Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Hitchens vs. Gerson

Without uttering a word about Immanuel Kant, Plato, or Aristotle, Christopher Hitchens purports to answer Michael Gerson’s challenge. If it ain’t will to power, Mr. Hitchens, what is it? Natural law? An orderly cosmos in which human beings find a place? The compelling example of well-raised gentlemen? Practical reason? Or is the Rortian shrug sufficient?

Discussions - 9 Comments

I think the response was about on par with the question; they both appear tossed off. Gerson should be aware that this question has been put to philosophers and atheists alike time and time again, and even put forward much stronger than this. Hitchens' response was tempered to the seriousness that Gerson phrased the question--no more, no less. An even battle, though not a good or particularly thoughtful battle, was fought.

Fair enough. Can you do better in about 750 words? Or do you simply think that serious questions shouldn't be broached in newspaper columns?

I agree with Paul. Gerson seems to construct straw men rather than seriously engage ideas.

Christopher is a treasure. Unfortunately he has some rough edges. He is sailing upon stormy seas and has lost his sextant.

JK asks PW: Can you do better in about 750 words? Or do you simply think that serious questions shouldn't be broached in newspaper columns?

While we await Paul's answer, a question for you, Joe: Do you think it's possible to do justice to serious philosophical questions, or to advance such debates, in newspaper op-eds? I don't.

I distinguish between serious academic writing and "popular" journalism. Both have their place. Not all academic writing is serious, or superior in clarity to good journalism.

Can better things be written than Gerson's effort? But of course? Does he raise a serious question, without necessarily treating it thoroughly and in all its dimensions? I think he does. Is Hitchens' answer a good one? No, I think not. In my view, it's more polemical and less thoughtful than Gerson's column. Do I think either of them has written the last word on the subject? Of course not!

Joe, I asked one question. You framed and answered five other questions.

Do you let your students get away with crap like that on essay exams?

Wait, don't answer that. Please. Don't.


You deserve a more direct answer to the question you asked, pointedly and civilly. No, of course you can't do justice to "serious philosophical questions" in a newspaper column. Almost all journalists (and almost all professors) are incapable of "doing justice" to "serious philosophical questions," however much time and space you give them. And in saying that, I'm probably being generous.

In the face of that "fact" (if you'll permit me so to characterize it), I suppose we might all just shut up. Or we might blunder on, doing the best we can by our limited lights. In this blundering, I recognize two things. First, it's possible to distill the product of long and deep thought in a short space. Such writing doesn't conform to the demands of academic conventions, but that doesn't make it bad. Three examples: Nietzsche's aphorisms; Wittgenstein; Leo Strauss' book reviews. (Don't get me wrong: I don't think either Gerson or Hitchens is in their league.)

Second, in a democratic republic, it has to be possible for citizens to raise and discuss serious questions in a way that is relatively accessible to well-educated common sense. That's what newspapers, journals of opinion, blogs, so-called "public intellectuals," and so on are for. This is sub-philosophic discourse, but it is nonetheless meaningful. If we can't catch a glimpse of the truth through the use of our reason and common sense, then we have no business governing ourselves. And, as some have observed, all too often we use our reason to work our way away from common sense toward something that's more pleasing to our interests. We're massively capable of self-delusion and of self-serving rationalization. Commonsensical mistrust of clever professors (as well, of course, as clever journalists and "public intellectuals") is probably a good thing. So we just keep on blundering.


To paraphrase Wittgenstein:

Whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must be silent.

I realize this is a coy response to an honest question, but I can't bring myself to go into what I consider to be a serious philosophical argument over the No Left Turns comment section. I'd like to email you what I think about the whole controversy between Gerson and Hitchens if/when I write something, but I don't have a very good track record with promises of lengthy responses.

Thank you for not being afraid to write in public. I enjoy reading NLT.

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