Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and director of the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory , has an essay on reason and religion in the public square in the ZENIT Daily Dispatch for March 10, 2007. Crepaldi is worried about what he sees as a threat to "public reason," which concerns "the foundations of the dignity of the human person, the main elements of the common good, the inalienability of human rights, [and] the meaning of individual freedom and of community ties"¯in other words, the rational investigation of morals and politics. The threat that Crepaldi sees is what he calls "relativism"¯a position he never clearly defines, even though he’s quite certain about its effects: "Public reason is not possible in a culture that is dominated by the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ [a phrase from Benedict XVI], for a very simple reason: Relativism is a dogma and therefore it a priori rejects rational argumentation, even toward itself . . . . Relativism [denies] a capability of reason to argue truth . . . [and so] prevents the use of public reason."

Just as a sociological matter, this should give us pause. Generally speaking, our society is more concerned with producing and responding to arguments than probably any other in the history of the world. Whether the issue is abortion or gay rights, tax policy or the trade deficit, global warming or third-world debt, everyone seems ready to adduce arguments in support of some position or other. In learned periodicals like the Journal of Philosophy or the Harvard Law Review , on the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post , in the rough-and-tumble opinion journalism of National Review and The Nation , in the postings of bloggers and the ramblings of barroom blowhards, we find nothing but arguments about morals and politics. There are very few people¯in fact, virtually none¯who "a priori reject rational argumentation" in morals or politics. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. When Anthony T. Kronman, a former dean of the Yale Law School¯and someone with whom Bishop Crepaldi would probably agree very little on issues of public policy¯once claimed that what unites the Yale Law School is "its faith in the power of reason," no one thought this claim extraordinary. Indeed, I thought it was somewhat banal.

So why would Crepaldi assert, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that people nowadays reject a priori rational argumentation on questions of morals and politics? The answer is that Crepaldi is in the grip of a serious misconception about the modern world common among Catholic thinkers. Relativism arises, Crepaldi thinks, from "the ‘self-limitation’ of reason . . . [which] consists in [reason’s] being reduced to mathematical-experimental knowledge, i.e., a type of rationality that is incapable of founding even relativism." That is, Crepaldi thinks it’s a foundational (and mistaken) premise of modern culture that the province of reason comprises natural science and mathematics, with everything else¯including normative disciplines like morals or politics¯being the province of subjective opinion, a realm in which no statement is objectively true or false.

Given that virtually no one believes such things, where did Crepaldi get this notion? Anyone familiar with the history of twentieth-century philosophy will know the answer. The logical positivists, who dominated Anglo-American philosophy from the 1920s to about 1950¯philosophers like Rudolph Carnap, Moritz Schlick, and A.J. Ayer¯held more or less the view that Crepaldi misleadingly calls relativism. For the positivists, such a view was not, pace Crepaldi, an unreasoned dogma but followed from the defining thesis of positivism, which was the verification theory of meaning . Although this theory took many forms, it generally held that a sentence is meaningful if and only if the sentence is either analytic or empirically verifiable. Analytic sentences are those true or false in virtue of the conventionally assigned meanings of words (thus "Every bachelor is an unmarried man" is analytically true because "bachelor" just means "unmarried man").

For the positivists, mathematical sentences were analytic, and the sentences of the natural sciences were empirically verifiable: Hence, all such sentences were meaningful. By contrast, the logical positivists argued that sentences from domains of discourse such as religion, metaphysics, and morals were neither analytic nor empirically verifiable and so, under the verification theory of meaning, were literally meaningless—not false but meaningless (being meaningful is a precondition of a sentence’s being either true or false). Although the positivists generally rejected religion and metaphysics wholesale, they did find a certain place for the normative sentences of morals and politics: Such sentences, they said, express the emotions of those who utter them. "Murder is wrong," for example, means something like, "Boo for murder!" This theory of normative language is nowadays called emotivism.

Anyone familiar with the history of twentieth-century philosophy also knows, however, that virtually no contemporary philosopher accepts either verificationism or emotivism. The logical positivists tried, time and again, to formulate the verification theory precisely, but all such attempts clearly failed¯as almost all the positivists themselves eventually admitted. Then, in 1951, W.V. Quine published in Philosophical Review an article entitled " Two Dogmas of Empiricism " (very widely anthologized, including in Quine’s From a Logical Point of View ). One of the most celebrated papers in twentieth-century philosophy, the article is widely credited with killing off the verification theory of meaning once and for all. This opened the door to rehabilitating domains of discourse other than mathematics and natural science. Quine himself noted in “Two Dogmas” that one effect of abandoning verificationism is “a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science.” Peter Geach and others exposed severe problems with emotivism. All this laid the groundwork for flourishing subfields of contemporary philosophy in metaphysics, moral philosophy, political philosophy, and aesthetics. When Russell Reno, writing in First Things , recently argued that theologians would do well to look to contemporary analytic philosophy in working out theological problems, he clearly knew what he was talking about.

Which brings me back to Bishop Crepaldi. How does an intelligent man end up tilting at windmills that collapsed of their own weight more than fifty years ago? There are, I suggest, features of contemporary moral discourse that have led him, along with many others, into this rather spectacular misconception. As to how this may have happened, I shall have something to say in this space tomorrow.

Robert T. Miller is an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.

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