The Constitution of Knowledge

Any time Jonathan Rauch has a new book, I preorder it. 

Why? First let’s start with the fact that the man is, quite simply, a genius. He is a unique synthesis: a heterodox thinker who challenges convention, a classical liberal grounded in tradition, just enough of an academic to be meaningful, and just enough of a professional journalist to be clarifying. Forged in the fires of the Gay Rights Movement, of which he has been an integral part since the 1980s, Rauch is an astute critic of both the Status Quo and of the Resistance. He is a tireless advocate of identity politics *and* the most articulate defender of unfettered free speech this side of John Stuart Mill.

I have written before about his monumental and towering 1993 book, Kindly Inquisitors, possibly the most illuminating analysis I have ever read about contemporary liberal society, and surely the best argument for free speech and debate written since the mid-19th century.  When I heard that Rauch was revisiting these topics in a new, more expansive work due out this summer, I pre-ordered the book and spent the next four months devouring any articles or podcasts the man did to promote it.  In particular, Rauch’s conversation and debate with fellow gay rights luminary and free speech defender Andrew Sullivan — the rare time when someone has gotten the better of Sullivan on his own turf, I’d say — got me particularly excited. Last week, I finally received my copy of The Constitution of Knowledge.

It didn’t disappoint.

What I loved about Kindly Inquisitors was that it presented not just a legalistic (or even Constitutional) defense of free speech, but an intellectual one: we need free speech as the raw material to sift through and arrive at truth.  The book also highlighted the most important time-honored arguments against free speech, and provided the reader with some heavy intellectual artillery for defending against them.  The whole concept rested on Rauch’s system of meaning-making, an epistemology that not only did not discourage but actively welcomed biases and which sorted out truth from error with astonishing speed and with historically unprecedented social peace.  Rauch called that system “liberal science.”

In his new book, Rauch returns to this fascinating concept, out of a need to emphasize not just the system itself, but the institutions that sustain liberal science.  Rauch calls the rules of liberal science the “constitution of knowledge” — the rules, the terms, and most importantly the institutions that channel debate, sift through opinions, and ultimately determine what is true (or, to be more precise, determine and locate error).  He calls this constitution “liberalism’s epistemic operating system” and he updates the term “liberal science” (from Kindly Inquisitors) with the term “reality-based community” to emphasize what he calls the “institutional and communitarian foundations of collective inquiry” (15).  But the point is not just to understand them more clearly; this book is Rauch’s attempt to, in his words, “arm its advocates with a clearer understanding of what they must protect, and why, and how” (15) from the threats of troll epistemology (from the right) and cancel culture and emotional safety-ism (from the left).

The book is written in Rauch’s easy-to-read journalistic prose.  Helpful headings in bold synthesize important points, and although there are allusions and quotations to a diverse array of intellectual thinkers and works, it’s all very readable and digestible, told with engaging anecdotes and historical summary.

Rauch begins by explaining what existed prior to the Constitution of Knowledge, epitomized by British philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s belief that the state of nature for human beings is inherently tribal, ruled by warring factions, endless and inconclusive creed wars, in Hobbes’s words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” tamable only by a “leviathan” — a one, supreme ruler who decides truth, punishes blasphemy, and governs this bleak, chaotic world.  Meanwhile, this universe is infinitely subject to violent battles over truth, law, and morality, all of which are set off by the slightest contrarian haggling, and which are nearly unprovable and unsolvable except by force.  It’s a bleak view, but one which reigned for thousands of years and produced little in the way of innovation, collaboration, and understanding of truth.  “Come back in 10,000 years,” Rauch imagines alien visitors to Earth saying, “and maybe these people will be interesting.”

But then, according to Rauch, out of the disarray and strife of the 17th century came an English thinker named John Locke.  Locke brought forth new concepts — natural rights, rule by consent, toleration — which paved the way for the Enlightenment and for the Constitution of Knowledge.  Most important, with the publication of his 1689 “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Locke derived the concept of empiricism: the notion that truth comes not from revelation, from the say of a sovereign, or from general principles, but from experience and facts, inductively, only from investigation of the world and comparing our findings with others’.  This, Rauch believes, hints at something beyond mere tolerance: the welcoming of diverse opinions as a way to get at the truth, and a way of creating social piece by putting aside “uncheckable” claims (such as those around morality or religion) in favor of pursuing claims that are, in Rauch’s words, “adjudicable.” 

From there, Rauch says, Enlightenment thinkers built on Locke’s ideas, and Rauch picks up the thread again with 19th century American thinker Charles Sanders Peirce, whose concept of fallibilism is the next step in cementing the Constitution of Knowledge.  Fallibilism is the idea (the truly radical, revolutionary idea, says Rauch) that truth not only does not require certainty, but is incompatible with certainty.  In fact, truth requires doubt.  Writes Rauch, “We can claim knowledge, but always provisionally, knowing we might be mistaken.” (58) “For the fallibist,” he writes, “the job is rather to search for error” (58), to hunt it down and shoot it.  What’s left over, what survives, is held to be true — provisionally.

And it is this — what Rauch calls “float[ing and falsify[ing hypotheses on an industrial scale” (58) — that the Constitution of Knowledge does so well.  Prior to the Enlightenment, humans “had many ideas, but no rapid, reliable way to test them.  Instead of shooting down our beliefs, we sanctified them; instead of organizing our intellectual culture to look for error, we organized it to unify our tribes around dogmas” (58).  That is why these disputes produced rancor and violence: there was no system to peacefully adjudicate what was true and what was not.  But the Constitution of Knowledge, though it wasn’t as formally planned as the Constitution of the United States, grew to fill this role of determining truth by outsourcing those decisions to anyone and everyone — as Rauch terms it, “no one in particular.” It is a Darwinian system, survival of the fittest: “New hypotheses are akin to mutations: most will fail, but a few will succeed and drive adaptation.  Once the mistakes are weeded out, what remains standing on any given day is knowledge” (59).

This whole idea that knowledge is never certain, but merely contingent, is deeply counter-intuitive.  Absolute certainty is like a mathematical asymptote: human knowledge can approach it, and get ever closer and closer, but can never quite calcify into pure, total truth.  There must always linger a shred of doubt, a better reading on reality, a closer getting-to-the-heart of the issue, and we must always reserve ultimate judgment.  What a strange idea compared to Plato’s absolute certainty of the Good.  But what a remarkably heathy, productive, and, most importantly, communal approach to the creation of knowledge.  Rather than sects, tribes, and factions each insisting on their own, unprovable truths, now we have sects, tribes, and factions, each insisting on their own truths — but needing to abide by the systems and norms in order to get their ideas accepted as true: persuasion, appeal to logic and empirical evidence, taking other arguments and interpretations into account, modifying and compromising, playing fair in the sandbox (attacking ideas, not people).  Rauch compares it to a giant funnel: everyone enters at the large end (everyone is able to — there’s no restriction on who can participate), but the system funnels everything through until only a few ideas, often shaped by a wide variety of voices, are taken as truth (and only then, contingent truth).

What are these institutions that enforce the norms of the Constitution of Knowledge?  They are professional societies, journals, courts, newspapers, schools.  Rauch relates the example of the movement of both geology and medicine from ad hoc practices with no systematic way for pursuing truth, each just a huge assortment of independent practitioners (anyone who said they were a doctor was a doctor) into serious, truth-seeking, professional organizations.  It was the rise of societies and organizations, like the founding of the Geological Society of London in 1807, which Rauch writes represented, “building a community in which all agree to convince each other by following the same set of rules” (64).  The advent professional societies and schools in medicine took it from a collection of cranks making little progress toward truth toward a scientific community with agreed upon norms and rules.  As Rauch writes, the American Medical Association and the Federation of State Medical Boards, “set practice guidelines which acquired something akin to the force of law; medical schools instituted rigorous scientific curricula, professional journals and networks culled and disseminated the latest research; professional organizations held doctors accountable for using up-to-date research” (66-67).  

As a result, medical discoveries, which had hitherto made precious little progress, “came at a dizzying rate” — Rauch cites the rapid development in the 20th century of, among other inventions, penicillin and cortisone, polio vaccine and heart surgery, kidney transplant, chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization and angioplasty — all in a short space of time.  A modern example, as Rauch writes, is the amazing speed of the cure for the novel Coronavirus, a process that represented the reality-based community, working across the world, at its swiftest and error-identifying best.  This social network — found in each profession — is what facilitates the impersonal, peaceful search for truth in a way that no disconnected set of super geniuses could do on their own.  As Rauch wrote earlier in Kindly Inquisitors, it doesn’t matter if individual thinkers are biased; what matters is that they are differently biased: that they check each others’ biases.  Thus the system thrives on diversity of opinion and on pluralism — as long as all actors agree to the basic commitment of empiricism, of centering their arguments on provable claims and hypothesis.

Rauch compares the Constitutional of Knowledge, with the constitution of the United States: a system that forces social negotiation between competing groups, and which requires a kind of compromise that is much more than just splitting differences or agreeing to a watered-down, in-between — it’s a dynamic spur to innovation: new ideas, new arguments, new allies, and a stronger product.  Rauch highlights James Madison, father of the Constitution, in particular, for having the genius to realize that this system of forced negotiation not only creates social and political peace by channeling ambition, pitting ambition against other ambition, but actually thrives on diverse ideas as the raw material for the dynamic process of negotiation.  

It’s here that Rauch makes what I believe is his most critical insight:  The early 20th century metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” falls short: truth does not simply win out.  In fact (as he points out regarding so-called “troll epistemology,” truth is often lost in the firehose of information and opinion).  Instead, for truth to win out, the marketplace of ideas must be a structured, curated marketplace.  There must be rules, even if informal, and regulators, even if no one in particular.  Truth does not win on its own; it wins out if the system is set up to allow it to win out.  Otherwise, we’re back in Hobbes’s tribalism.

Rauch says that any liberal system should be judged by three qualities: the creation of knowledge, the fostering of freedom, and the maintenance of peace.  On all these accounts, he says, the Constitution of Knowledge has wildly succeeded: it has put to bed insolvable and violent creed wars, has brought about unimaginable innovations at unprecedented speed, and has fostered rather than persecuted diversity of opinion.  To read Rauch is to be reminded of what a remarkable, remarkable system we live under.

Rauch defines the reality-based community specifically as having four pillars in our world: scholarship, journalism, government, and law, all of whom are dedicated to pursuing the truth in reality.  He also cites four core commitments that adherents to the Constitution of Knowledge must have: fallibilism (the notion that any of us might be wrong), objectivity (the notion that we are pursuing an objective reality, that truth exists independently of our perceptions, that humans are interchangeable, and that something is not just true because your tribe feels it is true — the so-called “reasonable person test” in the law); exclusivity; disconfirming; accountability (not making things up, having a conscience, the lack of which is punished by the community), pluralism, civility and professionalism (required because you must, after all, work with others), institutionalism, and finally “no bullshitting”!!  

That said, Rauch is careful to denote that the Constitutional of Knowledge is merely a system, not the system.  This system demands only to be the means of establishing public truth, it does not necessarily interfere with private lives.  One can believe a variety of religious ideas at home even as one works with the reality-based community professionally.  “It does not need everyone to be truth-seeking,” Rauch writes, “It can make do with most people’s being truth-friendly” (115): the acceptance of reality-based epistemic rules and professionals and institutions that uphold these rules, and “general consent to public decisionmaking systems which are reality-based,” public trust in the reality-based community to legitimize its privileged epistemic standing, and finally, “enough public respect for the Constitution of Knowledge’s underlying values to support normal like freedom of expression, intellectual pluralism, commitment to learning, and respect for factuality and truthfulness” (117).

And yet, as Rauch writes, all of these premises are under attack, now as ever.  It’s important to remember that the Constitution of Knowledge by definition marginalizes most claims.  It does not punish or persecute for mistakes, but nor does it award the status of truth.  It awards some claims (evolutionary Darwinism) the mantle of truth, allows it to be taught as true in textbooks to children, while pushing aside other claims (creationism) and keeping them out of the textbooks.  Yes, the system is always open to hearing new arguments for old ideas, but it’s not about to award anyone truth status just because their feelings were hurt, or because they are members of a particular group or tribe.

Rauch next outlines three challenges to the reality-based community: the rise of digital media, campaigns of disinformation from the political right, and cancel culture from the political left — and I’ll cover those perhaps in a future post.  As you can tell by how much I have written so far, this is a fascinating, fruitful book with a great deal of insight into the world around us.

Skipping ahead toward the end of the book, Rauch seems optimistic about the fate of the Constitution of Knowledge, of the reality-based community, and of the ability of the system of liberal science to withstand these challenges to its efficacy.  

I have to say, I share Rauch’s optimism.  In 2016 and 2017, I was especially worried about the threats from the Trumpian right.  It seemed to me that too many Americans had come to distrust the sources of meaning-making in both the reality-based community and in our democratic politics as being out-of-touch with reality, and in response, partly to this, and partly in response to the campaigns of troll disinformation that began to proliferate, elected a Hobbesian-style leviathan in the form of the most authoritarian, skilled manipulator of truth our country has ever elected. 

Since 2017, I have been less worried about threats from the right and more concerned with threats from the left.  The rise of cancel culture, of intolerance for disagreement, and the rampant virtue signaling, orthodoxy-following, and public shaming has seemed to me like the main tribal threat to the Constitution of Knowledge.

In the first case, I began to feel that both the U.S. Constitution as well as the Constitution of Knowledge actually constrained Trump and his followers.  It worked.  Journalists checked his work, Congress and the judiciary checked his legislation, ambitious men and women stepped up to check his wild ambitions.  Four years later, a career politician, a consummate institutionalist, and a temperamental and political moderate named Joe Biden soundly sent Trumpianism down in electoral defeat.  It’s still a problem, very much so, yes, but it lost fair and square.  The system got its revenge.

I actually feel the same is happening with the left right now, what Rauch terms “purism.” Now that the emergency of Trump is removed from the White House and from our TV and computer screens each day, it’s easier for the reality-based community to start asking questions of the social justice progressives who, in my view, were getting away with a lot of strident attacks on the institutions at the heart of the Constitution of Knowledge.  You can see this start to happen now as journalists or even members of the public begin to ask questions unthinkable just two years ago:  What does “equity” actually mean?  Diversity of what?  What is critical race theory, and what is meaningful to teach about it?  These are not just conservatives asking these question: they’re thoughtful moderates who are interested in the goals of social justice, but who are also interested in understanding reality via a liberal inquiry into causation, into history, and into politics — one that can entertain multiple, varied causes and is comfortable with complexity.  This is very different than the journalists who say that “moral clarity” is more important than objective truth.  This is very different from historians who judge the past based on the most stringent moral standards of today’s progressive left.  This is very different from the academics who see the primary purpose of education as solely the transmission of progressive social and political goals rather than as a means of teaching inquiry and critical thinking alongside.

George Packer’s new article in the recent Atlantic, describing the four “Americas” of our contemporary world, the four tribes in a sense, is particularly illustrative of liberalism fighting back against the challenges of the left: Packer’s analysis of “Just America” is a great example of a “liberal” journalist starting to analyze a phenomena, to bring it to light, to try to get to the heart of what’s going on.  It’s particularly interesting to me that it’s Packet doing this, given that he was the first person I noticed to have called out the illiberalism of the progressive left — in the form of a Ta-Nehisi Coates 2017 article about Donald Trump.  The Coates article was a good example of the system pushing back against Trump and the right, ambition counteracting ambition, truth-telling coming from the journalistic profession, but Packer’s work in turn is a good example of the moderates (if not the right) checking the increasing power of the left.  

As a result of this sort of development, I feel optimistic: the liberal system can trim the excesses off of both sides, cool the tribal passions, allow everyone into the debate but no one in particular to hold all of the power.  Jonathan Rauch’s new book is a prime example of this.  Only by identifying what it is that’s so valuable about the liberal system can we first understand it, and then and only then hope to defend it.