Who do you suppose spends more time considering the history and the concepts of western philosophy and their modern-day relevance -- fancy-pants liberals in New York and California or the so-called "values voters" who subscribe to the ideas of the conservative religious right?
If you guessed the latter, you'd be on target. If you spend a lot of time listening to your local politically and religiously conservative Christian radio station, as I do, you will hear a lot of criticism of modern Western philosophy from the Enlightenment onward. The following are some chestnuts I have heard repeatedly from radio preachers and in conservative blogs and articles around the internet:
-- Liberals (supposedly) believe that there is no absolute truth. But the statement "there is no absolute truth" makes no logical sense:
Is the statement, "There is no absolute truth" absolutely true? If it is, then there is something that is absolutely true - that statement itself. If it isn't absolutely true, then why insist that we should all believe it?
-- Or how about this one (from the same article linked above):
Based on the falsehood that "All is relative", many people say, "It is alright to believe what you want, as long as you don't try to impose it on others". But this statement itself is a belief about what is right and wrong. Those who speak out this belief most definitely want to impose it on others.
Of course, these arguments assumes that all liberals are extreme relativists. This argument erroneously assumes that those of us who believe in choice in such matters as abortion and sexual preference do so from a position of relativism. (In fact, I believe in absolutes but I don't think there are absolutes in the sphere of sexual preference any more than there is an absolute moral law determining whether I should drive a green car versus a blue car.) This argument also ignores the fact that there is such a thing as degrees of relativism. These arguments are in fact aimed at a straw-relativism stripped of nuance.
-- Another classic one I heard was from a guest on James Dobson's radio show. He told an anecdote about the time his elementary-school aged son asked him what to say to people who claim there is no way to know whether Jesus was resurrected. He pointed out to his son that if there is no way to know whether Jesus was resurrected, there is also no way to know whether George Washington really lived, yet the people who question the miracles of Jesus's life surely don't question the existence of George Washington. The guy's son nodded in awe at his father's wisdom. (Of course, this guy's little boy is not familiar with the fact that historians do not take the historical record as gospel truth but instead are trained to read primary historical texts critically and skeptically with an eye towards the possible biases, cultural milieu and other motivations of the historical author to possibly write less than accurately or even to fabricate events. There is also the issue that there is less reason for skepticism regarding someone's existence as opposed to a claim that somebody literally rose from the dead.)
-- And my final example is from the far, far right, an idea stemming from the work of R.J. Rushdoony, who is popularly understood to be the father of Christian Reconstructionism. From what I understand from secondary sources (I have not actually read Rushdoony), Rushdoony runs with the widely accepted idea that true neutrality is impossible to achieve. His conclusions are different from those of people like me who believe that neutrality and objectivity are worth striving for in areas like journalism, and science, and historical research, even while we should remain aware that perfect neutrality is never quite possible. Rushdoony concludes that the concept of neutrality is a sham and therefore Christians should therefore impose their views on others all the way. Rushdoony's followers would have the United States become a Christian theocracy under Biblical law. And by Biblical law, I mean Old Testament stonings and the whole nine yards. While I don't suppose that more "liberal" types like Tony Perkins and Dr. Dobson necessarily believe that, kernels of Rushdoony's theocratic ideas are undoubtedly present in their thinking as well.
I am not saying that the popular critiques of Enlightement and Post-modern philosophy in conservative religious circles are especially sophisticated. Far from it. The first two examples are basically a debate with a strawman. But the believers in the views of the religious right do have one strength that the rest of us educated but average folks don't have -- they are TALKING about philosophy and they are TALKING about its relevance in politics and in our everyday lives. They have, indeed, declared war on the very foundations of western epistemology (epistemology being the theories of how to seek the truth and of how we know what we believe we know). They want to replace rationalistic and humanistic thinking with the Bible as the only and infallible source of absolute truth. Meanwhile, the rest of us, even those of us with a solid grounding in the liberal arts, are not thinking on a daily basis about Truth and Knowledge and Absolutes and Relativism. So the far right is able, even with some of the silliest arguments, to gain a foothold in the minds of average people because the leaders of far right are the only ones engaging in popular discourse about these concepts.
But these concepts are important. Figuring out right versus wrong, what should be considered illegal and what should be a matter of choice, and the separation of church and state are all crucial to the future of the United States, and the future of other countries where fundamentalism may potentially hold sway. Unfortunately, I have only a smattering of philosophy study under my belt.* If I could go back and re-do my undergraduate years, I would probably major in philosophy with a concentration in epistemology. Figuring out how we know what we think we know is the crucial ingredient for making intelligent decisions both in our individual personal lives and as a nation and in virtually every area of human endeavor.
So come on liberals. Let's start having a general, popular dialogue about this stuff. And let's start encouraging greater philosophical literacy among the citizenry so that we don't allow the religious right to define rationalistic and humanistic ideas for us. My goal for next year (once I finish this year's goal of reading the Bible) is to read and study Bertrand Russell's very useful, very readable, and very long primer A History of Western Philosophy.
Of course, we'll have our work cut out for us. A point of view grounded in the incredibly nuanced history of western humanistic thought is often not going to be black-and-white. It is never going to offer the certainty of having all the answers to life's questions contained in one book. It is a lot harder to communicate nuanced thinking in public sound bites but I think we have to try to communicate the philosophical underpinnings of our point of view or the religious right will do it for us. Which, if they ever attain enough popular influence, could lead to some scary things.
*NOTE: As I said, I was never more than a dilettante in the study if philosophy. In college I took a survey course on Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, a course on Marx and Marxism, a course on the Philosophy of Aesthetics, and a seminar on Aristotle. The only reason I took the seminar on Aristotle was to get away from my women's college and take a class at a nearby co-ed school. But to my dismay, I learned belatedly that hot guys apparently don't take seminars on Aristotle. I never took any kind of introductory survey course on western philosophy, although if I recall correctly, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance provided me with a fun overview.
SECOND NOTE: I don't mean to leave non-western philosophies out of the mix. I haven't referred to non-western philosophy here, because on that score, I truly am uneducated. I do think that, for citizens for western countries, understanding western philosophy is of paramount importance because that is the basis of the societies we currently live in. That is not to say that we don't have a lot to learn from comparative philosophy or that non-western philosophies don't have value or meaning. Far from it!