Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Peter Gordon Fails to Come to Grips With the Problem

1/20/2021—Now that the Trump era is behind us, we can go back to trying to figure out how we arrived at our state of nihilism.

A good starting point is Peter Gordon’s review of Charisma and Disenchantment, which is a new translation of two lectures Max Weber gave in 1917 and 1919—Scholarship as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation.

Here is Gordon’s key attribution to Weber:

To be a scholar one must acknowledge that in the modern age an irreparable chasm separates facts from values: facts are objective, values are not. Weber stated this point as early as his 1905 essay on objectivity: “the fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge” is that “we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis.” The highest ideals are formed “only in the struggle with other ideals,” and we must abandon our hope for their reconciliation. Weber portrays this predicament as a final consequence of the millennia-long process of disenchantment that has gradually stripped the cosmos of any objective meaning. For the individual who wishes to pursue scholarship as a calling, this process has a paradoxical consequence. If the heavens are empty, one can no longer speak of a caller behind the call; one can make one’s career into a calling only by a sheer act of will.

Gordon criticizes Weber’s sharp distinction between facts and values on two grounds. First, values cannot just be an act of will if society is to survive and prosper:

The distinction between fact and value left Weber with a one-sided image of social rationalization. He failed to grasp the crucial point that a rationalized society is not necessarily a rational one; the latter demands not only a formal rationality of systems and procedures but also a substantive rationality in the values we endorse because they are right.

Second, and sort of inconsistently, Weber was wrong to ascribe sheer objectivity to facts:

No less questionable is Weber’s trust in the solidity of facts, seeing them as a hard and obdurate reality that intrudes upon the latticework of our value-commitments as if from the outside. An effective teacher, he declared, is one who makes the student look unflinchingly at facts even when they are “uncomfortable” or push against one’s partisan opinions. But in an age that is now drowning in “alternative facts,” the old distinction between facts and values may have lost its credence. Values not only frame facts, as Weber knew; they also lend facts their authority, propelling them into the public sphere where they are taken up into our political deliberations. But a fact can only count as a fact if society treats it as one. Today’s demagogues are not content with reshaping political values; they also seek to reshape facts, turning debate over policy into a struggle over what is real.

But Gordon himself participates in the distinction between facts and values in his review. Gordon says “we cannot blame him for failing to anticipate our modern tilt into the relativity of facts.”

We can. Because, as Gordon well knows, and says, facts depend on values. So, if values are acts of will, so are facts. This is the point Hilary Putnam makes in The Fact Value Distinction.

Gordon is sharp but at least in this review he takes the easy way out. The question is, how do we get to the substantive rationality that enables us to discourse about values. That source has to be grounded in the real, in the universe.

This will be my point in my upcoming book—The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life.

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