It was a mark of the most influential thinkers of the late millennium that they are said not to mean what they seem it to say but something almost the opposite. Thus, Friedrich Nietzsche, we are told, is not the champion of the antinomianism that he superficially appears to embrace, but rather someone who laments the loss of “values.” Notoriously, attempts to interpret Heidegger or Wittgenstein are regularly dismissed as misunderstandings. But what shows up in the philosophers would seem to be a mark of the modern as such.
Modernity in the arts is an effort to epater la bourgeoisie, to frustrate the expectations one brings to a story—for example, the assumption that it will present a character with a dilemma and then explore and resolve, one way or the other, that dilemma. Such expectations come to be regarded as vulgar by the modernist. Art must not cater to these longings for consolation.
In the arts, in philosophy, there has been a tendency to caricature the common man, ordinary people. Ordinary people think they know a few things about the world and about themselves, true things whose opposites are nonsense or at least refutable. It is just here that modernity parts company with ordinary folks. Since Descartes, our knowledge has been taken to be about our knowing and not about things we know. The things we know are only known as we know them, so it is assumed that we do not know them as they are. Reality eludes our grasp.
This is the source of nihilism in the arts and in philosophy. If there is no reality that our thought correctly or incorrectly expresses, the concept of truth is lost truth as it operates on the sports page, the supermarket, and in the everyday world. The common sense of the vast majority of mankind is nonsense in the eyes of a certain kind—the dominant kind—of modern philosopher.
There is no need to romanticize the general population in order to see that such a philosophical claim is self-defeating. To a jaundiced eye, a stroll through any mall can turn up a cast of characters worthy of Brueghel. Despising the denizens of the consumer society comes easily, perhaps too easily. Of course, such negative judgments exempt the judge; self-reference would be contempt of court. Was Chesterton wacko when he waxed lyrical over the common man? His enthusiasm is understandable only as contrast.
Compare just about anyone at McDonald’s with what has become the standard philosopher or artist, and the choice is easy. Most of us are morally defective to some degree, perhaps to a great degree. Most of us hold silly opinions about all sorts of things. But one does not have to retreat into a philosophical Wonderland to handle such facts. It is a given of common sense that common sense is often wrong. It is widely recognized that our practices can obscure our grasp of the true good. All one need do is listen to parents with wayward children and friends chiding friends. The scolded addressee is assumed to know things that he has forgotten. Scolding is meant to bring him to his senses.
Ordinary folks, you and me and off-duty philosophers, possess truths about the world and ourselves, a body of beliefs that function as a bureau of standards when correction is in order. Pope John Paul II called this the “implicit philosophy” that everyone has and that precedes philosophy in the fancy and formal sense.
The fashionable nihilism of the 20th century has crept into popular culture and consciousness. In letters to the editor, those who know better invoke the principle that there is no objective truth in moral matters. But of course, at McDonald’s, diners resist the assailant who has fashioned the moral principle that they are exterminable. They are not tempted to say that such a judgment is true for him.
The task of philosophy is not to replace common sense but to build on it, to clarify it, to defend it. There is no alternative, pace much of modern philosophy. There are principles that have to be invoked in order to attack them. Once this is seen, the task is to embrace those principles and move on from them.