On Rational Inquiry in Universities Today

In the current situation of chronic crisis and intermittent polarization on the campus, and in the country as a whole, what can the professional intellectual do? Especially what can he do if he is an academic intellectual, strongly opposed to the current drift of American society, yet equally strongly committed to certain liberal values, such as rational inquiry, intellectual freedom, tolerance, and civilized discourse, values that some sections of the extreme left now vehemently reject? Does this kind of liberal commitment sooner or later force one inevitably and reluctantly into the arms of those who call the police, and thus not very indirectly into the arms of the military and all those forces responsible for the cruelties that pass under the name of law and order in western civilization?

One answer comes to mind, based on the famous remark attributed to Florence Nightingale: Whatever else hospitals do, at least they should not spread disease. We can paraphrase it thus: Whatever else academic intellectuals do, they should not spread myths.

Let this homely version of the categorical imperative serve as a starting point from which to take bearings. Those who attack myths frequently do so from a perspective that itself rests upon mythical assumptions. There is no perfect cure for this situation—least of all confidence in one’s own infallibility. Nevertheless, the liberal ideal does contain one very powerful antidote. It is the assumption that no idea should or even can be permanently preserved from rigorous critical scrutiny. That assumption or ideal seems to me the essence of the concept of tolerance and intellectual freedom. It means something quite different from the notion that everybody has a right to his own opinions.

That notion may be the first myth that it would be wise to get out of the way. In a strict sense, there is no such thing as a right to opinions. I have no right to believe what is manifestly false, or even what is only moderately likely. All that exist are grounds for opinions, warrants for belief, based on logic and fact. Some of these warrants are much stronger than others. Many of them turn out upon examination to be rather feeble. In a reasonably good university nowadays very many of the most important warrants—pace radicals who see the university as mainly a factory of technical skills and social polish for the managers of the status quo—are undergoing severe re-examination. Thus the liberal commitment to intellectual freedom is a commitment to a process, not to a specific set of beliefs.

Like all commitments it is open to challenge. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century faith that this process would soon make the world a better and happier place to live in now seems absurd. There is no real guarantee that it can do anything of the sort. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to show (a) that once the process has gotten started it is very difficult to stop; and (b) that political efforts to stop…

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