Kindly Inquisitors

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

What’s most distinctive about Jonathan Rauch’s book is his angleof attack. He is dedicated to the principle that “checking of eachby each is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.” Heidentifies this principle with the development of science, or “liberal science,” as he generally calls it. A society in whichliberal science flourishes is one in which “no one has the finalsay” and “no one has personal authority”; it is a society in whichevery proposition must withstand scrutiny in the marketplace ofideas, and in which, conversely, no proposition, no matter howoffensive, will be denied expression. Rauch contends that those whowould limit certain types of speech which they find offensive orhurtful to others want to enjoy the benefits of a liberal societywithout accepting the necessary costs.

Rauch is willing to accept those costs. Near the end of hisargument, he loops back to two test-cases introduced at the outset,giving them a personal dimension. Rauch would nullify the lawspassed in France banning Holocaust “revisionism”—even though, as henow tells us, he is himself Jewish. And he disagrees with thedecision of the University of Michigan to discipline a student “forsaying that he considered homosexuality a disease treatable withtherapy”—even though, as he now explains, Rauch is himself gay.Ultimately, he contends, Jews, gay people—indeed, all members ofour society—“stand to lose far more than they win from measuresregulating knowledge and debate.”

There is much to take issue with in Rauch’s compact, bracingbook. His discussion of religion, of truths that aren’t subject tothe canons of liberal science, is particularly glib andunsatisfactory. Even those who strongly disagree with Rauch,however, will profit from careful consideration of hisargument.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist LXXXIX, March 15, 1993, p. 1281.

Chicago Tribune. March 25, 1993, V, p.3.

The Economist. CCCXXVII, April 17, 1993, p.89.

Insight On the News. IX, August 2, 1993, p.35.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, March 1, 1993, p.286.

National Review. XLV, July 19, 1993, p.68.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, April 11, 1993, p.1.

Newsweek. CXXI, April 26, 1993, p.67.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, March 8, 1993, p.63.

The Wall Street Journal. March 23, 1993, p. A13.

Kindly Inquisitors

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In an age of information overload, one welcomes a small book, clearly written, with a few points well stated and backed by appropriate examples. It is easy to read and understand, but its ideas are not trivial or unimportant. Indeed, if Rauch is right, they may well be the only hope for modern societies being torn asunder by their own diversity. Unfortunately, he not only must be right but also must persuade others that he is right. And while he is persuasive, he may yet not be right in some important respects.

Ranch’s basic case is simple. Liberal science (along with capitalism and democracy) has been built on an intellectual tradition of skepticism, which can be largely encapsulated in two principles: No one gets the final say; no one has personal authority. What this means in fact is that the discussion-any discussion-is really never-ending, and that the best we can ever hope for as far as results, or public knowledge is concerned, is an unsteady consensus, in principle ever open to challenge. There are practical limits to the latter, and while Rauch is aware of these, it is one of the points where his arguments are vulnerable.

Rauch begins his book with a series of mini-case studies, which he uses to pose the problem without doing more than hinting at the solutions he has in mind. He does almost too good a job, leaving the reader at times confused as to where all of this is leading. Rauch is able to bring up a varied set of problems which illustrate his thesis. He lays out the alternatives as he sees them in the form of five competing principles. Over against the liberal principle, which determines who is right by constant and open-ended checking of all interested parties by all others, he names the fundamentalist principle (where those who know what is right determine the right), the simple and radical egalitarian principles (where all sincerely held beliefs have equal claims to respect-with special consideration for those of the historically oppressed), and the humanitarian principle (any of the alternatives to the liberal principle, but with the major stipulation that no hurt be caused in the determination of what is right).

In his second chapter, Rauch traces the philosophical roots of liberal science, as well as its alternatives. He begins with Plato, who comes in for a pretty hard time of it (he was a fundamentalist in Rauch’s estimation), moves on to Rene Descartes, who gets credit for a kind of explicit subjectivism but poor marks for logical follow-through, and finally comes to David Hume, who perhaps goes too far even for Rauch, but who usefully reminds us that any of us may at any point be wrong. This is crucial for Rauch, since upon this mustard seed of doubt he hopes to build the framework for universal tolerance, if not for universal understanding.

It is in chapter 3 that Rauch takes on the hard issue of conflict resolution using the principles of liberal science as he has stated them earlier (no final say, no personal authority). Here he makes his boldest claims for liberal science. He apparently sincerely believes that one of liberal science’s major contributions to the public arena is in the area of conflict resolution. Yet the principles he has outlined do not do the job alone, as he at various points hints but does not explicate. What lies only partially examined at this point in Rauch’s argument are not the public policy issues, which he knows well and where he is able to present his case (organized society should leave individuals alone insofar as is possible). Rather it is the fact that there is not only real pain, which Rauch can accept, but there are real dangers inherent in opening discussions about fundamentally held values among people who do not even agree on the appropriate methods of resolving personal conflicts. Liberal science is built on much more than radical skepticism. It is also a highly refined rhetorical system, in which not any sort of attack on a person’s...

(The entire section is 1615 words.)