Sunday, August 14, 2022

Susan Haack, "Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate" (1998) Or, why intellectual integrity matters

From my old web site:

Those of us who debate the truth value of science or history sometimes have our days ruined by a certain sort of smug post-modernist armed with a line of trendy academic scorn. Putting on his most condescending smile, this cad will scoff at us, quote Foucault, Rorty or some other enemy of reason, and say that no real epistemologist takes "truth" seriously any more (people like that can talk in sneer quotes). Next time this happens to you, say, "Susan Haack does."

Susan Haack is a philosopher who cares about the search for truth, and in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate she defends the genuine quest for knowledge and understanding against the assault on rational thought emanating from America's universities. Each of the essays that make up her book is a carefully reasoned defense of the possibility of real knowledge and a refutation of some line of cynicism or unreason. Richard Rorty once dismissed those who think an honest search for the truth is possible or desirable as "old-fashioned prigs", and Haack proudly takes up the label: the first essay in this collection is titled "Confessions of an Old-Fashioned Prig." Besides Rorty, her favorite foil, she takes on sociologists of science, feminists, multiculturalists, relativists, and academic life in general, and I think almost everything she says is brilliant.

Haack is not the sort of blustering conservative fool who regularly appears in the pages of Time or The Wall Street Journal whining about academic nonsense and insisting that the truth is as obvious as the superiority of capitalism. She is enough of an epistemologist to know that, as she puts it, "the questions of the epistemological tradition are hard, very hard." She is indeed a moderate. Rather than dismissing the problems raised by knowledge skeptics from Berkeley to Foucault, she acknowledges them and seeks a basis for knowledge that is robust enough to survive all their attacks. She makes no claim to have succeeded in her task. What distinguishes Haack from the anti-rationalist crowd is that the difficulty of the challenge does not daunt her, and she refuses to abandon the search for truth.

Haack begins by introducing the distinction between genuine inquiry and what she calls "sham" inquiry. She writes:

Nobody seriously doubts the possibility, or the usefulness, of finding things out; that is something we all take for granted when we inquire about plane schedules, or the state of our bank accounts, or the best treatment for our child's illness, and so forth. Nobody seriously doubts, either, that sometimes, instead of really trying to find things out, people fudge, fake, and obfuscate to avoid discovering unpalatable truths; that is something we all take for granted when we ask who paid for this reassuring study, who stands to gain from an Official Inquiry minimizing that scandal, which party this expert witness works for, and so on. 

Among the cynical errors that bedevil our time is the confusion of genuine inquiry with the sham kind, and it is against this confusion that Haack takes her stand. From sociologists of science who think that all scientists ever do is re-affirm their own ideologies to the infamous Steven Stich, who once said that "once we have a clear view of the matter, most of us will not find any value in having true beliefs," it has become almost commonplace to assert that all inquiry is a sham, and to use examples of bogus knowledge (e.g., racist science) to discredit the whole enterprise of rational investigation. Against this background, Haack's agenda is to articulate a clear view of what it means to care about the truth, what the difference is between genuine inquiry and the various kinds of pseudo-inquiry to which we sometimes succumb, why we value intellectual integrity, and what has gone wrong in the thinking of those who denigrate concern for truth. In these words Haack offers a creed for the party of truth, a manifesto, as she says, for those of us who are passionate in our devotion to reason. The rest of the book does not entirely live up to the stirring promise of these words, but it comes close enough to be about as thrilling as it is possible for a work of philosophy to be.

Haack's main method in these essays is the same as that of Aristotle and innumerable thinkers since: she makes careful distinctions between ideas that others have blurred and seeks definitions for words that others have used as if they had no particular meaning at all. To the average Wall Street Journal editorialist, "relativism" is just another word for immorality and unreason. Haack knows better, and when she takes up relativism she produces a two-column table with the format "A is relative to B" laying out a range of possibilities. Her table has nine terms in the first column and eight in the second and can therefore generate 72 different brands of relativism, from "meaning is relative to language" to "moral values are relative to community." Each of these relativisms, she explains, has strong and weak forms, weak meaning that A is influenced by B, strong meaning that A is determined by B. Equipped with this precise understanding of the word she analyzes the works of contemporary skeptics about science and the like, showing how they shift their terms as the mood strikes them and slide back and forth between strong and weak forms of relativism as their arguments require.

Notice also Haack's faith in what we generally call common sense. "Nobody seriously doubts," she writes, or "most people would agree." These rhetorical devices, I think, point toward something important in Haack's thinking. In the heat of their intellectual passions philosophers often say things that, upon reflection, are absolutely and obviously false. One of my favorite examples is Aristotle's statement that the female mammal contributes nothing to the form of the offspring. Surely he, and everyone else in Greece, knew many women who looked exactly like their mothers, but he was so taken up with his interest in equating dichotomies like male/female and form/matter that, for a moment, he forgot the obvious truth. As George Orwell once noted, "to see what is right in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." Nobody works harder to see what is in front of her nose than Susan Haack. Her epistemology is based on the obvious (or so it seems to me) truth that in some sense we do know things. If philosophers have trouble explaining exactly what it means to know something, or how it can be that we do it, that must a problem with the philosophers, since it seems that we manage somehow. Science, likewise, cannot be as corrupt as some feminists and radical sociologists say it is, since, after all, it works pretty well. Haack quotes C.S. Peirce on this matter: "a man must be downright crazy to doubt that science has made many true discoveries."

If epistemology seems like a dry and useless occupation to you, a way for tenured airheads to waste their time, consider the issues Haack raises in "Reflections of an Old Feminist." Since she is a feminist and an epistemologist, Haack writes, you might assume that she is a feminist epistemologist.

Wrong. On the contrary, I don't believe there is any such connection between feminism and epistemology as the rubric "feminist epistemology" requires. 

After showing how little self-proclaimed "feminist epistemologists" have in common, philosophically, and noting the great contradictions among all the pronouncements about "women's ways of knowing," Haack takes up what seems to me the crucial matter: the deep and deadly danger of politicizing the meaning of "truth." Various feminist writers have argued "that feminist values should determine what theories are accepted" and called for "rubbing out the boundary between science and values" and waging "intellectual guerilla warfare." Sandra Harding reached the Stalinist end point of this line of thought when she called for "politically adequate research and scholarship," announcing that "the model for good science should be research programs directed by liberatory political goals." What, asks Haack, would "politically inadequate research" be? The abandonment of intellectual freedom and honest inquiry called for by Harding and her ilk, Haack writes "would not help women; it would hurt humanity." Indeed it would, and without brave and rational people to challenge such monstrous ideas there is always the danger that they will escape from the academic world and spread like mutant viruses across the earth.

Given her interest in actually learning the truth about things, it is hardly surprising that Haack is disgusted by the atmosphere that pervades contemporary academic life in Britain and the US. In an essay titled "Preposterism and its Consequences" Haack describes an item in the official newsletter of Warwick University announcing a "Major Research Success" for the physics department. As it turns out, Warwick's physicists had not actually discovered anything; their "success" was in winning a large research grant. This definition of success can stand as a metaphor for modern academic life. Universities value work that brings in research funding or results in prestigious publications, regardless of whether it advances knowledge or understanding. The predictable result is a deluge of publications and a frenzied competition for research grants, all carried on in near indifference to whether any of the work being done is valuable or true. Haack peruses another university brag sheet, this one issued by the University of Miami, and notes that while it describes the university's rising rankings in various lists and the numerous grants won by its faculty, it says not a word about "what anyone found out."

If, like me, you are dismayed by how little sense there seems to be in so much of our intellectual life, and by the low regard for truth in our universities, read Susan Haack and take heart. As long as there are people who think like she does, there is hope for our civilization.

May 21, 2001 

Update, August 14, 2022. I actually sent this to Susan Haack when I first posted it, and she sent back a gracious note with a small correction. I did this after discussion the question with the most eminent scholar I know well, who told me that he would not the least bit mind being bothered by admirers.

Obviously I would write this differently now than I did two decades ago. These days the people undermining the whole notion of truth are just as likely to be the right as the left, and it is generally liberals who shout "trust the science." But the basic lesson of Haack's book stands: figuring out what is true is very hard, and if you let ideology get in the way you will never get there.

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