophers went to work on that, and most post-Kantian schools of philosophy declared our perception of reality to be distorted by narrower and narrower differences between us.
The next big milestone was Karl Marx—more of a philosopher than an economist—who declared that our perception of reality is filtered by class differences. So there is no universal truth, just a “legitimating ideology” that exists to serve the purposes of the current regime, to keep some people in power and other people subjugated. You can see how his followers used this as the basis for inventing the whole field of modern propaganda and show trials—the precursor of what you’re now seeing on campus.
But there was one more stage. We had to add racial differences to things that distort our perception, then we had to accommodate the feminists (and the LGBTQ) by adding gender, until we got to the modern (or postmodern) holy trinity of “race, class, and gender.” But the key Kantian assumption remains: that there is no universal truth, just your “perspective,” as a trans person of color or a left-handed lesbian tugboat worker, or whatever. And no one else is entitled to question your perspective. It’s true because it’s true for you. If you are aggrieved, the very fact of your grievance validates itself.
If that’s the case, what’s the point of discussing any of it? It’s not for others to question or for you to explain. You just scream out your rage and frustration, and they have to cave.
So if you want to see the consequences of 200 years of irrational philosophy, it looks like this.
It’s “I disagree,” followed by a string of shouted obscenities. And the guy who reasonably disagrees is forced into a humiliating show-trial confession, while the obscenity-shouter is hailed as a hero.
The point is that this is not exactly a breakdown of the universities. This is the universities expressing the final, consistent form of their own ruling philosophy. Did I say above that this philosophy is self-refuting? Well, over the long run, it’s also self-liquidating. If this is all there is to all that high-brow academic stuff, then we might as well shut the whole thing down.
This is how the field of philosophy has brought itself into well-earned disrepute. Philosophy only matters if rational discussion of big ideas matters. It matters only if there is a universal truth that we can seek through the use of reason. But this is precisely the idea that the dominant schools of philosophy have turned their backs on.
It’s also the idea that we need to help us fight back against these new totalitarians and resurrect the principles of rational debate and freedom of speech. So the point is not that philosophers are inherently useless. Once upon a time, philosophers like Aristotle and Locke gave us ideas that helped the advancement of science and the founding of a new nation. The point is that there aren’t enough philosophers like that any more.
So from a purely economic perspective, Rubio may be right that we need more welders and fewer philosophy majors. But from a cultural perspective, what we really need is better philosophers.