Americans Are Losing Faith in Free Speech. Can Two Forgotten Philosophers Help Them Regain It?

Kuhn and Feyerabend not only point us toward radical communication, their work implies polarization is inevitable without it.

The United States is facing some serious doubts about free speech. On top of that, politics is becoming more partisan . The American experiment is facing more political agonism, extremism, and a general lack of mutual understanding.

That space between conservatism and progressivism that Arthur Schlesinger called “the dead center,” has really become a dead center: a no man’s land, where political vagabonds struggle for a ceasefire or at least a line of communication. Not only does it seem that neither side wants to understand each other, but it seems they can’t even if they wanted to. There are two totally different worldviews. What is the right way to understand the division?

Maybe insights from the bowels of modern philosophy can help.

The Paradigm Problem

In so far as their only recourse to [the] world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.

So wrote Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and with less than three hundred pages turned empirical disciplines upside down. Kuhn was reacting to the orthodoxy in his discipline, the philosophy of science, that identified science with rationality and progress toward truth.

Incorporating history and linguistics in his magnum opus, he set out to argue that science moves in regular cycles, and more specifically, that its movement is non-rational, paradigmatic, and, even, partisan.

Kuhn wrote about the sciences specifically but his message had broader implications for how groups engage with the world. Through Structure, he introduced the concept of “paradigms”: networks of achievements, agreements, and rules shared by a community that guide its method.

The idea of “paradigms” can be esoteric, but the central thesis is intuitive.

The bedrock of a paradigm is that it can structure how things, like observable entities, are perceived and evaluated. In the natural sciences, one example is how mass (m) is used in Newton’s formula F=ma and in Einstein’s e=mc2. Though the term “mass” seems to refer to the same thing, the two equations are incommensurate with each other, and, for Kuhn, imply radically different notions of matter.

The idea of “paradigms” can be esoteric, but the central thesis is intuitive. For instance, the experiences of a park ranger and a lost city-slicker in the same forest are wildly different. Thinking about the distinct conceptual frameworks for interpreting reality, Kuhn was able to suggest the travelers “are responding to a different world.”

Living in Different Worlds

Different frameworks don’t only belong to scientists working in different eras. In our time, conservatives and progressives belong in different ethical worlds.

Like the ranger and the urbanist, Republicans and Democrats can look at the same object and see something different.

Disagreements about abortion, capital punishment, wealth redistribution, drug policy, national defense, foreign aid, religious freedom, immigration, and firearms come down to such fundamentally different premises that it’s nearly impossible to see across the aisle.

Like the ranger and the urbanist, Republicans and Democrats can look at the same object and see something different: one sees a fetus, and the other a baby; one sees an assault rifle, and the other home defense. One group belongs to a paradigm that defines “racism” as racial prejudice, another defines it as prejudice plus power. More problematic still, it’s not always clear how to determine who is correct.

The question then arises of how people in different “worlds” can communicate, and hence why Kuhn might be relevant for the problem of political polarization.

Kuhn’s work belongs to a loose network of 20th-century theorists who wrote about decentralized knowledge, including Friedrich Hayek and Paul Feyerabend. The latter would complement Kuhn’s project with even more radical ideas.

Fortunately, while Kuhn left the question of “incommensurability” behind, Feyerabend proposed a solution to the problem of inter-paradigm communication.

The "Anarchic" Notion of Open Exchange

While teaching at UC-Berkeley, Feyerabend finished Against Method (1975), a treatise rejecting all methodological restrictions on scientific rationality. As he summarized his principle of progress: “anything goes.” The achievements of Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein could not be neatly organized into a scientific method; science is “anarchic.”

Individuals or societies should engage in an “open exchange” wherein a pragmatic philosophy is mutually adopted.

This means that across time periods, radically different paradigms would emerge—all qualifying as “science”—without a ruling stick to compare them. While Kuhn alleged that the pursuit of science is not necessarily truth, Feyerabend claimed that truth was just one idiosyncratic goal among many. At first, he gives an even worse problem than Kuhn.

However, in many later works, he proposed a solution to conquer the looming relativism. Individuals or societies should engage in an “open exchange” wherein a pragmatic philosophy is mutually adopted.

In the exchange, participants look to be immersed in each others’ ways of thinking. Different traditions are connected through new lines of communication. There are no predetermined guidelines or specified victory conditions.

His is a radical proposal for free speech: all ideas get heard and, by the promise of immersion, respected. In fact, for Feyerabend, this is the only way toward a free society: dialogue without radical immersion is just some previous paradigm forced from one upon the other.

Free Speech Transcends Partisanship

In our current polarized society, we can use these lessons to stabilize our dialogue.

If paradigms describe how our political worldviews have become so polarized, then the open exchange describes the path to redemption. Just as the sciences should aim toward truth, politics must aim toward understanding. The open exchange means that we should welcome ideological diversity in our newspapers, hot topics on our campuses, and an endless stream of dialogue.

Kuhn and Feyerabend not only point us toward radical communication, their work implies polarization is inevitable without it. Not just the usual partisanship, but “living in different worlds” partisanship—a level of division that’s not manageable in a liberal democracy. Free speech transcends partisanship because it transcends society itself.

In our current polarized society, we can use these lessons to stabilize our dialogue. Our political wings are not just ideologically opposed but paradigmatically opposed: their worldviews are built on different bedrock ways of life. The path toward curbing polarization is through radical dialogue—Kuhn’s “incommensurability” is solved by Feyerabend’s “open exchange.”

Further Reading

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