Philosophers as Radicals

By Griswold, Charles L., Jr. | New Criterion, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Philosophers as Radicals


Griswold, Charles L., Jr., New Criterion


The association between philosophy and radicalism is an ancient one and in some ways a natural one. Philosophy is in one sense an intrinsically revolutionary activity, simply because its goal is to put received authority into question. Its interrogatory approach--or, as philosophy's victims say, its methods of interrogation--and its adherence to the standards dictated by the bar of reason quickly ride roughshod over the sensibilities and sentiments of the day. And, of course, philosophers sometimes offer detailed emendations of received authority, describing what a state of affairs based on reason would look like.

Plato's Republic supplies the model in the Western tradition, but any truly philosophical tradition is bound to offer similar paradigms. We automatically characterize resistance to philosophy's needling questions as mere prejudice, close-mindedness, and irrationality. We do this because we are products of a tradition of liberalism that is inspired by a vision of the political and moral beneficence of philosophical questioning. Naturally, this vision has itself been decisively influenced by philosophers, indeed by classically trained philosophers (John Stuart Mill springs to mind).

We are no doubt the beneficiaries of this tradition of unbridled philosophical investigation even when in some particular cases we are its immediate victims. But is our occasional resistance to and indeed skepticism about philosophy's demands for rational answers to its questions altogether irrational?

The period of American history that produced many of today's middle-aged professionals--academics included, of course--certainly encouraged an affirmative answer to this question. Our college or university years were characterized in part by a systematic rejection of received authority. We radicals viewed ourselves as acting in the name of reason when eradicating, root and branch, every bit of received authority we could lay our hands on. You will certainly recollect many examples from the late 1960s and early 1970s in particular. I attended Trinity College in Connecticut and remember well how our philosophical radicalism manifested itself. I was a proud philosophy major, but the attitude that I am calling philosophical radicalism was very widespread among all "freethinkers" Its amazingly influential effects are by now woven into the structures of contemporary American academic life, and the attitude that created them continues to be revered.

The story is a familiar one even where the details vary. By 1969 nearly all course requirements at Trinity College had either been abolished or were ignored in practice; requirements for majors were to a large extent negotiable; the fraternities had either shut down or were transformed into little more than dormitories. The intervention of administrators in the lives of faculty, and of both in the lives of students, was at a bare minimum; the doctrine of in loco parentis was thoroughly and energetically suppressed; compulsory attendance at just about any college event (such as Sunday morning chapel) had been abolished; participation at most voluntary events (such as the traditional football matches with Wesleyan) were poor and the time-honored rituals associated with them largely forgotten. Dress codes (some formal, some informal) were gone. Students gained representation on a number of college committees (many of them ad hoc in nature); entire new programs (such as the "open semester" and independent study programs), new majors (such as theater and dance, comparative literature, non-Western studies, urban and environmental studies, American studies), and new methodologies and texts were introduced. Some dorms became co-ed, as, of course, did many of the dorm rooms.

Some of these changes came about through rather active student involvement--nothing of the scale or violence that occurred at Columbia and Cornell, but remarkable nonetheless. For example, members of TAN (the Trinity Association of Negroes) and the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) boasted that, thanks to their leadership, the first college president's office to be forcibly occupied was at Trinity (the event occurred in 1968). …

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