In addition to its intrinsically anti-Christian purpose that is documented in J.B. Bury’s A History of Freedom of Thought, in The Suicide of the West, James Burnham identifies another, equally serious problem with the progressive principle of the right of free speech: the logical and philosophical connection between free speech and the devolution of science from the rigors of scientody to the ever-mutating positions of democratic scientistry.
If we know the truth, we might reasonably ask, why waste society’s time, space and money giving an equal forum, under the free speech rule, to error? The only consistent answer is: we cannot be certain that we know the truth—if, indeed, there is any such thing as objective truth. Liberalism is logically committed to the doctrine that philosophers know under the forbidding title of “epistemological relativism.” This comes out clearly both in theoretical discussion by philosophers of liberalism and in liberal practice.
We confront here a principle that would seem strangely paradoxical if it had not become so familiar in the thought and writings of our time. Liberalism is committed to the truth and to the belief that truth is what is discovered by reason and the sciences; and committed against the falsehoods and errors that are handed down by superstition, prejudice, custom and authority. But every man, according to liberalism, is entitled to his own opinion, and has the right to express it (and to advocate its acceptance). In motivating the theory and practice of free speech, liberalism must either abandon its belief in the superior social utility of truth, or maintain that we cannot be sure we know the truth. The first alternative—which would imply that error is sometimes more useful for society than the truth—is by no means self-evidently false, but is ruled out, or rather not even considered seriously, by liberalism. Therefore liberalism must accept the second alternative.
We thus face the following situation. Truth is our goal; but objective truth, if it exists at all, is unattainable; we cannot be sure even whether we are getting closer to it, because that estimate could not be made without an objective standard against which to measure the gap. Thus the goal we have postulated becomes meaningless, evaporates. Our original commitment to truth undergoes a subtle transformation, and becomes a commitment to the rational and scientific process itself: to—in John Dewey’s terminology—the “method of inquiry.”
But this process or method of inquiry is nothing other than the universal dialogue made possible by universal education and universal suffrage under the rules of freedom of opinion, speech, press and assembly. Throughout his long life, the commitment to the method of inquiry that is at once “the scientific method” and “the democratic method” was perhaps the major theme of Dewey’s teaching. Let us add that truth thus becomes in practice relative to the method of inquiry. For all practical purposes, truth in any specific scientific field is simply the present consensus of scientific opinion within that same field; and political and social truth is what is voted by a democratic majority.
It is not clear in advance how wide the field of political and social truth should be understood to be; presumably that question too can be answered only by the democratic method, so that the field is as wide as the democratic majority chooses to make it. The plainest summary of the net conclusion of the liberal doctrine of truth is that given in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ aphorism. He conjoins the two key propositions, though I place them here in a sequence the reverse of the original: 1) “truth is the only ground upon which [men’s] wishes safely can be carried out”; 2) “the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
Another of the prominent American philosophers of liberalism, Professor T.V. Smith of the University of Chicago—whose influence has been spread much beyond the academies by virtue of his mellifluous prose style and his popularity as an after-dinner speaker—has made the idea of relativity the core of his essay on “Philosophy and Democracy.” “This inability finally to distinguish [truth from falsity, good from evil, beauty from ugliness] is the propaedeutic for promotion from animal impetuosity to civilized forbearance. It marks the firmest foundation”—again the paradox is near the surface—“for the tolerance which is characteristic of democracy alone.”
Professor Smith very rightly cites Justice Holmes as a major source of the influence of this doctrine of relativism among us. “As Holmes put it, we lack a knowledge of the ‘truth’ of ‘truth.’ ” Professor Smith attacks all of the classical theories of objective truth, and declares: “No one of these theories can adequately test itself, much less anything else.” The idea of objective truth is only the rationalization of private, subjective “feelings of certitude . . . ; and certitude is not enough. It more easily marks the beginning of coercion than the end of demonstration. . . . The only insurance the modern world has against the recurrence of the age-old debacle of persecution for opinion is the presence in it of a sufficient number of men of such character as will mollify assertions of truth with the restraints of tolerance.”
Since final truth cannot be known, we must keep the dialogue eternally going, and, where action is required, be “content”—Mr. Hutchins echoes Justice Holmes—“to abide by the decision of the majority.”