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The Knowns and the Unknowns

(Original book review by John Gray at The New Republic...)

"Sometime in the early 1970s I had an illuminating conversation with an expert on Soviet affairs. We ended up discussing Solzhenitsyn, and the expert expounded the view that the writer illustrated the emergence of liberal values in opposition to Soviet totalitarianism. I disagreed. Certainly Solzhenitsyn was anti-totalitarian, but that did not make him any sort of liberal. Even on the basis of those of his writings that had been published in the West up to that time, he looked to me more like a latter-day disciple of Dostoyevsky, opposing the Soviet system out of a belief in the uniqueness of Russia and its deep difference from the West. My interlocutor was adamant: Solzhenitsyn had to be understood as part of a developing liberal culture. Had he not asserted freedom of conscience against the state? And was not this freedom a core value of liberalism?

...Not for the first time, grand theories of social evolution proved to be useless as guides to events. That has in no way dented the popularity of such theories, and it is now evolutionary psychology that is being presented as a guide for the politically perplexed. These theories show the continuing appeal of scientism—the modern belief that scientific inquiry can enable us to resolve conflicts and dilemmas in contexts where traditional sources of wisdom and practical knowledge seem to have failed. The literature of scientism has three defining features, which help explain its enduring popularity as well as its recurrent failures: large and highly speculative hypotheses are advanced to explain developments that are extremely complex and highly contingent in nature; fact and value are systematically confused; and the attractively simple theories that result are invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable.

Jonathan Haidt’s book
[The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion] is an example of this genre, one of the most sophisticated to date..."

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