We think and speak in declarative sentences. Each declaration proclaims a truth, and every truth is built upon some support, a warrant, that we think makes it true. That warrant in its turn is based upon some assumption that allows its truth, an axiom of commitment that we accept as a given and would never consider questioning in the ordinary blur of daily life. My declaration that the cat is on the table assumes my capacity for sight, my mind’s ability to categorize discrete items in reality, and the transparency of language. And that is before either I or my listener checks to see if the cat is there. So the truths that well up into our minds and gush forth from our lips (and everybody else’s) are only the pointy tip of the pyramid.
In times of consensus, these truth claims go unexamined for the very good reason that no one bothers to question them. But when agreement collapses, conflicting claims to truth and goodness must appeal to a warrant acceptable to all disputants. These are consensual truth tests that both sides agree to submit to. I might say your argument contradicts itself or you might accuse me of ignoring some evidence we both would find compelling. Verification depends on the validity of the axioms that underwrite truth claims as clearly as it depends on the warrants themselves. But these assumptions are also occasionally disputed once they are brought to our attention. When both the warrants for our claims and the axioms that allow them fall into general disagreement, cultures enter unsettling periods of contention that can only be resolved when disputants agree to new axioms allowing new consensual warrants with which to examine their claims to truth, goodness, and beauty.
Western culture has seen two such breakdowns in the last five hundred years.
Historians call the first and more cataclysmic one the Protestant Reformation (1517-1688). Authority, a warrant built upon an axiomatic trust in the truth and goodness of some higher power, had served as the final arbiter of all disputes in the thousand years after the fall of Rome. For all the violence of the Middle Ages, legitimacy was assumed to reside in the consensual acceptance of a hierarchical order with God as its guarantor. The collapse of that order was especially brutal for two reasons. First, authority had mortared over the patchwork of competing powers that had preserved some remnants of civilized life in early medieval life. Its loss unleashed an explosion of dissension. Those tensions were disastrously magnified by a second problem: an inherent deficiency in the nature of authority as warrant that can only arise when trust is doubted. Because all truth and goodness claims relied upon the trust of adherents for its power, when that trust was revoked, competing authorities found themselves with no means to resolve their conflicting claims to truth and goodness. Trust was the only guarantor, and once challenge was considered, the commitments that trust allowed had to be reexamined and reallocated by the agency of the adherent. And that must erode trust and by extension the authority it allowed. As Catholic battled Lutheran and moderate fought radical, and sect warred upon sect within them, disputants found no common authority to resolve their conflicting claims to truth and goodness. Trust faltered, failed, and dissolved until adherents began questioning not only their own trust but the nature of authority itself. Over eight generations of religious carnage, all the interlocking layers of social and political authority found themselves teetering on the abyss of total rejection.
This crisis gave birth to modernism, which supplanted premodern authority over a dismal and bloody two centuries of groping for axioms consensually acceptable to the warring factions. What finally came into focus was a reliance by individuals on universal reason and private experience as imperfect replacements for lost trust. This intellectual revolution also required a shift in moral agency from authority to the thinking minds of persons who now must examine truths by their own rational agency and negotiate their findings with others. The nature of that reason and the reliability of that experience has posed a continuing riddle ever since . Four specific means gradually allowed individuals to subject their experience to rational scrutiny : empiricism (which only gradually became modern science), expertise, competence, and undistilled experience, “undistilled” referencing the singular and unexamined nature of the experience. Their order is important for it signals the diminishing power of experience to prove reliable when examined in the light of reason, with science’s methodology seriously limiting the experiences it investigates and undistilled experience, the kind of breathless choosing that characterizes much of our everyday life, seriously limiting the degree of reason that can be applied to its blurring of analysis. While these truth tests proved superior to authority in one respect — they allowed individuals to examine their declarations according to their own agency and gradually improve their reliability– they could never offer the lost certainty of authority or provide the same level of consensus because they relied on individuals’ own capacity to decide. This difference explains why medievalism seems incredibly remote to the modern mind, but in some persons uncomfortable with the tentativeness of science and the difficulties of the other modern truth tests, the magisterial voice of authority still provokes a powerful nostalgia.
The second great crisis was both slower and deeper. The discontents of modernism emerged strongly in the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. It was fueled by the birth of popular culture that magnified the inadequacies of modernist warrants and by the hypocrisy of efforts to combine the discriminating power of reason with a passionate embrace of raw, individual experience. This was hardly the only hypocrisy Victorianism produced. Authority had provided a glue to bind truth and goodness claims into a single alloy warranted by a single trust, and no modernist warrant could replace the power of trust in its moral claims, least of all the empiricism that coursed through Victorian life in an orgy of invention. These and many other inconsistencies indicted its moral values at the precise moment in history that they began to permeate the non-Western world.. These woes included the effort to emulsify the contradictory powers of authority and individual agency, of Romantic passion and Enlightenment reason, and of science and belief. The resultant moral confusions fertilized the abuses we are all so familiar with: imperialism, racism, misogyny, materialism, scientism, and artistic alienism. Awareness of such failures built gradually, at least until the turn of the twentieth century. World War I brought modernism to the same point of crisis that medievalism had suffered in the Reformation. But what alternative axioms could survive a frank analysis of that war, “Western civilization’s attempt to commit suicide”? The frantic search produced a whirlwind of novelty in the first two decades of the twentieth century. A new and furious intellectual scavenger hunt had begun.
The solution required rejecting not only modernism but even the more basic axiom that had supported both modernism and premodernism. This was the assumption that any correct response to reality must correspond to it in some reflective way. This correspondence theory had formed the foundation of all earlier claims to truth, but modernism hacked upon its very root as it chopped away at the reliability of private perception and our reasoning about it. Doubts mushroomed during the nineteenth and twentieth century in response to the gross hypocrisies that had produced the Great War. On what grounds could truth, goodness, and beauty be built if not their relationship to external reality?
The answer to that question was cobbled together using bits and pieces of the intellectual criticism modernism had endured from its beginnings. A clear theory only emerged in the 1970’s after a half-century of shrill cultural contention waged against modernism by conservatives nostalgic for the loss certainty of authority and radicals keenly aware of the inconsistencies of the modern warrant. The new view was postmodernism, and its novel means of resolution was simply to cut off truth and goodness claims from any need for external verification. No reality was necessary other than an individually created one, and no common reasoning was required to make sense of private experience. But some filtering mechanism must discriminate among a torrent of perceptions and reflections we all entertain. The postmodern means of warranting this virtual circle of individually assembled truths was their internal consistency rather than any correspondence to externals. The individual had been the source of truth for the modernists, so why not take that axiom all the way? Why not give power and weight to whatever the individual chooses to value: intuition, insight, imagination, emotion, dreams, unconscious desires, strongly held beliefs, or myth? Modernism had elevated individual agency, so why not sanction the individual’s understanding of his own reality? Philosophy called such an internal schema coherentism, but the cadre of mostly French intellectuals who produced a coherent postmodern theory added a brilliant twist to the older notion, eventually considering culture itself to be a source and measure of coherence, thus giving rise to an identity politics that requires no justification beyond abstaining from hypocrisy to achieve consistency…and therefore truth.
By the turn of the 21st century, the defects of such a view began to come into focus, for cultures in postmodern theory could no more find means to resolve conflict than could the individuals who compose them, and if they assumed the task of defining truth for their members, what might limit their legitimacy? For a culture is simply a repository of values applicable to particular experiences, and each of us participates in innumerable numbers of them. A promiscuous approval of cultural coherence requires also that we sanction every culture’s value system, which necessarily precludes favoring one over others in the inevitable case of conflict. This impotence to arbitrate moral dispute is insoluble by postmodern theory, leading to an obsession with power structures and an intractable clash of moral disputants reminiscent of the worst impasses of the Reformation. This is the postmodern dilemma, but it does not operate in a vacuum. Modernism continues to offer its own warrant, shorn of some but not all of its more offensive errors. And premodern authority continues to lure at least some persons to its comforting certainties despite the hostility of both modernists and postmodernists and the loss of its appeal in an age of cultural diversity.
All of this is history. But the shredding of consensus that is history’s legacy exacts its contemporary price. It requires us to go beyond our own simple declarations of what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful and beyond our warrants for them, for we face no consensus that gives them force. The simplest terms we use to make our truth claims have been compromised (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems“). They depend for their meaning on the axioms we adopt and the kind of warrant we embrace as we speak them, any of which our listener might not share at that moment, that we ourselves might reverse without compunction in the next moment. Being attentive to warrant complicates our declarations, but it also restores their meaning. The alternative is to thrust all declarations concerning truth, goodness, and beauty into doubt, which describes the moral crisis that faces us today.
This crisis affects private and public life, but to explore it by reference to these categories calls for a means to distinguish and limit either sphere of moral concern (see “The Moral Bullseye”). I develop that distinction in the essays on this site and include what I hope is enough context to allow each entry to stand alone. This private/public separation is uncommon but productive because it underscores the undeniable need for a consensual means to resolve disputes among persons in the public square, including political remedies that are now mired in confusion. I recommend The Deep Simple: The Terms of Public Morality as a comprehensive treatise.