Tag Archive: authority

Truth is above human authority

If only we look for it we can often find a true idea, worthy of being preserved, in a philosophical theory which must be rejected as false. Can we find an idea like this in one of the theories of the ultimate sources of our knowledge?

I believe we can; and I suggest that it is one of the two main ideas which underlie the doctrine that the source of all our knowledge is super-natural. The first of these ideas is false, I believe, while the second is true.

The first, the false idea, is that we must justify our knowledge, or our theories, by positive reasons, that is, by reasons capable of establishing them, or at least of making them highly probable; at any rate, by better reasons than that they have so far withstood criticism. This idea implies, I suggested, that we must appeal to some ultimate or authoritative source of true knowledge; which still leaves open the character of that authority–whether it is human, like observation or reason, or super-human (and therefore supernatural).

The second idea—whose vital importance has been stressed by Russell—is that no man’s authority can establish truth by decree; that we should submit to truth; that truth is above human authority.

Taken together these two ideas almost immediately yield the conclusion that the sources from which our knowledge derives must be super-human; a conclusion which tends to encourage self-righteousness and the use of force against those who refuse to see the divine truth.

Some who rightly reject this conclusion do not, unhappily, reject the first idea—the belief in the existence of ultimate sources of knowledge. Instead they reject the second idea—the thesis that truth is above human authority. They thereby endanger the idea of the objectivity of knowledge, and of common standards of criticism or rationality. [38-9]

The production of unanimity

Adaptation to the power of progress furthers the progress of power, constantly renewing the degenerations which prove successful progress, not failed progress, to be its own antithesis. The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regres­sion.

This regression is not confined to the experience of the sensuous world, an experience tied to physical proximity, but also affects the auto cratic intellect, which detaches itself from sensuous experience in order to subjugate it. The stan­dardization of the intellectual function through which the mastery of the senses is accomplished, the acquiescence of thought to the production of unanimity, implies an impoverishment of thought no less than of experience; the separation of the two realms leaves both damaged. [28]

The totalitarianism of absolutist rationality

But the Enlightenment discerned the old powers in the Platonic and Aristotelian heritage of metaphysics and sup­pressed the universal categories’ claims to truth as superstition. In the authority of universal concepts the Enlighten­ment detected a fear of the demons through whose effigies human beings had tried to influence nature in magic rituals. From now on matter was finally to be controlled without the illusion of immanent powers or hidden properties. For en­lightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion. Once the movement is able to develop unhampered by external oppression, there is no holding it back. Its own ideas of human rights then fare no better than the older universals. Any intellectual resistance it encounters merely increases its strength. The reason is that enlightenment also recognizes itself in the old myths. No matter which myths are invoked against it, by being used as arguments they are made to acknowledge the very principle of corrosive rationality of which enlightenment stands accused. Enlightenment is totalitarian. [3-4]

The lapse from enlightenment to positivism

Our prognosis regarding the associated lapse from enlightenment into positivism, into the myth of that which is the case, and finally of the identity of intelligence and hostility to mind, has been overwhelmingly confirmed. Our concept of history does not believe itself elevated above history, but it does not merely chase after information in the positivist manner. [xii]

Trampling on authority

Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie thus defined the philosophe as one who ‘trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself’. [3]

A state’s liberal responsibilities

I certainly believe that it is the responsibility of the state to see that its citizens are given an education enabling them to participate in the life of the community, and to make use of any opportunity to develop their special interests and gifts; and the state should certainly also see (as Grossman rightly stresses) that the lack of ‘the individual’s capacity to pay’ should not debar him from higher studies. This, I believe, belongs to the state’s protective functions. To say, however, that ‘the future of the state depends on the younger generation, and that it is therefore madness to allow the minds of children to be moulded by individual taste’, appears to me to open wide the door to totalitarianism. State interest must not be lightly invoked to defend measures which may endanger the most precious of all forms of freedom, namely, intellectual freedom. And although I do not advocate ‘laissez faire with regard to teachers and schoolmasters’, I believe that this policy is infinitely superior to an authoritative policy that gives officers of the state full powers to mould minds, and to control the teaching of science, thereby backing the dubious authority of the expert by that of the state, ruining science by the customary practice of teaching it as an authoritative doctrine, and destroying the scientific spirit of inquiry—the spirit of the search for truth, as opposed to the belief in its possession. [ch. 7, 143]

The use of reason in democracy

Seen in this light, the theory of democracy is not based upon the principle that the majority should rule; rather, the various equalitarian methods of democratic control, such as general elections and representative government, are to be considered as no more than well-tried and, in the presence of a widespread traditional distrust of tyranny, reason­ably effective institutional safeguards against tyranny, always open to improvement, and even providing methods for their own improvement.

He who accepts the principle of democracy in this sense is therefore not bound to look upon the result of a democratic vote as an authoritative expression of what is right. Although he will accept a decision of the majority, for the sake of making the democratic institutions work, he will feel free to combat it by democratic means, and to work for its revision. …

Democracy (using this label in the sense suggested above) provides the institutional framework for the reform of polit­ical institutions. It makes possible the reform of institutions without using violence, and thereby the use of reason in the designing of new institutions and the adjusting of old ones. It cannot provide reason. [ch. 7, 137-8]

No knowledge is above criticism

[I]rrationalists are dangerously mistaken when they suggest that there is any knowledge, of whatever kind, or source, or origin, which is above or exempt from rational criticism. [28]

Destroying authoritarianism in science

For there never was a more successful theory, or a better tested theory, than Newton’s theory of gravity. It succeeded in explaining both terrestrial and celestial mechanics. It was most severely tested in both fields for centuries. The great physicist and mathematician Henri Poincaré believed not only that it was true – this of course was everybodys belief – but that it was true by definition, and that it would therefore remain the invariable basis of physics to the end of man’s search for truth. And Poincaré believed this in spite of the fact that he actually anticipated – or that he came very close to anticipating – Einstein’s special theory of relativity. I mention this in order to illustrate the tremendous authority of Newton’s theory down to the very last.

Now the question whether or not Einstein’s theory of gravity is an improvement upon Newton’s, as most physicists think it is, may be left open. But the mere fact that there was now an alternative theory which explained everything that Newton could explain and, in addition, many more things, and which passed at least one of the crucial tests that Newton’s theory seemed to fail, destroyed the unique place held by Newton’s theory in its field. Newton’s theory was thus reduced to the status of an excellent and successful conjecture, a hypothesis competing with others, and one whose acceptability was an open question. Einstein’s theory thus destroyed the authority of Newton’s, and with it some­thing of even greater importance – authoritarianism in science. [91]

The weakest part of your opinion

A person who derives all his instruction from teachers or books, even if he escape the besetting temptation of con­tenting himself with cram, is under no compulsion to hear both sides; accordingly it is far from a frequent accomplish­ment, even among thinkers, to know both sides; and the weakest part of what everybody says in defence of his opinion, is what he intends as a reply to antagonists. [ch. II, 57]

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