The Hold of the Solitary Hero of Independent Judgement

I think therefore I am.  I judge your thoughts because I can.  YOU CAN”T TELL ME WHAT TO THINK!

existential hero and independent thought

Does the existential “hero” have purely objective independent thought?

The idea that we are the creators of our own thoughts is one that holds a prominent place in Western society.  This is likely due as much to the rationalist ideal of knowledge as it is to a deeply ingrained suspicion of authority. Most of us operate with a thoroughly individualistic self-understanding. We approach knowledge the way teenagers approach parental authority: ‘No one tells me what to think.’ Like a teenager, we harbour the illusion of thinking in a context-free vacuum, literally making up our minds. Consequently, we equate tradition, authority and religion with indoctrination and reject them as unwelcome intrusions on the pure slate of our minds.

This attitude explains not only many first-year university students’ defiance toward traditional subjects they consider useless, but also the rather problematic distinction we make between secular and religious orientations in education. According to this distinction, secular public schools are on a neutral fact-finding mission, whereas private religious institutions are obviously into indoctrination. In the two previous posts in this category we looked at the exhaustion of the secular ideal that reason is objective while religious thought is irrational and here we see how the illusion about the distinction between the public and religious education schools too is crumbling.

As the literary critic Stanley Fish argues in his book The Trouble with Principle, ‘Just as you cannot have education without authoritative selection, so you can’t have consciousness without authoritative selection, and one you didn’t make. . . . The choice is never between indoctrination and free inquiry but between different forms of indoctrination issuing from different authorities.’[1] Contrary to the popular view of autonomous thinking, we do not in fact arrive at conclusions independently. Fish’s point is that everyone thinks on the basis of some authority. That is not something we can or even should avoid because that is simply how growing in knowledge and insight works.

Dependence on tradition does not mean that one mindlessly follows influences that may have formed thinking patterns early in life.  Or that the previous generation is to be blindly followed.  Hermeneutic philosophy has shown that this is not the case. On the contrary, our denial of tradition by claiming autonomous inquiry or moral judgment from outside of any historical horizon results in subjectivism and the ‘deformation of knowledge.’[1]  The irony is that to pretend that scientific inquiry is objective and immune to socio-cultural influence makes on more liable to subjectivism because one’s cultural horizon that helps guide research is ignored.

A similar blindness to cultural influence is evident in discussions about Western culture. The presumption that its religiously derived values can be upheld in strict separation from their religious roots is becoming problematic. As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains, modern secular reason is faced with the problem of justifying norms and values for human society without recourse to pre-modern notions of transcendence or divinity.[2] As we will discuss in a later chapter, Habermas himself offers one of the most sophisticated, if ultimately unconvincing, solutions to this dilemma.[3] Like few other secular philosophers, Habermas has realized society’s need for the revitalizing power of Christianity and its teachings.[4]

[1] Gadamer, TM, 300.

[2] Habermas, Diskursethik, 307.

[3] See chapter eight.

[4] Habermas, Kritik der Vernunft, 384-5.


[1] Fish, Trouble with Principle, 157-8.

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