You can get a good idea of what brought Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro together—the first a distinguished scholar of Russian literature at Northwestern University, the second an accomplished economist who is president of that institution—by noticing two of the titles they have used in their collaborations: Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2017) and “Price and Prejudice: Economics and the Quest for Truth,” which is chapter four of their new book, Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us (also published by Princeton). They both love Jane Austen; they both loathe the fundamentalist impulse that closes off even highly educated people from insights that challenge their dogmas.
“Democracy dies in silos,” Morson and Schapiro write in Minds Wide Shut, adding, “How odd that people who make a point of never listening to the other side accuse their opponents of being closed-minded!” Hardly the first and definitely not the last to call for dialogue in an age of intense polarization, they do not offer what anyone would call real solutions. Their conclusion is neither original nor a plan of action: they advocate “less shouting and more conversation.” Nevertheless, they perform a valuable service by explaining the essential characteristics of fundamentalism in a way that should prove broadly useful.
In brief, fundamentalists usually do some or all of the following three things: they “profess a doctrine that provides complete certainty,” believe in “the ‘perspicuity’ of truth,” and/or accept some “inerrant text or revelation.” Having set out these criteria, Morson and Schapiro turn, chapter by chapter, to the value of dialogue as antidote to fundamentalism in four areas: politics, economics, religion, and literature.
The strength of Morson and Schapiro’s collaboration lies in the appreciation they show of material outside each one’s immediate intellectual burrow and in their wish to make non-facile use of this further knowledge. They agree that humanists should pay attention to the social sciences and that economists need to read and appreciate the value of great literature. Despite the hard turn toward “big data” in the social sciences and the rising interest among some literary scholars in the “digital humanities,” the matters at hand are, Morson and Schapiro remind us, often irreducible to rules, equations, and pure reason.
Decency without Dogmatism
Readers of Public Discourse are likely to know Morson from his many outstanding essays on major Russian authors in such conservative publications as Commentary, First Things, and The New Criterion. They may also remember a widely discussed opinion piece by Barton Swaim in the Wall Street Journal, “Violent Protest and the Intelligentsia,” in which Morson describes the aftermath of the death of George Floyd with these words: “To me it’s astonishingly like late 19th-, early 20th-century Russia, when basically the entire educated class felt you simply had to be against the regime or some sort of revolutionary.”
As for Schapiro, followers of res academicae more generally will know him as someone whose presidential remarks on free speech have led to trouble from both the Left and the Right. Consider events in Cook County five years ago and then last year. In August 2016, Jay Ellison, Dean of Students in the College at the University of Chicago, caused a stir by affirming his institution’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression,” pouring cold water on “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” and “intellectual ‘safe spaces,’” and bluntly stating, “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial.” The University of Chicago has earned the speech code rating Green from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Up the road in Evanston, however, Northwestern’s President Schapiro was—depending on your point of view—either kinder or more pusillanimous, expressing great tolerance for safe spaces and being, in the words of one his harsher critics, Jonathan Turley, “one of the most prominent advocates of protections from free speech rather than for free speech on campus.” Nonetheless, last October, the mob came for Schapiro: some members of the activist group Northwestern University Community Not Cops moved from peaceful protests to vandalism, and because Schapiro stoutly refused to defund the University police, he was treated to nighttime chants of “piggy Morty” outside his home.
The protestors appear to be guilty of disorderly conduct, but the epithet “piggy Morty,” unpleasant though it obviously is, undoubtedly falls under the category of protected speech. Still, the line between public protest and personal harassment is a live and tricky issue, and I recommend Charles Lane’s opinion piece in The Washington Post, which ends with the statement, “If citizens themselves do not value, and practice, mutual respect, self-restraint and empathy, there won’t be any safe space left for anyone.”
For his part, Schapiro responded to the protestors with a firm public letter about law and order that earned praise from Morson (“I can think of no major university president who has acted this courageously”) and from conservatives (e.g., Frederick M. Hess: “this strikes me as a case of a university leader getting it exactly right”) but condemnation from professors in a number of departments. Clearly not all is well at Northwestern—home of Laura Kipnis and sometime home of Joseph Epstein, two outstanding, ornery writers who say what they think—and I don’t imagine that FIRE’s speech code rating Red will change anytime soon, with or without the leadership of Schapiro, who recently announced that he will be stepping down next year.
I do not know either Morson or Schapiro personally and cannot speak to their sociopolitical views. They would appear, however, to be reasonable people who strive for basic decency without dogmatism. And in both of their co-authored books, they aim to persuade readers to be reasonable in a period—may it be brief!—that future historians will surely label an age of unreason. In this sense, their work is similar to, though broader in scope than, political philosopher Jonathan Marks’s Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education, a Locke-inspired defense of the classical liberal university that Princeton (once again) published earlier this year.
The Hedgehog and the Fox
A twist is that Morson and Schapiro are not entirely on the side of reason sensu stricto: if all issues and problems could be solved through logical deduction, reasonable people would never disagree. There would be no arguments over the merits of free market economics, a subject of some interest to Morson and Schapiro, or over the contemporary moral force of commands in the Bible against homosexuality—about which, however, Morson and Schapiro write that they “strike almost all of us today as wrong.”
In Minds Wide Shut, they take a strong stand against rationalist hedgehogs (Plato and Freud) in favor of humanistic foxes (Aristotle and Shakespeare), making no bones of their distaste for Marxism-Leninism and delighting in contrasting the fundamentalist Luther, hero of the Reformation, with the flexible Renaissance man Erasmus. “If Luther is the perfect hedgehog,” they write, “Erasmus is the model fox.” All in all, they make as robust an intellectual case as I know for taking account of “lived experience” (a phrase I have come to dread, but they use it carefully just once) in addition to theoretical (or supposedly theoretical) reasoning.
Another name for speaking about reasoning from lived experience is “casuistry,” a word that few consider positive these days but that Morson and Schapiro attempt with some success to rehabilitate. Here they are in the tradition of the late moral philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who famously rejected absolutism in his classic The Uses of Argument and three decades later wrote, together with Albert R. Josen, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning. For a time Morson’s colleague at Northwestern, Toulmin plays a large role in one of Morson’s greatest essays, from which Cents and Sensibility and Minds Wide Shut evidently sprang. We thus see a remarkable intellectual chain: Morson, a scholar of Tolstoy, was influenced by Toulmin, who was taught by Wittgenstein, who admired Tolstoy above all.
All this has made me think over and rethink my own positions, which is exactly what Morson and Schapiro want. Even if I had space in this brief piece to present what I believe to be the appropriate balance between abstract reason and personal knowledge, at least in the academic arena, I wouldn’t know quite what to say. But is it not a sign of admirable intellectual resilience rather than feebleness to have in oneself traits of both the hedgehog and the fox—as in Isaiah Berlin’s understanding of Tolstoy as “by nature a fox, but [he] believed in being a hedgehog”? In Cents and Sensibility, Morson and Schapiro acknowledge Berlin’s thesis and say, “[we] see ourselves in a similar light: although we are by inclination foxes, we tend to discover a good deal of insight in hedgehog theories.” In Minds Wide Shut, however, perhaps as a result of the coarsening of American discourse since at least 2016 and certainly since 2020, they do not mention Berlin on Tolstoy at all and rarely give a positive nod at hedgehogginess.
Faith, Fundamentalism, and Literature
The chapter in Minds Wide Shut on religion—really on the beliefs of two peoples of the Book, Jews and Christians—is, in my eyes, the weakest. Having taken on politics and economics in earlier chapters, Morson and Schapiro continue here their project of discouraging people from fundamentalism, which, as mentioned above, can have a number of features that we might think inherent in, or at any rate near the core of, religious observance, including textual infallibility and profession of a doctrine that provides certainty. But how are we to distinguish between fundamentalist religion and what they would consider the good kind?
Their answer is wishy-washy: doctrine should indeed not be fixed, but change should “come slowly, . . . reflect[ing] not the enthusiasm or irritations of a moment, but a long process of consideration and reconsideration.” I don’t disagree. What I do find vexing, though, is that they come close to apologizing for their holding some traditional views about religion: “[s]ome of what does not change in sacred texts will run counter to our taste, but that is why they can speak to us from somewhere beyond our tiny island of the present moment.”
In any case, it is what Morson and Schapiro say about literature, not just in the final substantial chapter but throughout the book, that makes Minds Wide Shut so special. Of course we can learn from literature, provided we keep our minds wide open, and it is sobering to realize that “the only nineteenth-century work to have foreseen what we have come to call ‘totalitarianism’ was not a political disquisition or a philosophical treatise, but a realist novel about revolutionaries: Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.”
But for every Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky who promises “a universal ‘system of spying’ to enforce ‘equality,’” there are also dozens of characters from nineteenth-century Russian and English literature who grapple with life’s complexities, as Morson and Schapiro movingly show us by means of carefully selected passages. Using irony and “double voicing,” great realist authors—above all Austen, Eliot, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov—“offer readers marvelous experiences in nonfundamentalist thinking,” giving us the opportunity to confront in our imagination the problems that will arise if we hold tight to moral certainty in the real world. There is a reason these works survive and that what Becca Rothfeld calls “sanctimony literature” will not.
There will be those who ignore such demonstrations on the grounds that the very notion of “great” literature is somehow racist, classist, jingoistic, or the like. But such “missionary nihilis[ts]” won’t appreciate anyway Morson and Schapiro’s understandable and damning lack of attention to contemporary literary theory and criticism. (On this topic, I recommend a simultaneously wickedly funny and deeply depressing short opinion piece by James Campbell.) The star in their critical universe is Mikhail Bakhtin, on whom Morson is an expert: no surprise, since Bakhtin is famous for his theory of dialogue.
Because of who they are and what they know best, the humanist Morson and social scientist Schapiro spend less time on the “third culture”: the hard sciences, which are of course one of C. P. Snow’s original two. That said, they do make the obvious point that the belief that we should just “follow the science” has taken a big hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. If the softer sciences have for some time been moving in the direction of the hard, the hard sciences have recently begun an alarming, politically motivated softening. Many concerned scientists have been writing about this. Perhaps one of them will collaborate with a colleague in a different field and write a sequel of sorts to Minds Wide Shut.
Either way, I hope that we may look forward to yet another book by Morson and Schapiro, a practical one aimed at actually bringing about the badly needed dialogue they advocate here. We already know the title: Persuasion.