Ideas and Dubious Consequences – Splice Today

Posted: November 17, 2021 at 1:39 pm

Ideas have consequences is a maxim one hears in conservative intellectual circles. It was the title of a 1948 book by Richard Weaver. In the 1990s, I was a regular freelance writer forInsight on the News, a now-all-but-forgotten conservative magazine, where I first came into contact with Weavers contention that the ills of the world derived from long-dead philosophers, starting with William of Ockham. Weaver was long-dead by the time I was readingthis, but if I recall correctly,Insightran an essay under his byline without making that clear.

AWashington Postcolumn by Marc Thiessenhascaused a stir by blaming critical race theory on Immanuel Kant, quotingCivil Warhistorian Allen Guelzoto make that case. It wasnt the first time Id seen Kant show up in the Ockham role in a Weaver-type narrative. Ayn Rand called Kant the most evil man in mankinds history, whod undermined human reasonand madeway for Marxism and Nazism.Reading that long ago,Id no particular affinity for Kants philosophyIdlearnedinScientific Americanthat Kants antinomy of space didnt anticipate non-Euclidean geometrybut this most evil claim struck me as severely lacking evidence. I thought the samenowaboutCRTs putative Kantian origin, which soonwas widely criticized.

Ideas have consequences, but tracing specific things happening in the world today to particular thinkers of centuries past risks oversimplification and likely veers into obscurantism. Back atInsight, I oncewrote an articleabout alien visitations and how interest in them had risen inthe culture of the1990s; I interviewed a space policy analyst who said this phenomenon was a repackaging of first-century Gnosticism, a claim I happily quoted though Isuspectedit was bullshit.One might wonder why a space policy analyst would be talking about Gnosticism, or why a Civil War historian would be talking about Kant. Those are good questions, and the relevance of a quoted persons professional focus is a point that should be considered whenfact-checking.

At the same time, theremay be some tendency of people in, or enthused of, a particular profession to overestimate its influence. PercyByssheShelley wrote that poetsare the unacknowledged legislators of the world.John MaynardKeynesgave a similar role to the economics profession: Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defuncteconomist. Thereve been influential philosophers, poets and economists, but anemphasis on howaparticularprofession,or some of its key members,impacted history could reflectsome degree of disciplinary chauvinism.

I was an economics and history major. Philosophy, for me, was a subjecttinged withanxietybefore and during college; not something I was willing to make my main focus. Ive always had a love of esoteric topics, though, and over the years I veered into science journalism because ofinterests in physics, astronomy and biology thatarose, in major part, from philosophical preoccupations. I still think its good to have a double major, or a major and a minor, since numerous topics dont fit neatly into one discipline.

Unfortunately, the esoteric can also be deployed as a tool of distraction. If someone says some deep-rooted problem of current societyhas occurredbecause ofthe thinking of William of Ockham or Immanuel Kant, keep in mind the possibility that theyre changing the subject fromthe matter at hand, or perhaps from some other figure, such asan ex-president they support who tried to overturn an election.

Kenneth Silber is author ofIn DeWitts Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canaland is on Twitter:@kennethsilber

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Ideas and Dubious Consequences - Splice Today

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