Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Sweet Rationality

Summer 2000

Against the Idols of the Age by David Stove; Edited by Roger Kimball (Transaction, 1999, xxxii + 347 pgs.)

The present anthology of David Stove articles is an excellent book throughout, but I should like first to concentrate on a few pages that make a decisive contribution to contemporary thought.

Current irrationalist modes of thought, e.g., Marxism, feminist epistemology, and deconstruction, share a common pattern. Each contends that because our thinking about the world is conditioned in a certain way, it does not grasp the world as it really exists.

Marxists contend that class position determines thought. Those of us so unfortunate enough as to be classed as "bourgeois" cannot be expected to grasp the intricacies of the dialectic. (Of course, the thought of proletarians and their self-proclaimed leaders is also class-determined, by this theory, but somehow the Marxists sweep this aside.) Feminists argue in a similar way, substituting "gender" for "class." And deconstructionalists go Marxists and feminists one better. They claim that language by its nature dooms everyone to paradox and contradiction.

Many readers, I am sure, already know how to refute these sophistical doctrines. Are they not all self-refuting? This we have already suggested for Marxism: if all thought is class-determined, and this fact makes thought unfit to grasp reality, is not Marxism also class-determined and unfit to give us truth? The appropriate refutations of feminism and deconstruction should present readers no problem.

The self-refutation argument suffices to clear these intellectual monstrosities from the field, but many will be left uneasy. Don't the fashionable leftist doctrines have a point? Is not our thought in large part conditioned by our background? One would not expect someone raised as a Dutch Calvinist to think the life of a Samurai warrior the supreme good.

It is Mr. Stove's inestimable merit to have discovered a simple logical fallacy at the heart of the pattern of false argument we have begun studying. Once exposed, the intellectual temptation of the pattern dissolves.

The story is best told in Mr. Stove's own words: "The members of this family [of arguments] are so very various, that it is not easy to distill a schema of which they are all instances. But it is not necessary, either, because their family resemblance is so pronounced that, once you have met one member, you will easily recognize any other. The following [is a] specimen . . . We can think of things only under the forms of our thought, so, we cannot think of things as they are in themselves" (p. 171).

Once the matter has been stated in Stove's pellucidly clear way, we can at once see the fallacy. The conclusion does not follow from the premise. Of course, we can think of things only under the forms of our own thought: this is only a pretentious way of saying that we think as we think. But from this nothing follows about whether our thought can attain truth. Stove sums up: "Only three things are essential: idealism in the conclusion, tautology in the premise, and pomposity throughout" (p. 172).

How does Stove's devastating point apply to the three examples we have looked at? The Marxist claim is, "Our thought is conditioned by our class position." Either this statement is a mere tautology, as Stove alleges in his pattern, in which case it is to be read, "The thought of members of our class is the thought of members of our class." In this case, nothing whatsoever follows about whether our thoughts are true. Alternatively, it is an empirical hypothesis of some unspecified kind, and once more how it proves  that class-determined thought masks reality is not obvious. Readers may apply for themselves Stove's analysis to feminism and deconstruction.

To expose as fallacious key patterns in modern thought is no small matter, but Stove's achievement does not stop here. I can best illustrate Stove's virtues by cheating a little bit. Let us consider Stove's "The Columbus Argument," which Mr. Kimball here speaks of favorably (pp. xiv, xxxi) but is available in another Stove anthology rather than the present book. Here Stove skewers the central argument of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

Mill supported freedom for "innovators" on the grounds that no improvements in society can arise without them. Against this, Stove maintains that new ideas are far more likely to cause harm than good: "Now human societies, at least ones as large and rich as ours, are incomparably more complex than TV sets, and in fact no one understands them well enough to repair or improve them. Whatever some people may claim, there are no society repairmen, as there are TV repairmen. So if anyone gets to try out in practice his new idea for repairing or improving our society, it is something like billions-to-one that he will actually make things worse if he changes them at all" (D. Stove, Cricket Versus Republicanism, Sydney, 1995, p. 60).

I suspect that many readers will have interjected, "Aren't we libertarians? Do we not favor freedom? How can Stove be praised for an argument that backs suppression?" This query misconceives what Stove has accomplished. He has poked a hole in Mill's utilitarian case for freedom to innovate. He leaves entirely untouched natural rights arguments for liberty in the style of Murray Rothbard. Like Rothbard, Stove regarded Mill as a confused thinker, often governed by emotion.

 Rothbard, I suspect, would have delighted in this less than favorable passage: "Mill pleaded in On Liberty for the widest variety of what he chose to call "experiments in living." The phrase was a sickeningly dishonest attempt to capture some of the deserved prestige of science for things which had not the remotest connection with science; principally-need I say-certain sexual and domestic arrangements of a then "novel kind" (ibid., p. 61). I wish that I could write invective of this quality.

Mr. Stove has fatally wounded both contemporary relativism and John Stuart Mill. Not one to rest on his laurels, he takes on another of the supposed greats of modernity-the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn.

Who has not heard of Kuhn's catch phrase "paradigm shift?" According to Kuhn, science proceeds not by means of universally rational standards. Instead, a group of scientists who favor a new paradigm replace those entangled in the problems of the previously dominant model. Stove quickly locates the central fallacy: "Now you could . . . take all this just as an account of the history of science, and find more or less of value in it . . . but that is not at all how . . . Kuhn himself takes it. He will not talk himself, or let you talk if he can help it of truth in science, or . . . of falsity: he claims he cannot understand that class of talk" (p. 13).

Kuhn has thus wrongly eviscerated the normative dimension of science. From the fact, or alleged fact, that scientists have acted in a certain way, Kuhn wrongly concludes that what they do cannot be evaluated by principles of reason. Once more, our author stands firm as a champion of reason, in a way that Misesians can only applaud.

A final example of Stove's defense of rationality must here suffice. According to sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson, morality stems not from reason or direct perception of the good but rather from Darwinian imperatives. We help our children, e.g., because doing so helps us perpetuate our genes. Animals that practice "kin selection" win out in the struggle for survival, other things being equal, against those who do not. What we call moral behavior is what helped our prehistoric ancestors to survive and has as a result been built into us.

I venture to think that classical liberals have here a vital interest at stake. If we wish to claim that a free-market order is required by justice, surely we cannot look with favor on a theory that collapses morality into ancestral instincts.

We must once more, then, acknowledge a debt to David Stove, who subjects the sociobiological view to withering assault. As he notes, it simply does not fit the facts. By the doctrine of kin selection, people should be as ready to sacrifice for their brothers and sisters as for their children: both your brother and your child share half your genes. But of course people do not usually act as the theory predicts. In like manner, the theory predicts that an animal "will always sacrifice its life to save the lives of three or more conspecifics with each of whom it shares half its genes [such as its offspring or siblings]" (p. 314). This prediction fails in even more spectacular fashion than the previous example.

Surprisingly, Mr. Stove does not mention the most obvious defect of kin selection. People often prefer their wife or husband to a close relative, yet your spouse will share many fewer genes with you than relatives.

This example, though, merely serves to supplement Stove's powerful indictment. His unfailing defense of reason and his polemical skills of surpassing excellence command our respect.


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