March 10, 2019


James Davison Hunter and the Inadequacy of Naturalism (M. D. AESCHLIMAN, March 2, 2019, National Review)

The distinguished sociologist James Davison Hunter and his philosopher-colleague Paul Nedelisky of the University of Virginia have written a fine, patient, thorough, judicious, carefully argued exposé of the new reductionists called Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality. Their book is a most valuable and welcome addition to a distinguished body of recent anti-reductionist literature: the medical doctor and award-winning science writer James LeFanu's Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (2009), the philosopher Alvin Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011), the philosopher Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012), and the political scientist Jason Blakely's Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism (2016), as well as the works of MacIntyre and Taylor themselves.

This is not to speak of literary works such as Sir Tom Stoppard's recent play, currently on Broadway, The Hard Problem (2015), a dramatization of the effects of reductionist ideology on the private lives of researchers, or the distinguished American novelist Marilynne Robinson's Terry Lectures at Yale, published as Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010).

Since the deaths of Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Peter Berger  (Hunter's teacher), James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia is perhaps America's most distinguished sociologist. His award-winning book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991) had unusual range and effect, usefully introducing the conception of an ongoing war of ideas or culture struggle (kulturkampf) in American life, behind and beneath American political struggles, between broadly traditional people (especially religious people) and their "progressive" opponents (putting their faith in science, technology, and political change). Hunter has followed up with several other books, including The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age without Good and Evil (2000), and founded and directs the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, in which his collaborator Paul Nedelisky is a fellow. The Institute publishes an outstanding scholarly journal, The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture.

Hunter's line of intellectual descent comes through his great teacher Peter L. Berger, who mediated to him the high, German, non-Marxist sociological tradition of Max Weber and developed and applied it himself in profound ways (see my "A Contemporary Erasmus: Peter L. Berger," in Modern Age, 2011). Hunter has also been influenced by Tocqueville and Philip Rieff and has sociological-ethical concerns similar to those of contemporaries such as Gertrude Himmelfarb, the Englishman David Martin, Charles L. Glenn, and W. Bradford Wilcox (a former student).

Science and the Good gives a careful historical and logical analysis of what its subtitle rightly calls  "the tragic quest for the foundations of morality" over the last four hundred years. The tragedy of the quest is rooted in the continuing failure of philosophical and scientific naturalism to provide grounds or credibility for ethics (and thus for justice and just law). It was again the great philosopher Whitehead who saw and said this clearly. Speaking of naturalists such as David Hume and Thomas Henry Huxley (initially "Darwin's bull-dog," subsequently repentant for the moral implications and effects of Darwinism), Whitehead asked what reason could such naturalists give for any moral views they held "apart from their own psychological inheritance from the Platonic religious tradition?" (i.e., Christianity; Adventures in Ideas, 1933). Lester Crocker's comprehensive study of such attempts in 18th-century France, Nature and Culture: Ethical Thought in the French Enlightenment (1963), showed that they ended in what he called "The Nihilist Dissolution" of the Marquis de Sade, whose audacious immoralism foreshadowed Nietzsche. In none of its numerous incarnations can "Nature" legitimate ethics; thus the "tragic quest" and the astounding intellectual and political history of the world since 1914, at best a restless intellectual hunger for the new ("neophilia" or "cupiditas rerum novarum"), at worst a political chamber of horrors.

In their painstakingly fair-minded analysis, Hunter and Nedelisky ultimately document the truth argued by a distinguished contemporary philosopher whom they do not quote, Charles Larmore: "Basically, Plato was right," he argues; "moral value is something real and non-natural."

Posted by at March 10, 2019 4:21 AM