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May 6, 2021   6 mins

In 529 AD, at Monte Cassino, St Benedict of Nursia founded the abbey that would become the first and greatest home of the Benedictine order. According to Gregory the Great, this new institution was built on the ruins of an older one: a shrine to Apollo, Greek god of truth, poetry, music, light and the sun.

The same year, the Emperor Justinian closed the Platonic Academy in Athens, making 529AD a symbolic turning-point: the year pre-Christian philosophy lost its place as the dominant worldview. For the thousand-odd years that followed, institutions such as Monte Cassino represented the centres of knowledge production, which from then until relatively recently was inseparable from the Christian faith.

It took the philosophers of the 18th century to unpick intellectual life from religion. The completeness of their eventual victory is demonstrated by the very term “Enlightenment”, which frames everything that preceded it as darkness.

Even the word “medieval”, a coinage of modern intellectual historians, implies a sort of historical flyover country between the enlightened ancient and modern worlds. And our modern world was only freed from this no man’s land of superstition, squalor, and theocratic violence by the brave rejection of religious authority, and rediscovery of the classical learning whose light was for so long hidden under Christianity’s bushel. Or that’s how the story goes, anyway.

Another few centuries later, we once again live in an age characterised by the sort of disagreement Benedict or Justinian would have recognised: a conflict as profound as “Apollo vs Jesus”, or “Church Authority vs Science”. Except this time, it’s the Enlightenment on the back foot  as new ideas and beliefs overwhelm the old. As these theories have come to engulf not just academia but growing swathes of our political life, increasingly agitated commentators predict a new dimming of the light, perhaps even the end of western civilisation itself.

Reading Material Girls, Kathleen Stock’s new book on the increasingly radioactive transgender debate, my sense is that prophecies of apocalypse may be overblown. But also that the Age of Reason is indeed firmly in the rear-view mirror — a fact that presents the author herself with some difficulties.

Stock herself is a professor of analytic philosophy at the University of Sussex, and approaches the discussion of trans activism with the patient lucidity you’d expect of someone immersed in that most reasonable of disciplines. She defines her terms: “sex”, “gender”, “gender identity” and so on. She clarifies some of the things she is not saying, such as that trans people are delusional, or lying, or predators. She provides a brief outline of some key moments in cultural (and particularly feminist) history that have contributed to trans activism. And she presents, in relatively neutral terms, her understanding of the position she wishes to argue against.

Then, having defined her terms and excluded confounding issues, she argues that humans cannot literally change sex but only “gender” — and that conflating the two has a number of damaging effects.

Having, as it were, set out her own intellectual stall, and provided a whistle-stop tour of the feminist and queer-theory lenses usually applied to this debate, she employs neither. Instead, she borrows from her own area of academic expertise: the philosophy of fiction. Trans identification is a form of immersion in fiction, she argues, which can enrich human life in many ways. It’s both real and not-real.

“Immersion” is also both real and not-real: a state of awareness halfway between full belief and full disbelief. Both these states matter in different ways. We may be absorbed by a film at the cinema, and find a particularly good one deeply satisfying and life-enhancing, but that wouldn’t stop us from leaving in a hurry if the fire alarm goes off and the room fills with smoke. But, she suggests, recent activism has sought legislative changes that in effect compel everyone to act as if we believe these fictions in all ways identical to reality.

And this, she argues, has negative effects, especially for women and same-sex attracted people, because underlying realities continue to be politically salient. Redefining them as unmentionable or irrelevant does not make them go away, any more than making it socially unacceptable to mention the smell of smoke would do anything to prevent a fire at the cinema.

To illustrate, consider the now-notorious case of “Karen White”. This individual, a convicted sex offender, is in all respects physiologically male but was moved to a women’s prison after claiming to identify as a woman. White then sexually assaulted several female inmates.

In her commitment to free speech, good-faith debate, clear and careful argument and upholding reason over dogma, Stock writes faithfully in the tradition of the Enlightenment. The example of Karen White is a textbook instance of the warning sounded in On Miracles by one of that era’s foremost thinkers, the humanist Voltaire: “Once your faith […] persuades you to believe what your intelligence declares to be absurd, beware lest you likewise sacrifice your reason in the conduct of your life […] Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

But here, exactly, lies the rub. The activism she seeks to challenge is the political wing of a contemporary cultural movement committed to dismantling the Enlightenment’s intellectual foundations.

As you’d expect from an analytic philosopher grounded in Enlightenment moral and intellectual priors, Stock wants us to see the world as it is. As she puts it: “Features of the world, and our collective human interests in them, are not arbitrary, and that’s what we should be trying to make concepts responsive to”.

But her antagonists dissent from this basic premise: as they see it, our ideas about the world do help to create “the world as it is”; and to make matters worse, it is arbitrary. What emerges in Material Girls is a tussle between these radically mutually incompatible understandings of the relation between knowledge and power.

When University of Edinburgh students recently censured the anthropology lecturer Neil Thin, they saw the aim of studying as “to learn how to decolonise our thinking and create an inclusive society and environment”. It’s a view that more closely resembles the medieval fusion of intellectual study and religious faith than it does the critical Enlightenment stance that supplanted it.

But for Stock, knowledge is what matters, while power can and should be relegated to background enabling condition for the production of more and better knowledge. So, for example, the “main point” of universities is in her view “to produce and disseminate socially useful knowledge”.

And yet the most compelling section of Stock’s book concerns, in fact, precisely the operations of power: specifically, of those powers (including some at her own university) currently going all out to suppress her worldview in favour of their own.

She lists, for example, the use of institutional power to enforce “preferred pronouns”, and social taboos against “misgendering” in educational contexts. She further details what she characterises as “propaganda” employed by activists in pursuit of their political aims: statistical sleight of hand, emotive talk of suicide risks, and the growing institutional popularity of the startlingly pseudo-religious Transgender Day of Remembrance.

And even as she expertly wields the discursive tools of the Age of Reason — its careful logic, efforts at good-faith representation of the opposing argument, and so on — to dissect this emerging paradigm, Stock herself deftly (and enjoyably) spikes her own guns. She does this rhetorically, through acerbic wit, outbreaks of exasperation (“Frankly, this is mad”) or first-person interjections into otherwise dispassionate analysis.

The same implicit acknowledgement of the limits to rational analysis emerges even more powerfully in her account of the “gender-critical” resistance to trans activist policy capture, in which self-organised groups of activists “held meetings, made websites and wrote blog posts, marshalling their tiny resources highly effectively against well-embedded organisations like Stonewall, Mermaids and the Scottish Trans Alliance”.

Somehow, by dint of determination, these groups pushed back against well-funded and politically connected lobbies to effect meaningful change. In other words: it wasn’t reasonable persuasion as such that moved the needle. It was leaning as hard as possible on every available lever of political power.

This isn’t just about those wicked postmodernists (of which I probably qualify as a member). It’s more that we are now, as a culture, losing such faith as we ever collectively had in facts and reason. In its most grounded version, this manifests as a dizzying discourse of political claim and counter-claim, all supposedly backed by objective statistics. At its more baroque end it drives the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories. The point is that it’s not just angry students with “woke” ideas who think reality is old hat: it’s everyone.

The first Benedictine abbey was built over the ruins of a Temple of Apollo, and a thousand years later the monuments of Christianity found themselves sidelined by a renewed worship of Reason. Today, once again, we’re seeing Reason dethroned, by a form of cultural criticism that first used the Enlightenment’s own weapons against it, and is now committed to demolishing its altars and erecting its own in the rubble.

I’m unconvinced that this new paradigm can be effectively contested using the tools of the old one. Stock’s analysis is razor-sharp, in Enlightenment terms, and her prose is finely-honed. But it doesn’t matter how exquisitely crafted your knife is, if you’re bringing it to a gunfight you’re still going to lose.

For our emerging post-Enlightenment politics has abandoned even the pretence of persuasion when it comes to pursuing cultural and political change. Today’s modus operandi is a pincer approach characterised by policy capture backed by the threat of social sanction, whether enforced by HR departments or by punitive online mobs. And evidence so far – including that cited by Stock — suggests this works just as well in defence of “reality” as in undermining it.

What doesn’t work is pretending we all still agree on what reality is. For that, as the postmodernists are fond of pointing out, you also need power.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.