Idea's Origin Doesn't Legislate its Validity

Higher Education


There is an old saying that still waters run deep. That saying usually applies to people, but it is also true of principles. And there is no better example than the principle, “The origin of an idea does not legislate on its validity.” 

This seems innocuous, obvious even. We all know that a genius can champion a stupid idea. Einstein added an extra term to his equations of general relativity to ensure they predicted a stationary universe, a decision he subsequently called his greatest blunder. And a dullard can advance a very good idea. 

But the principle is either unknown or not honored, as the national political (and, regrettably, some widely publicized campus) discourse shows. I learned it in an intellectually intoxicating course in the philosophy of religion from a gifted and demanding teacher, Bela Krigler, who lived the principle and insisted his students abide by it. 

Krigler was a Piarist priest, a member of one of the oldest Catholic teaching orders. He had been prevented from completing his doctoral work in Hungary because the authorities then in charge were suspicious of the order. He fled to the United States to escape the repression that followed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Krigler hated Communism and loved God. But woe to the student who dismissed an argument of Marx or Lenin on the grounds it was Communist or who appealed to God or some ecclesiastical authority to justify a religious claim.   

The principle that Krigler taught acknowledges someone, or something, hateful may do some good. A terrible human being may produce great art or conceive a terrific idea. At least two notorious fascist regimes instituted family-friendly policies. And well-meaning, good individuals may espouse badly flawed ideas.  

The principle has radical consequences. Since the origin of an idea plays no role in evaluating an idea, the character, motive, gender, race or any other attribute of a person associated with the idea can have nothing to do with the idea’s validity. Ad hominem arguments have no standing. The principle does not require that one tolerate foolishness. There may be many reasons that lead one to judge an idea foolish, but no idea is foolish because the person advancing it is foolish. 

Adherence to the principle is neither easy nor comfortable. It demands discipline.   

Since the principle is so frequently flouted, how do we know that it is true? The answer lies in experience and in reflecting upon the accumulated wisdom passed from one generation to the next. While it may be simpler to automatically dismiss ideas espoused by individuals we don’t like or understand, history shows that institutions and governments that do so lose out. 

Indeed, the principle of judging ideas on their merits underlies all scientific, academic, rational and judicial inquiry. It is not an overstatement to say this is one of the principles that underlies our civilization. It is the purpose of higher education, and the liberal arts and sciences in particular, to instill this principle and others. This is not indoctrination. Rather, it is the opposite. This principle is central to Western values, and one of the tools that enables our students to contribute meaningfully and lead lives of consequence.

Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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