Heirs of the Enlightenment

This is from the astounding book Rorty and his Critics, edited by the wonderful Robert Brandom (Blackwell). The book consists of essays critical of Rorty on the one hand and Rorty’s marvelous replies on the other. Personally, I consider Rorty one of the best 20th century philosophers, and I greatly enjoy his writing. But even if you don’t agree with him, there is a lot to love in that book. The amount of good to great argument, both from Rorty and from his critics, is staggering. A great, great read. The quote below is from an introductory essay by Rorty called “Universality and Truth”.

It seems to me that the regulative idea that we – we wet liberals, we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists – most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of ‘needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions’. This is the concept the victorious Allied armies used when they set about re-educating the citizens of occupied Germany and Japan. It is also the one which was used by American schoolteachers who had read Dewey and were concerned to get students to think ‘scientifically’ and ‘rationally’ about such matters as the origin of the species and sexual behavior. It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.

[...] The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘American liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy. Had they read Habermas, these people would say that they typical communication situation in American college classrooms is no more herrschaftsfrei than that in the Hitler Youth Camps.

The parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students. [...] When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank. The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students[...] will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to their charges without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society [...]. You have to be educated in order to be … a participant in our conversation … So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

[...] I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.

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