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Belief and Resistance

Belief and Resistance

Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy

Barbara Herrnstein Smith

ISBN 9780674064928

Publication date: 04/30/1997

Truth, reason, and objectivity--can we survive without them? What happens to law, science, and the pursuit of social justice when such ideas and ideals are rejected? These questions are at the heart of the controversies between traditionalists and "postmodernists" that Barbara Herrnstein Smith examines in her wide-ranging book, which also offers an original perspective on the perennial--perhaps eternal--clash of belief and skepticism, on our need for intellectual stability and our experience of its inevitable disruption.

Focusing on the mutually frustrating impasses to which these controversies often lead and on the charges--"absurdity," "irrationalism," "complicity," "blindness," "stubbornness"--that typically accompany them, Smith stresses our tendency to give self-flattering reasons for our own beliefs and to discount or demonize the motives of those who disagree with us. Her account of the resulting cognitive and rhetorical dynamics of intellectual conflict draws on recent research and theory in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, developmental psychology, and the history and sociology of science, as well as on contemporary philosophy and language theory.

Smith's analyses take her into important ongoing debates over the possibility of an objective grounding of legal and political judgments, the continuing value of Enlightenment rationalism, significant challenges to dominant ideas of scientific truth, and proper responses to denials of the factuality of the Holocaust. As she explores these and other controversies, Smith develops fresh ways to understand their motives and energies, and more positive ways to see the operations of intellectual conflict more generally.


  • It is typical of Smith that she can accommodate such questions of reality and truth, without self-contradiction, in the course of a defence and explication of what is variously called scepticism, perspectivism, constructivism or postmodernism, but for which relativism seems a perfectly good term. Belief and Resistance is not only a substantively powerful book; its conscientious approach and restrained style are equally welcome. Indeed, its only possible rivals are the work of Joseph Margolis…and the late, unjustly neglected Paul Feyerabend… Smith’s point is not that there is anything wrong about objectivity in the classic sense of ‘justifiable in a context-transcendent and subject-independent way’. It is, rather, that whether legal, scientific, or political, such evaluation—‘as distinct from judgments that are good under certain (perhaps quite broad) conditions and from the perspectives of certain (perhaps especially relevant) people’—never occurs. In epistemology and axiology, there are ‘no touchstones of truth, no automatic refutations of error, no ready-made exposures of deception’. In rich and subtle detail, Smith explores the implications of this view in relation to (among other things) Holocaust denial and the ‘Science Wars’. Proceeding from the view that what we variously call nature, reality, or truth is the result of ongoing material, cognitive, conceptual and social interactions (but not social or linguistic alone), she offers some fascinating speculations on the general dynamics of belief and resistance. Their overall context is the project of a naturalized but non-reductive evolutionary epistemology, very much in the spirit of Gregory Bateson. Barbara Hernnstein Smith’s book, however, sets a new standard.

    —Patrick Curry, Times Literary Supplement


  • Barbara Herrnstein Smith is Braxton Craven Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and English at Duke University.

Book Details

  • 5-7/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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