Why Cultural Renewal Requires a Restoration of Meaning

Feb 1, 2017 by

R. M. Stangler –

One of the most common attitudes I encounter with today’s college students is a kind of blasé non-judgmentalism—or, worse, a passively nihilistic relativism. They are reluctant to label any behavior or belief bad, even if, in the most extreme thought experiments, it involves killing innocents. This attitude seems to get worse every year; it’s as if an extreme version of John Stuart Mill’s thought forms the very air students breathe.

Only recently has it become clear that a reluctance to label a behavior or belief bad or even inferior comes from an unwillingness to define that thing. Students tell me that if they label someone else’s belief bad, they are depriving that person’s right to define themselves and create her own identity. Reluctance to define, then, becomes the template for social life. For example, students today do not say “She is Catholic” but rather “She identifies as Catholic.” In the first proposition there is a firm commitment to an idea: x is y, with all that entails. In the latter formulation, there is no fixed point, no core self: there is only a transient embrace of something that satisfies a need, and a corresponding hesitation to name that thing at all.

Perhaps Wittgenstein was right: problems of philosophy are fundamentally problems of language. The reluctance to define terms and ideas, or to affix ourselves to immovable and immutable points, is one of the most corrosive forces in our culture, and it is by recovering the power and willingness to define that conservatives can make headway in cultural politics. Marriage, justice, life, morality: we need fixed definitions of terms like these if we hope to have a cohesive society.

We should take our cue from Richard Weaver, the midcentury conservative philosopher and rhetorician. In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Weaver wrote that the noblest argument is the argument from definition. Such an argument focuses on “the nature of the thing… The postulate is that there exist classes which are determinate and therefore predicable.” The existence of definitive classes and definitions, which necessarily place limits on the self, is precisely what secular liberalism rebels against.

Weaver knew this well: “There are those who seem to feel that genera are imprisoning bonds which serve only to hold the mind in confinement.” Conservatives, meanwhile, know that “such genera appear the very organon of truth.” In other words, the conservative is the one willing to say that x fundamentally is y; the secular liberal believes that to finally define terms like “marriage” is to trap people in oppressive and anachronistic institutions.

The enemy of definition is emotivism: that line of thinking that prizes felt preference and the inviolable nature of conscience over fixed ideals. In emotivism, a thing is whatever I say it is, and as long as I feel a genuine preference rooted in my conscience then you cannot tell me I am wrong. Roll your eyes if you like, but this is the dominant attitude among today’s students and most of the contemporary professoriate which shapes them. And according to Weaver, this is precisely the attitude that leads to cultural breakdown.

Cultural Restoration Requires Definition
If conservatism is to remain a way of life and a negation of ideology, as Russell Kirk had it, then our primary task should be the preservation and rebuilding of culture. Such a task requires definition. Weaver wrote that coherent and cohesive cultures center around a particular “metaphysical dream”: a kind of cultural telos around which members of the culture can agree and rally.

But it’s foolish to pretend we can have such a metaphysical dream without shared terms. In the United States we might hold up “liberty” or “freedom” as universal terms, but surely such terms are more contested than ever. “Freedom as an end in itself,” wrote Weaver, “is simply vacuous.” Try telling that to some of my progressive students and colleagues, for whom unfettered autonomy without obligation is the central goal of life.

Perhaps we have crossed some kind of cultural Rubicon, and broad agreement on terms is no longer possible. Certainly the political has become personal for many millions of Americans, and political views—replacing faith in a secular society—become the only eschatological force in our private and public lives.

Source: Why Cultural Renewal Requires a Restoration of Meaning – Crisis Magazine

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