As President of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs, I’ve been working on a statement of our purposes, and thus on an explanation of the critical importance for society of careful philosophical engagement with the deepest underlying issues. I realize various assumptions are involved in such an explanation, and I invite discussion of such assumptions. I plan to follow up with relevant remarks on Tocqueville and on James D. Hunter, for example, but let’s start with the following propositions concerning the political and moral importance of deep thoughts:
The intellectual bubble of a false, relativist understanding of freedom casts a shadow over our whole society and profoundly affects the terms of moral and political debates. So in a way it is everywhere. But if we limit ourselves to fighting its effects piecemeal we will often end up shadow-boxing, lunging at an elusive target that may seem to slip away only to reappear in more subtle and virulent forms. The inflated prestige of this relativism must be addressed at its intellectual source – let’s say the sophisticated mechanism that pumps air into the bubble. This mechanism cannot be flattened with a sledge hammer but must be dismantled and reformed with surgical precision to produce the fresh air of healthy moral discourse in which true religious liberty can flourish. This careful intellectual work can only be done by minds deeply grounded in the best of our religious and philosophical traditions and trained in careful argumentation.
What is necessary is to rally the best minds that are open to higher moral and spiritual truths in order to form the next generation to intellectual and moral excellence and thus to address our society’s confusion at its deepest intellectual source. This is the importance of efforts addressed to scholars, teachers and students in higher education and to the higher reaches of public intellectual life; this is why we must engage the critical philosophical questions that will determine the outlook of the most influential minds of the rising generation. By influencing the most influential minds, and by presenting the best of contemporary thought to a wider public, it is possible affect the character of society and contribute to an understanding of political and personal liberty that is truly humane and truly open to what transcends human power.