March 19, 1982 | Village Voice

Religion: If there is No God…By Leszek Kolakowski. Oxford, $19.95. After Virtue: A study in Moral Theory. By Alasdair MacIntyre. Notre Dame, $15.95, $7.95 paper. Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980. By Richard Rorty. Minneso

The argument over modernity is as old as modernity. Pascal could not forgive Descartes and Montaigne for begetting irony, self-consciousness, radical doubt. Kant labored to overcome Hume’s skepticism. Kierkegaard railed at Hegel’s cosmopolitan historicism. Dostoevsky stated the conservatives’ ultimate misgiving: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

On the left, too, there is a tradition of ambivalence about the results of certain modern liberations. Mill fretted that virtue might not survive the decline of Christian superstition. Morris was sure that Beauty and mass production could not coexist. Lawrence called industrialism “a black mistake.” By now the modernist turn seems irreversible, yet thoughtful radicals like Christopher Lasch and Michael Walzer are still troubled by a sense of something lost as everything solid melts into air.

What has worried opponents of modernism is its primarily critical, destructive character. Its chief strategies have been negative: dissolution (of supposedly fundamental distinctions), unmasking (of unconscious motives, class interests), debunking (of myths), stripping away (of gratuitous assumptions, superfluous first principles). In one perspective, modern intellectual history seems a kind of ascetic frenzy, a continual renunciation of consoling, structure-providing, community- creating illusions. And what, ask the anti-modernists, is left? Babel, chaos, anomie, nihilism: unreal cities, a handful of dust.
Something like this bleak picture de scribes contemporary religious and moral philosophy, according to Leszek Kolakowski and Alasdair MacIntyre. By and large in both fields, the center does not hold: there is little final or even preliminary agreement, and no agreement on how agreement might eventually be reached. Once arbiter scientiarium, philosophy has become an administrative convenience. What’s more, this fragmentation of theoretical discourse mirrors the anarchy of our moral and political practice and the spiritual disunity of our culture.

All this profoundly disturbs Kolakowski and MacIntyre, who from strikingly similar backgrounds have written, perhaps not so strikingly, similar or at least congruent diagnoses of the modern condition. Both men are former Marxists, transplanted Europeans, and distinguished academic philosophers. In their voices, a similar crepuscular note sounds: beleaguered and disillusioned, but determined to outface the end, if this be the end, with a valiant, quixotic faithfulness to professorial norms of civility and rationality. Let us go reasoning into that good night.

Kolakowski quotes Ivan Karamazov’s remark about everything being permitted if God does not exist and proposes that it is “valid not only as moral rule but as an epistemological principle.” Reason and religion have fought each other to a stand still; and while there are no rational, universally accepted grounds for admitting any religious truth, we are not bound to accept any definition of rationality that, like scientific positivism, excludes religious possibilities altogether. Positivism’s main line of attack has been to demonstrate that religious language doesn’t do what plain, honest, everyday usage is expected to do: produce predictions, consensus, and other useful results. Normative statements, ultimate choices, and cosmic conjectures about how everything hangs together cannot be justified in empirical terms. But, Kolakowski argues, such norms, choices, and cosmic prejudices are exactly what is presupposed by the positivists’ assumption that all genuine knowledge is publicly verifiable and that nothing else counts. In reality, he claims, what counts only counts within some epistemological/moral/cosmological framework, and such a framework cannot be justified, only chosen. Belief is choice, and secular rationalists are believers, too. Not to choose is to drift, to define truth as whatever solves whatever problems are at hand. Hence our dilemma: “either an infinite regress or a discretionary decision… either God or a cognitive nihilism.”

Of course, even discretionary decisions are not made in a void, so Kolakowski offers an account of how religious commitments come about. Certainly not by sheer force of argument: “Probably nobody has ever been converted to faith by philosophical discussion.” Instead “people are initiated into the understanding of religious language and into worship through participation in the life of a religious community,” in which knowledge, the feeling of participation in the ultimate reality, and moral commitment appear as a single act.” This faith-act is strictly ineffable: the inner life of the faith-community can not be explained or communicated, but those inside understand each other as reliably as the most austere positivists. One is, it seems, chosen by faith almost as much as one chooses it. Nonbelievers call this a mystification; believers call it a mystery.

Kolakowaki’s defense of religion is peculiarly modern: all the standard objections are cheerfully admitted, even embellished, then declared not to matter. Belief is a “logically arbitrary” option, but then so is unbelief. Believers and nonbelievers should not expect to convert each other, indeed should not even expect t understand each other. We shouldn’t talk of “an ‘escape into irrationality,’ but rather of the irreductibly different ways in which religious beliefs are validated in contrast to scientific propositions, of the incommensurable meanings of ‘validity’ in those respective areas.” The Sacred and the Profane are equally coherent and equally compelling, each on its own terms, and may as well quit feuding and just nod stiffly at each other from opposite sides of the room.

It is a little too pat. What is really on Kolakowski’s mind? One hint is that, despite his professed agnosticism, his references to skeptics are almost uniformly negative. Rationalists have “travestied” Christian notions like original sin. Free thinking, once an instrument of tolerance, has degenerated into “fanatical rationalism.” Science has “monopolistically” arrogated to itself the very definition of Reason. And so on. This may be the author’s idea of sportsmanship, since religion is definitely the underdog in this matchup and needs rhetorical support. But these jibes sound too genuinely enthusiastic; more likely they are the product of Kolakowski’s long-standing ambivalence. He once declared himself an “inconsistent atheist,” and went on to observe wistfully that nevertheless “men have no fuller means of self-identification than through religious symbolism” and that “religious consciousness ... is an irreplaceable part of human culture, man’s only attempt to see himself as a whole.” In “Religion” he concludes forlornly that “human dignity is not to be validated within a naturalistic concept of man. The absence of God spells the ruin of man in the sense that it demolishes or robs of meaning everything we think of as the essence of being human: the quest for truth, the distinction of good and evil, the claim to dignity, the claim to creating something that withstands the indifferent destructiveness of time.” After a life extraordinarily full of both action (dissent and expulsion from Communist Poland) and thought (the massive and renowned “Main Currents of Marxism”), here stands Kolakowski, head bloodied and only just unbowed, unable to take comfort but unwilling to renounce it altogether, at least for others. Perhaps—at least for others— there is some escape from modernity.

Alasdair MacIntyre is much less ambivalent: he is determined to deliver us from modernity. Though somewhat more practical than Kolakowski’s, his concerns are no less sweeping, and “After Virtue” is a far more rigorous, ambitious, and original book than “Religion”. It is a reinterpretation of the entire history of Western moral philosophy, as decline, fall, and—possibly—rebirth.

To motivate this vast undertaking, MacIntyre begins by canvassing contemporary moral philosophy. What he finds is an explicit and widespread disavowal of its perennial ideals: objectivity, impersonality, universality, proof. Emotivism, the view that moral utterances are at bottom functional (i.e., persuasive statements of one’s own attitudes or preferences) has swept the field. Moral discourse is now framed almost exclusively in terms of interests. In the society at large, moral argument consists of asserting interests—often, to be sure, disguised in terms of “rights” or “justice,” but less and less convincingly to the other protagonists. Philosophers now mostly try to devise procedures for arbitrating among the claims of individuals whose interests and values, it is taken for granted, will be wholly disparate. For Aristotle and other premoderns, “justice” meant fidelity to a shared conception of cosmic or social order; now it means fair treatment of competing equals, who share no such conception. Since even this degree of procedural egalitarianism involves some prior consensus about values—how to weigh them, which to designate as within the political arena—public moral discussion verges on cacophony.

As a result, modern culture has produced a distinctive character-type, our equivalent of the Homeric warrior-hero, the Athenian gentleman-citizen, the Christian saint, the 18th-century honnete homme. The defining activity of this character-type is manipulation; its most common embodiments are the aesthete, the therapist and, above all, the manager. All three express their culture’s understanding of social relations as primarily instrumental: by the consumption of other people as interesting sensations, or by the deployment of morally neutral expertise to achieve organizational goals. In a developed society that has renounced the ideal of virtue, of universal, rationally justifiable norms, this is the form taken by the war of all against all, and these characters are its warrior-heroes.

Having sketched this chilling and plausible portrait, MacIntyre asks: how has it come to this? His answer is that we took a wrong turn, roughly at the Enlightenment. Classical and Christian morality was based on the concept of telos, which means variously “goal,” “purpose,” “perfection,” or “essential nature.” Homer, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Calvin all believed that virtues were qualities that enabled men and women to fulfill their essential nature and so achieve the goal of their existence. Of course, these writers described the goal of human existence differently, and so gave differing accounts of the virtues. But the form of moral reasoning was the same: from the telos.

Then it was discovered (perhaps the founding discovery of the modern era) that science could only be done by dispensing with the idea of essential natures. In the riot of liberation, teleological reasoning was banished from the—as yet only putative—human sciences. And that, according to MacIntyre, was our cardinal mistake. Physical science may be incompatible with telos, but there never has and never will be a human or social science. MacInytre devotes a scathing chapter to demonstrating the utter nullity and bogusness of contemporary social science and to arguing that the spurious fact- value distinction invoked to support its pseudoscientific pretensions is merely ideological camouflage. The modern rejection of normative rationality, the cliché that no “ought” may be deduced from an “is,” is based on a mechanistic misunderstanding of human subjectivity and, consequently, of moral reasoning. So much for Weberian bureaucratic rationality. And so much for Marxism and all other theories which agree with Weber that values are created by human decisions and that conflicts between rival values cannot be rationally settled.

At this point one may begin to suspect MacIntyre of reactionary intentions. That would be a mistake. His few specific comments on politics are acute and even handed. In one deft, lethal paragraph, Burkean traditionalism is exposed as a fraud, an opportunistic yoking of market and hierarchy. In another, right-wing libertarianism, exemplified by Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy”, “State and Utopia”, is shown to rest on an absurdly unhistorical fiction: “justified original acquisition.” Marxism is judged a failure, but not for the usual reasons: “the barbarous despot ism of the collective Tsardom which reigns in Moscow is as irrelevant to the question of Marxism’s moral substance as the life of a Borgia pope was to that of Christianity’s moral substance.” MacIntyre is a neo-Aristotelian; he urges a thorough repudiation of modern ideologies, left or right, in favor of a commitment to…virtue.

A hundred years ago, “virtue” meant “chastity.” Today it hardly means anything. To reinstate this admittedly archaic concept, MacIntyre embarks on a dense and suggestive though finally unsatisfying attempt to prove that human life does indeed have a purpose, a telos. His argument weaves together notions of community, tradition, practices (skills, crafts, arts, intellectual disciplines), and narrative considered as the form of unity of a life. Virtues (e.g., honesty, prudence, diligence) make possible our participation in practices (e.g., physics, pottery, public service), each of which rests on a tradition (a history of development whose past merits allegiance and whose future is the responsibility of its virtuous practitioners). Practices are communal and narrative: they are the embodied history of a community of practitioners. Practices are teleological: they have intrinsic, characteristic goals, distinctive lines of development. And practices presuppose a larger community, or polis, which prizes and makes possible the common pursuit of those perfections aimed at by the practices (which is to say—MacIntyre says so almost inaudibly—a society not based on competition and commodity production).

All this sounds vaguely promising. But what’s the cash value of this elaborate philosophical construction? What might the virtuous community actually look like? And isn’t that species extinct any way, beyond reviving, after centuries of modern barbarism? Addressing these questions, MacIntyre falters. “The good life for man,” he concludes lamely, “is the life spent in seeking the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to under stand what more and what else the good life for man is.” This is not much help. The final gloomy pages of “After Virtue” compare the present to the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome. The partisans of virtue can do little but huddle together in unspecified sanctuaries, guarding the tradition. “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” Modernity cannot be repealed, but perhaps it can be survived.

Richard Rorty has, if possible, even less hope than MacIntyre, but doesn’t seem to mind. His exquisitely witty, humane book is a dernier cri of modernist disillusionment. “Consequences of Pragmatism”, a collection of essays, announces that the history of philosophy is over, and a good thing, too. Rorty presents that history as a series of enchantments or incantations which, as is now obvious to everyone, simply haven’t worked. Our culture’s trek to the present has been a Long March through one province after another of philosophical folly: Plato’s Ideas, Aristotle’s essences, Descartes’ mind-body distinction, Kant’s Ding-an-sich, Husserl’s phenomenological method, the logical positivists’ scientific method—all in quest of absolute, suprahistorical Certainty. At last we have learned from the great antiphilosophers—James and Dewey, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Foucault—that this Certainty is not to be had, and that wanting it was all along a lack of maturity, a failure of nerve, a yearning for what Nietzsche called “comfort.”

There is no God, in other words, and no telos. “Is everything permitted, then?” ask Kolakowski and MacIntyre, anxiously. “Yes indeed,” replies Rorty. “We must grow up or go under. Our culture’s childhood is at an end.” Nietzsche and Foucault suppose that this recognition must lead to lonely self-creation for the few and ubiquitous bureaucratic control for the many. But James and Dewey— Rorty’s heroes—hope that a sense of our common predicament might lead to some thing else: “To accept the contingency of starting-points is to accept our in heritance from, and our conversation with, our fellow-humans as our only source of guidance In the end, the pragmatists tell us, what matters is our loyalty to other human beings clinging together against the dark, not our hope of (Certainty).”

A fragile ideal, this community of despair, and Rorty knows it. His remarks about morality and politics are oblique, almost resigned. In the end, he endorses an ecumenical liberalism and recommends Dewey as the model contemporary moralist “simply because his vocabulary allows room for unjustifiable hope, and an ungroundable but vital sense of human solidarity.” That’s something, surely. But is that all?

“Art and nothing but art,” wrote Nietzsche. “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” How not to die of the truth is what both Kolakowski and MacIntyre are asking: the truth that everything is contingent, that no religious or moral system can compel assent, that purposes are not given in the nature of things. Kolakowski asks how belief is possible and MacIntyre asks how virtue is possible; both answer, “through community.” But neither can explain how community is possible without a willful suspension of the critical spirit. Rorty is more helpful, but finally can offer only the hope that rigorous intellectual honesty will keep the delicate flowers of human decency and autonomy from being smothered by metaphysical weeds. About how we might nourish the life that this strenuous hygiene is supposed to protect, he has nothing to say. Does modernity hold out no more robust hope than this?

Perhaps it does. Tracing the decline of teleological reasoning and normative rationality, MacIntyre identifies Hume as the most powerful and destructive antagonist of the premodern tradition. After finishing off the Aristotelian philosophical fictions, Hume had somehow to account for altruism, to show how reason might be enslaved to benign passions. In a famous footnote to the “Enquiry Concerning Morals”, he fudged the issue: “It is needless to push our researches so far as to ask why we have humanity or a fellow-feeling with others: it is sufficient that this is experienced to be a principle in human nature. We must stop some where in our examination of causes; and there are, in every science, some general principles beyond which we cannot hope to find any principle more general.” The irony of history’s most consistent skeptic suggesting sheepishly that we take for granted the conceptual cornerstone of his positive moral theory does not escape MacIntyre, who exultantly declares Hume’s whole project a failure.

But Hume’s project was completed, or at least continued, by some very unlikely collaborators. Godwin enthusiastically accepted Hume’s critique of traditional superstition and tried, crudely and uncertainly, to imagine an emancipated world. In Shelley, Enlightenment rationalism and Romantic imagination were harmoniously combined. “A Defense of Poetry” locates the cultivation of altruism (Hume’s “fellow-feeling”) among the effects of Art: “The great instrument of good is the imagination …a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own.”

Later, construction began on the ground Hume had cleared and on the foundations the Romantics had laid. The supposedly prosaic British political imagination produced an unrivaled burst of utopian art and theory, including Morris’s “News from Nowhere” and “How We Live and How We Might Live”; Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”; Russell’s “The World As It Could Be Made” and “Principles of Social Reconstruction”; Shaw’s “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” and “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism”; Wells’s “Men Like Gods” and “The Discovery of the Future”; and Lawrence’s “Democracy,” “The Education of the People,” and “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine”. Despite many extravagances, inconsistencies, and plain mistakes, these and other works in the utopian mode achieve some thing for human solidarity: not the metaphysical grounding that Rorty rightly mocks, but imaginative embodiment. They further our collective education in desire.

Modernity may be considered the joint accomplishment of skeptics and visionaries. The skeptics can be seen as clearing a space for the utopian imagination, for prophecies of a demystified community, of a solidarity without illusions. The skeptics weed, the visionaries water. Where the seed of generous, humane sympathy comes from is as obscure as where genius comes from. “We can’t make life,” wrote Lawrence. “We can but fight for the life that grows in us.”

With at least these two weapons: criticism and vision. In our culture, the great skeptical liberators of the Enlightenment and after have long been honored as (even christened) the party of humanity. If their project—the modern project—succeeds, it will be because we have also assimilated and surpassed the dreams of, among others, God Win and Shelley, Morris and Wilde, Shaw and Wells, Russell and Lawrence: the visionary party, the party of hope.