Epistemological Madisonianism

A Review of "The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth," by Jonathan Rauch

The signature of our current debate about free speech is that it is not primarily about protecting speech from the government. Rather, it is about the “culture of free speech.” It's about intellectual openness and diversity as a cultural norm to be embraced by private individuals and private institutions.

Symposium held a recent discussion about what this culture of free speech means, and over at Discourse, I have made my own effort to define it more exactly. But in his new book, Jonathan Rauch has taken on this issue from a far broader perspective, not merely defending the culture of free speech but defining its institutional architecture and giving it a grander and more useful name: The Constitution of Knowledge.

The fundamental arguments for freedom of speech have always been epistemological, that is, relating to the basic requirements of thinking. The freedom to doubt, question, argue, and consider alternative hypotheses is necessary to discover the truth and to debunk error. Rauch describes how this gives rise to a whole implicit system governed by an unwritten constitution.

When Americans think about how we find truth amid a world full of discordant viewpoints, we usually turn to a metaphor, that of the marketplace of ideas. It is a good metaphor as far as it goes, yet woefully incomplete.... Rather, our conversations are mediated through institutions like journals and newspapers and social-media platforms; and they rely on a dense network of norms and rules, like truthfulness and fact-checking; and they depend on the expertise of professionals, like peer reviewers and editors—and the entire system rests on a foundation of values: a shared understanding that there are right and wrong ways to make knowledge. Those values and rules and institutions do for knowledge what the US Constitution does for politics: they create a governing structure, forcing social contestation onto peaceful and productive pathways. And so I call them, collectively, the Constitution of Knowledge.

The most remarkable characteristic of this system is that it is decentralized. As Rauch points out, if you asked people three hundred years ago to answer questions like, “who should control the government?” or “who should decide what's true?” the answer that would have been least obvious is: “No one in particular.” Yet that’s exactly the system we have adopted, with spectacular success.

He attributes this accomplishment to “the Big Three of modern liberalism,” John Locke, Adam Smith, and James Madison, who laid out the principles underlying “three of the great liberal social systems—economic, political, epistemic.”

Although Smith did not invent markets, he notated the code which enabled a tribal primate, wired for personal relationships in small, usually related groups, to cooperate impersonally across unbounded networks of strangers, and to do so without any central authority organizing markets and issuing commands. Economic liberalism—market cooperation—is a species-transforming piece of social software, one which enables humans to function far above our designed capacity.

Political liberalism grapples with another version of the cooperation problem: can we make rules which channel self-interest, ambition, and bias to benefit society as a whole? Can we provide social stability without squelching social dynamism, and without submitting to a Hobbesian authority? Yet another version of the cooperation problem preoccupies epistemic liberalism: Can people with sharp differences of opinion be induced to cooperate in building knowledge, again providing both stability and dynamism without recourse to authoritarianism? 

Solving those problems requires a constitution, but in a broad sense of the word: not necessarily a piece of paper or a formal law, but a social operating system which seeks to elicit cooperation and resolve differences on the basis of rules, not personal authority or tribal affiliation or brute force. In that sense, the liberal economic, epistemic, and political systems all have constitutions, even if only the political constitution is written down.

Rauch’s most intriguing idea is to give James Madison credit, not just for the genius of the American political system, but for the extension of his principles into the epistemic realm, where America's constitutional system has served as an implicit model on which we have built our system for the discovery and validation of knowledge.

The heart of Rauch’s book is his exploration of this Madisonian epistemology.

I can claim to have anticipated this in a small way, playing around with an idea I called “epistemological Madisonianism.” In an article about 15 years ago,1 for example, I argued that the Constitution’s system of counterbalancing factions, as explained by Madison in Federalist No. 10, has an epistemological impact.

Because political leaders can take no action without a public debate that achieves a “broad national consensus,” they must seek to persuade voters with a variety of ethnic backgrounds, religious faiths, and regional interests. This means that they cannot appeal merely to the preconceived notions, unquestioned values, and narrow prejudices of their own group. Instead, leaders who want to enter the national political arena are required to name a more general justification for their policies, one that can be understood and accepted by the members of any group. In other words, they must appeal, on some level and to some degree, to abstract, universal principles....

One of the crucial foundations of representative government is a respect for the faculty of reason and for the individual judgment of a country’s citizens. The practice of representative government reinforces this foundation by requiring men to appeal to what President Bush calls “the free exchange of ideas and the peaceful resolution of differences,” i.e., to persuasion—which ultimately means: to facts, to reason, and to universal abstractions. Representative government encourages the kind of mental activity on which it depends.

I had applied this only to political debate. The central achievement of The Constitution of Knowledge is that Rauch applies it to the entire structure of public discussion in a free society.

Requiring compromise contains ambition, as Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, and in fact it is the only way to do so. Less widely appreciated, but just as important, is a positive advantage: more than just containing ambition, compromise also harnesses it and puts it to work....

[T]he Madisonian system does not assume, expect, or even desire that every person should be a deal-cutting moderate. In fact, it assumes the opposite: that people are naturally inclined to hold strong beliefs and usually enter into negotiations reluctantly. They compromise not because they want to but because they have to, and their firm convictions ensure that multiple views receive energetic advocacy. Political zeal is to Madison’s political system what the profit motive is to Adam Smith’s economic system and what strong opinions are to Locke’s epistemic system: an energy source. Like all energies, ambition and zeal can be destructive; com- promise contains, channels, and exploits them. 

So that, in (very) brief, is Madison’s plan: a system which forces anyone who wants power or influence to persuade others, thereby harnessing personal ambition to stimulate dynamism and organize cooperation. The Constitution of Knowledge works the same way, except the product is not governance but reality.

Rauch explains in detail how this works in the media, in academia, in government bureaucracy, in the courts. A system of checks and balances harnesses ambition to motivate people to counter each other’s biases and factionalism, leading to a system that produces more reliable knowledge than any system run centrally by authorities.

While he spells out a whole list of rules for this system, they can be condensed down to two central principles: freedom and empiricism, or as Rauch sums it up, “No final say; no personal authority.” The first assures that authority figures cannot shut out new ideas, while the second assures that these new ideas have to prove themselves by marshaling facts and arguments.

Put a global network of intelligent, industrious minds to work in the marketplace of persuasion, promise them glory if they can find an error or establish a fact, and the system operates as a kind of epistemic funnel. At the wide end, millions of people float millions of hypotheses every day. Only a fraction of the ideas will seem sufficiently plausible or interesting or fruitful to be acquired by the network, or even to get noticed. Once acquired, a hypothesis passes through one screen after another: testing, editing, peer review, conference presentation, publication, and then—for the lucky few ideas deemed important—citation or replication....

The two ends of the funnel operate very differently—almost antithetically. At the big end, the community collects as many interesting hypotheses and arguments as it can find; in its search for new input, it allows just about anyone to say just about anything.... The fallibilist rule, “No final say,” keeps the funnel open. 

But as the network acquires an idea, the empirical rule, “No personal authority,” begins its relentless winnowing. 

In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Rauch describes how the Constitution of Knowledge has clashed with the ethos of the Internet and social media, requiring us to reform how we use those platforms. He points to a much-overlooked lead to a solution: how Wikipedia has turned out to be a social media platform, in effect, that avoided these pitfalls by drawing its contributors into a community who follow rules designed to resolve conflicts objectively, with relative success.

There is a lot to this, though I think Rauch shows too little skepticism about the danger of these institutions and gatekeepers becoming instruments of groupthink and betraying their mission of the search for truth. Consider the recent banishment and readmission, seemingly for partisan reasons, of the lab-leak hypothesis about the origin of COVID-19.

While he devotes a terrific chapter to the rise of “cancel culture” on the left, he tends to regard this as a very recent phenomenon, and he indulges a certain nostalgia for a mid-20th-Century era of alleged comity and consensus. To those of us who have long been outside of that consensus, this is not as convincing, and we remember this as an era in which some vitally important ideas were shut out by the big institutions, while other disastrous falsehoods (such as the Population Bomb myth) were lavishly rewarded and widely believed.

And yet, those who find themselves on the outside of the mainstream consensus today tend merely to complain or to retreat into their own ideological bubbles. Rauch calls this an “epistemic secession” and shows how it merely produces a mirror image of the cloistered fanaticism of the “woke.”

He is right to oppose the idea, which you can now see coming from both the left and the right, that we all have our own separate, subjective truths. On the left, he quotes a student activist insisting that “experiences and emotions are valid ways to see the world,” as opposed to “the hegemony of rational thought.” Meanwhile, numerous conservatives—the same guys who used to say that “facts don’t care about your feelings”—echo Newt Gingrich’s declaration, in answer to an interviewer’s challenge that the facts don’t support one of his claims, that “I’ll go with how people feel.”

Yet when pressed to address this issue at its most fundamental level, Rauch is at his weakest. His book is subtitled “A Defense of Truth,” but he cannot fully muster such a defense and gives up crucial philosophical ground to the opponents of truth.

“Reality, in common parlance,” he writes, “is that which is reliable and intractable and cannot be wished away: the rock we stub our toe on, the abrupt encounter with the ground when we fall.” So far, so good. Yet he avers that “such colloquial definitions are not very helpful.” Why? “The whole problem is that humans have no direct access to an objective world independent of our minds and senses.” That we have no access to the world except our senses is the very formula of empiricism. Since when did that become a “problem”? Yet Rauch concludes that philosophers have stopped “thinking about reality metaphysically, as an external if unknowable ‘world out there.’”

Students of philosophy will recognize the philosophical footprints of the 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the one who taught us to think about the “world out there”—a revealing formulation in itself—as a mere theoretical abstraction that is unknowable on principle. And it was he who taught us that having direct access to the world through our senses was a “problem.” He promoted the disastrous inversion in our understanding of consciousness that led us to believe that only perception without any specific mechanism would be valid, and thus that we are blind because we have eyes.

Rauch wants to avoid the radical skepticism of that conclusion and maintain some concept of objective truth, so he falls back on the “fallibilism” of the early Pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. “We may not ever be able to achieve final confirmation of any empirical proposition,” Rauch writes, “but we can achieve disconfirmation.” How we are supposed to know what would disconfirm a proposition when there is nothing that would ever confirm it is a bit of a mystery, but the point is to transform the concept of truth from one that is metaphysical, a direct description of reality, to one that is purely procedural. We are to “think of reality as a set of propositions (or claims, or statements) which have been validated in some way, and which have thereby been shown to be at least conditionally true.”

This ends up being, in effect, a social concept of truth: What is true is whatever the “reality-based community,” following the rules of the Constitution of Knowledge, has decided is true, for now. This leads Rauch at times to place more emphasis on compromise and consensus than on observable facts and to present persuasion less as a matter of logic than as a mysterious “X-factor,” like charisma, that smooths over the process of social consensus. He even refers to the Constitution of Knowledge as “a hive intelligence, a social mind” and quotes Peirce approvingly when he says that “individualism and falsity are one and the same.”

Why does this matter? First, it matters because this conception of the Constitution of Knowledge, the rules and institutions we create to help us pursue truth, will be inadequate if it doesn't recognize the role of the individualist and the maverick, the man more right than his neighbors who constitutes a majority of one.

I am reminded of an anecdote from Richard Feynman, who recounts the story of “the great astronomer Arthur Eddington, who had just figured out that the stars get their power from burning hydrogen in a nuclear reaction producing helium.”

He recounted how, on the night after his discovery, he was sitting on a bench with his girlfriend. She said, “Look how pretty the stars shine!” To which he replied, “Yes, and right now, I'm the only man in the world who knows how they shine!” He was describing a kind of wonderful loneliness you have when you make a discovery.

Knowledge may be gained through cooperation with many other people, just as the sandwich you eat for lunch is produced through cooperation with many other people. In either case, you can only digest it as an individual.

More urgently, the problem with a social conception of truth is that this is exactly the impetus behind the trends Rauch is arguing against. The “woke” left famously advocates the notion that reality is “socially constructed,” which is why they think it can be socially re-constructed if only we’re vigorous enough in policing everybody’s words.

Rauch deplores this outlook, yet he gives up a lot of crucial philosophical ground to it.

I will acknowledge that I am criticizing Rauch for not departing from the mainstream of contemporary philosophy, and in this regard, I am the outlier in today’s world, not he. But that just goes to show that his emphasis on social consensus and on thinking as a supposedly collective process makes him too complacent about the danger of groupthink, particularly in fields that are highly abstract and can more easily insulate themselves from rough empirical correction.

We need to go back, with fuller philosophical confidence, to the old kicking-of-the-stone concept of objective truth—which, come to the think of it, is the same method Dr. Johnson used to refute an earlier variation of subjectivism.

And Rauch has the grounds for this answer at his fingertips the whole time. He asks us to “imagine a strange thermometer.”

Three of us observe it at the same time and place. When I read it, it says 61 degrees; when you read it, it says 88; when someone else reads it, it says 104. Who is right? Each of us could try to settle the dispute by claiming oracular authority or murdering the other two, or maybe we could make the problem go away by agreeing we have witnessed a miracle. But the empirical rule prohibits any of those moves. It requires us to come up with some account which reconciles our different readings. We might ask whether the thermometer is really measuring characteristics of the observers, not the outside temperature. We might look for some optical illusion or atmospheric phenomenon to explain the discrepancy. We might investigate whether we are all interpreting the scale differently. Anyhow, whatever explanation we come up with should work for all of us and anyone else who views the thermometer. It thus requires us to relate our multiple viewpoints to only one reality. 

This is a more realistic example than he may realize, because thermometer measurements have precisely this problem, though to a lesser degree: different people may read them differently, making small errors in one direction or another. Scientists long ago learned to account for this by making allowances for a margin of error and by relying on a large number of observations from many different people, so that individual idiosyncrasies will cancel each other out.

Similarly, Rauch recounts a delightful history of the Vulcanists and Neptunians, rival factions in the 18th Century who fought pitched battles between opposing theories of geological change—only to be superseded by a subsequent generation who placed more emphasis on careful observation and simple reasoning rather than wild speculation, thereby creating the field of modern geology.

In the space of a couple of generations, the empirical, socially networked method had resolved a seemingly irreconcilable conflict. By contrast, creed wars had raged for centuries without resolving anything at all. 

Philosophers up through the Renaissance (Rauch quotes Michel de Montaigne) agonized over the fact that much of what was claimed to be knowledge was founded on equivocal observations and speculative theories, and they despaired of the possibility of real knowledge. But the actual answer, undertaken by generations of scientists (and a few philosophers), was to work to make our observations more exact and systematic and to tighten our standards of proof.

This is the answer to the philosophical skeptics who scoff at our ability to know anything about the real world “out there.”

This leads us back to the invaluable insight in The Constitution of Knowledge: Rauch’s observation that knowledge is gained through a process and a system, and that this system runs on a diversity of opinion tested through empirical persuasion.

Rauch talks about this system running on “cooperation and competition,” and even manages to transform competition into cooperation. In that spirit, let me offer a restatement of Rauch’s “Madisonian epistemology” in my own terms.

Rauch cites Federalist No. 51, but I start with Federalist No. 10, where Madison notes that previous theorists believed the most stable republic is a small state with little diversity, where everyone is likely to share the same interests and prejudices. Madison argues, instead, that the opposite is true, that we want the diversity of interests and ideas present in a large republic, because this will prevent any one faction from getting its way without opposition.

Translated into epistemological terms, a diversity of factions means a diversity of biases, which means that to win any argument, you have to do more than appeal to the natural biases of those who share your outlook. You have to go outside anyone’s particular biases and prejudices to appeal to independently verifiable facts, clear logical inference, and universal principles. You have to appeal to the only thing that is truly and inescapably universal, which is reality.

We can see how this works out in two great examples, on hundred years apart, from the realm of politics: slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. In each case, we had a minority of Americans who had a strong and distinct political interest. They had little trouble promoting their outlook to others who shared the same interests, but to achieve their political goals, they had to expand beyond that core constituency and appeal to verifiable facts and universal truths that were capable of earning the support of a broad majority.

The Southern slave-owners made feeble and unconvincing attempts to give slavery a universal moral justification. They eventually gave up, and the confession of their failure was that the only way they could think of to preserve slavery was to extend it westward. In effect, their doctrines could only win support among those corrupted by an immediate economic interest in slavery. When it finally became clear they could not succeed in expanding this constituency, their only answer was to withdraw from the argument and resort to a contest of force. It was a retreat to a subjective epistemology, the epistemology of the “peculiar institution” that could never be understood by a non-Southerner.

By contrast, the Civil Rights Movement also worked on behalf of the rights of a minority of the American people, but it did so by appealing to facts, arguments, and universal principles—principles which had the advantage of being widely accepted and written into our founding documents. As a consequence, they eventually won broad support that went far beyond those already predisposed by personal bias or immediate interests. They not only won a political victory but also won a sweeping epistemic victory, widely discrediting the idea of racial bias and prejudice throughout the culture.

Rauch argues that the fact that this has been done before gives us confidence that it can be done again. As he puts it, the enemies of a liberal epistemological order are not ten feet tall; we are.

Yet somehow I take even more comfort from his observation that a liberal, rational epistemological order is like any other highly complex system: It has to be maintained by active effort and always will be. It had to be learned painstakingly over centuries, its institutions had to be cobbled together, grown, and refined, and it has to be understood afresh and defended anew by each generation.

So I will give Jonathan Rauch the last word: “Those of us who favor it, and also our children, and also their children and their children, will need to get up every morning and explain and defend our counterintuitive social principle from scratch, and so we might as well embrace the task and perform it cheerfully.”


Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.


“Three Elections: America, Ukraine, Iraq and the Politics of Persuasion,” The Intellectual Activist, Vol. 18, No. 12 (December 2004)