Relativism, Pluralism, and Democracy – Juicy Ecumenism

The ideal of political diversity of thought has long formed a core part of the American conservative ideological identity and has been held up as the foundation on which the nation was built. This idea, however, is not without challengers, and one group which seeks to explore what they see as the modern roots and failings of these ideals are “postliberal” thinkers.

Postliberal thought has seen an increase in attention and discussion in recent years as more portions of the population feel “disillusioned” by the modern state of American politics and society. This step toward the mainstream of American political discussion has created the need for outlets through which postliberal thinkers can reach a wider audience.

Postliberal Order, an online newsletter started in November of 2021, is one such outlet. Started and run by Patrick Deneen, a political science professor at Notre Dame and author of “Why Liberalism Failed”, Gladden Pappin, a professor at the University of Dallas, Chad Pecknold, an associate professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America, and Adrian Vermeule, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard and author of the 2022 book “Common Good Constitutionalism”, the Postliberal Order has produced content to express the ideas and ideals of postliberalism. A recent endeavor taken up by the Postliberal Order is the start of a podcast called “Postliberals” whose second episode was published on January 18.

The main topic of discussion in the second episode revolved around two articles written by Patrick Deneen as parts of a planned three-part series called “The Crisis of Democracy” based on his study of the 1973 book “The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value” by Edward A. Purcell Jr. Described by Deneen as “a history of the social sciences and the rise and formation of the social sciences as a set of distinct disciplines in the landscape of the modern university,” the main idea of his articles is how the social sciences replaced the metaphysical studies of philosophy and theology as the source of authority in the study of humanity and what that has entailed.

Deneen explains how, according to the book, in the mid-to-late nineteenth century what Purcell Jr. described as “scientific materialism” became the underlining assumption of the social sciences which Deneen explains as a kind of relativism “in which human beings are basically no different than the particles and the atoms and the molecules…” This trend of scientific materialism led to an intellectual push in the social sciences away from democracy, or as described by Deneen, “a tendency to prefer and be ultimately orientated towards and be ruled by the…experts.”

This disposition towards an elite-governed society led many social scientists of the day to look towards Europe and specifically the rising ideology of fascism for inspiration in how to reorganize society in the United States, with an example being a speech given by Walter J. Shepherd, a past president of the American Political Science Association, which praised the virtues of fascism.

Moving into the argument of his articles, Deneen then spoke of how this movement toward fascism by the “relativist” scientific materialists/naturalists was opposed by “Aristotelian-Thomists,” especially Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago at the time. This group of primarily Catholic academics sought to combat the relativistic and materialistic approach to humanity held by social scientists by focusing on “natural law” and focusing on the metaphysical study of the dignity innate to individual humans.

Through efforts such as the “Great Books” program, the Catholic position started to become popular publicly, and due to US intervention in World War II, support for fascism became an untenable position for social scientists. Deneen went on to say that social scientists switched to supporting democracy and rewrote the story: “social scientists retell and redescribe the situation such that those who are value relativists… become the basis of democracy and the people who believe in metaphysical objectivity and natural law… become defined as authoritarians.”

It is Deneen’s position that conservatives’ acceptance of this switch, especially under the influence of John Dewey’s political writings, has weakened their position and that it is from the seed of this pluralism that the “tyranny of relativism” of the modern “authoritarian left” came from. Conservatives, instead of seeking academic diversity, should instead seek what is true, according to Deneen.

Such criticism may seem harsh, but they do point to an important fact, namely that American conservatives should keep their mind on the objective and metaphysical truths that define the character of human dignity even as they engage with those who hold different ideas. However, the need for different perspectives remains a vital part of the democratic process that allows a fuller breadth of options as society deals with the potential problems of the future and ensures a nation that upholds the principles of America as a nation protecting freedom of speech and religion.

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