In the course of my long term quest to discover what a philosopher ought to be, I realized, to my (it is not exaggeration to say) horror, that there are a great number of men (†), apparently a majority, who cannot philosophize. The most interesting and penetrating diagnosis of this condition I have ever encountered—by far—was in the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche. In the passage I am thinking of, Nietzsche claims that the great majority of men “lacks an intellectual conscience” — by which he means that they are not affected by the drive (quintessential to philosophers) to be certain in their understanding of the world. This absence of conscience, which I have encountered directly many times in my day-to-day interaction with people, and have noticed lurking in almost all popular writing on philosophical matters, is parallel in severity to the lack of moral conscience that TV and movie sociopaths traditionally exhibit. The average person has no more capacity for philosophy, it seems, than Hannibal Lecter has empathy with rude people. The condition is positively pandemic.
When I first started considering my fellow man along these dimensions, before I knew the term “intellectual conscience,” or even had a clear idea in my head to which this term would correspond, I was working from the assumption that every man, being a rational animal, has the basic tools to understand reason, and therefore philosophy. But if what we’re talking about is not rationality per se, but an (emotional) commitment to rationality, where does that leave us? Possessing a tool, having the knowledge about its proper use, and having the will to use it are all separate things. In being human, every man possesses rationality, i.e. the capacity to philosophize and understand philosophical issues. Training in logic, or even simple life experience, can impart knowledge on how to better employ our natural gifts of rationality. However, no amount of training or experience can, directly, lead to the desire to use reason, to prefer it over other (ineffective) modes of comprehending the world.
It is a commonly held belief these days that debate, especially on fundamental matters, is futile. The merit of this belief is itself debatable, but one thing is certain: rational persuasion is futile unless those whom one would persuade possess an intellectual conscience. Does this mean, in light of the pandemic poverty of the primary philosophical prerequisite in the polity, that democracy itself is futile? I honestly don’t know.
As long as The People are predominantly uncommitted to rationality, they will always be easy prey for demagogues. As long as this condition obtains, individual liberty cannot be secured. Following some variant of this reasoning, many libertarians have opined that it is necessary to their political goals that a culture of rationality and respect for the individual be brought about in America. Educational reforms, increased home schooling, and battle for control of the Academy have all been suggested as steps toward this goal. Yet, if it is true that the intellectual conscience cannot be taught, isn’t cultural reform of this sort a fools errand at best, and a duplicitous Machiavelian feint at worst? Public schools and the university system churn out graduates now who make very malleable citizens, not firmly attached to any set of principles, let alone those difficult principles consonant with individual liberty. If this system could be retooled to churn out graduates with a good knowledge of history and a solid respect for liberty, which I have little doubt that it could, would the fundamental malleability of their beliefs really have been affected? Not if intellectual conscience cannot be taught. Indeed, if the beliefs of these liberty loving graduates of the future aren’t to be rooted in good intellectual conscience, then any storm, war, say, or depression, could easily uproot them. Not only that, any set of beliefs that doesn’t find its ultimate foundation in good intellectual conscience is, ipso facto, religious rather than rational in nature. The state religion of the present is pragmatic relativism, and the postmodernist professoriat of the universities is its priesthood. Any fundamental political value but liberty can be founded in such a religion, indeed must be founded in such; but I shudder to imagine the chimera of a state religion posited as the foundation of liberty.
Ultimately, I think, liberty can only be secured by a broad base of individuals who possess the intellectual conscience and understand the philosophical arguments for liberty. Consequently, I am intensely interested in the origins of the intellectual conscience. Where does it come from? Why do some people have it and not others? Can one obtain an intellectual conscience or is one predisposed toward or against it from early childhood? So far, absolutely all the evidence I have uncovered has indicated that the intellectual conscience simply is present in a person or it isn’t. It cannot be taught. It may not be possible even for it to be learned. It seems to me, moreover, that those people who have an intellectual conscience and those who don’t differ in kind and not merely in degree. They are homo philosophicus and homo theologicus, pardoning my fake Latin. Ought not lovers of liberty beware of embracing homo theologicus into our fold? And if we are to eschew their company, and their support, how can we be free of them in a democratic order?