I promised myself I’d get the first of the Locke posts up tonight, so I suppose I should at least scratch the surface. I’m about a quarter of the way through the Second Treatise of Government, but my first comment has virtually nothing to do with Locke’s political philosophy. The preface to the Two Treatises, while it focuses mostly on outlining the purposes of the work (to justify the ascension of William of Orange after the Glorious Revolution, and to demolish Sir Robert Filmer’s arguments for the divine right of kings), has a nice little nugget on philosophical discourse that I think is worth reproducing here.
If any one, concerned really for truth, undertake the refutation of my Hypothesis, I promise him either to recant my mistake, upon fair conviction; or to answer his difficulties. But he must remember two things.
First, That cavilling here and there, at some expression, or little incident of my discourse, is not an answer to my book.
Secondly, That I shall not take railing for arguments, nor think either of these worth my notice, though I shall always look on myself as bound to give satisfaction to any one, who shall appear to be conscientiously scrupulous in the point, and shall shew any just grounds for his scruples.
It seems to me that we would do well to take this to heart as a disclaimer for modern political and philosophical discourse. It also occurs to me that this sense of philosophical essaying as being essentially a back-and-forth enterprise is largely absent in the present day, at least in a substantial sense. Where Locke specifically outlined his willingness to respond to criticism of his arguments, most discourse today (at least outside of academic philosophy circles, which I don’t know quite well enough to speak for) either ignores/marginalizes reasoned opposition or comes out swinging, combativeness for the sake of combativeness. Obviously modern Western society—and America above all—follows a highly adversarial paradigm, from capitalism to party politics to adversarial justice systems, but Locke’s suggested dialectic seems a hell of a lot more reasonable than what passes for debate these days.
Having studied 17th and 18th century satire fairly extensively, I do realize that there was as much flamethrowing and vitriol back then as there is now, if not more so, but the context is different; back then, it was primarily the literary/political elites doing the verbal sparring, but now it’s every Joe and Jane Schmoe with an opinion. “Partisan politics” is an easy target, but where this stuff really matters the most is in the public domain, in the culture and the media and the day-to-day conversations that make up people’s lives. Not to say that we wouldn’t benefit from more rational debate in the legislature, because of course we would, but now more than ever the idea of a civil but critical examination of people’s arguments is something we need. Much more than we need sophistry and vilification.
Locke would make a fairly decent poster boy for the Intelligent Party, I think.