Unless you were attending a university when this book was published, or have a special interest in the general ongoing dialogue we call the culture waUnless you were attending a university when this book was published, or have a special interest in the general ongoing dialogue we call the culture wars, "The Closing of the American Mind" may not be on your radar. When it first came out in 1987, it caused quite a fracas and became, I'm sure to everyone's (including Allan Bloom’s) surprise, a bestseller. It's difficult for me to imagine a book by an unprepossessing University of Chicago professor on the debilitating effects of Heidegger and Nietzsche on higher education becoming a bestseller today. This may only serve to bolster Bloom's case that the "liberal" attitude of openness has gone a few steps too far.
Or it might be the direct effect of Bloom's "voice" - which is, despite what any of his intellectual confreres say, by turns elitist, rankly unegalitarian, and possibly anti-democratic in content; in tone, he often comes off as the curmudgeonly old grandfather shaking his newspaper at you and telling you to get off of his lawn. I personally have no problem with the elitism or anti-democratic attitudes when it comes to teaching. There are, quite simply, some books that are better than others, and some ideas that are better than others, and having to pretend otherwise is simply to play the ostrich's game of sticking our heads in the sand. The better books should be taught for the moral education of the student body while inferior books should be set aside (surely to be picked up by many people who, after graduating from university and having been introduced to the greats, choose to eschew them and read pulp instead.) I, like Bloom, regret that recent American culture has lost the sense of education as a kind of moral training. Bloom's critics, however, also do him the grave disservice of hitching his tone onto the wagon that is the content of his intellectual argument. Who's going to take this cranky old man seriously - who sees an uncontrollable sexual release in a young teenage boy unashamedly gyrating his hips to rock 'n' roll, who unabashedly and unashamedly blames affirmative action as one of the contributing factors in the decadence of the contemporary American university, and whose explanation of the breakdown of the American family (if there indeed has been such a thing) is, quite charitably, described as "old-fashioned."
Bloom's argument is large and multifaceted; no review of a few hundred words could deal with it in all its complexity. What it claims at its base, though, is that certain attitudes popular in the sixties and seventies - universal acceptance, universal tolerance, the slow erosion of critical faculties - which eventually came to shape the minds of university students and even how university are administered. He claims, after Nietzsche, that we live in a time "beyond good and evil" - that is, where we have ceased not only looking for the differences in good versus bad (he archly points out that we describe nothing as "evil" anymore), but that we don't even know how to discern those differences. For Bloom, the moral education must consist of "a vision of the moral universe, reward for good, punishment for evil, and the drama of moral choices." That is, at the very least, an education in critical moral discernment. He argues that this is all but gone.
He claims - dubiously, I think - that he noticed a steep drop in the number of students who were interested in the "Great Books" from the time when he first started teaching in the United States in the early sixties to the time of writing this book. At many stages in his argument, Bloom seems to have counterfactually reimagined a world in which students walked into the university already well-versed in Plato, Homer, Stendahl, and Hegel, Aristotle, eager to be filled to the brim with The Wisdom Of The Masters. I think everyone was exposed to Homer in high school, but how many of us took it "seriously" - what Bloom would call seriously? Were they familiar with the importance of “xenia” and the “oikos” in Homer? (And no, you don’t get translations of those words.) I can speak from personal experience that many of teachers themselves didn't have the intellectual background to teach Homer this rigorously.
Richard Heffner, one of Bloom’s interlocutors following the popular press cavalcade after the release of the book, suggested during his interview with the professor that being an elitist might mean “thinking some questions are better answered by Hegel than by Joyce Brothers.” By that measure, I would imagine the vast majority of intelligent people are in fact elitists. Knowledge properly used and appropriately fostered quite simply makes you a better person. I think even the most obnoxious paladins of popular culture would admit that there is intellectual territory that Oprah’s Book Club hasn’t yet broached.
You may vehemently disagree with much of what Bloom has to say, or at least how he says it (it would put you in good company), but this comes highly suggested for anyone who thinks that answers to life’s “higher and deeper” questions deserve our most serious consideration. It serves as an honest refutation against the idea a few easy shibboleths of our times: that all answers are equally good, all educations are equally fulfilling and worthy, and all truths are equally valid....more
I was first introduced to Michael Sandel a couple of years ago on YouTube while I was looking for a productive way to spend my newly free summer days.I was first introduced to Michael Sandel a couple of years ago on YouTube while I was looking for a productive way to spend my newly free summer days. His course at Harvard called “Justice” is one of the fastest in the entire university to fill up – not something I had to worry about, since I could watch all twelve of the lectures at my leisure. The lectures were filmed in an enormous hall (over 1,000 student register for his class every time it is offered), and are full of students who would never think of necessarily majoring in philosophy, but are still interested in deep, meaningful questions like “What does it mean to be a citizen in a democratic society?” and “How does one pursue the good life in a world of so many competing interests?” This searching quality, and Sandel’s open, interactive maieutic method of engaging his students were some of the best parts of his lectures.
That same Socratic spirit continues within the pages of this book, a series of previously published essays. Sandel’s willingness and insistence on being a knowledgeable cicerone through the history of liberal political theory is a sincere and much-appreciated one. However, some of these pieces are simply too short, both in length and in moral force, to merit inclusion in what otherwise could have been an extremely powerful collection. Most of the short pieces I’m talking about are in Part II, “Moral and Political Arguments.” These are articles (I use this word instead of “essay” because they almost look more like, and it pains me to say it, op-ed pieces than they do well-considered philosophical arguments) discussing the relative positives and negatives of state lotteries, advertising in public classrooms, the morality of buying and selling pollution credits, affirmative action, and the Clinton imbroglio. Some of these sound a little dated, having been written while the public discussions behind these issues was still hot; some of them haven’t been updated, not to mention more fully fleshed out as they should be.
The lengths of the pieces here are pretty proportional to their quality. The opening essay, “America’s Search for a Public Philosophy,” (p. 9-34) nicely sets the tone and informs the body of concerns that resurface throughout the book: our shift away from a kind of communitarian liberalism toward a more rights-based, autonomy-based, voluntarist liberalism in which the state is value-neutral. (This seems to be an essay-long distillation of his book, “Democracy’s Discontent.”) The best essays point out some of the contradictions residing within liberalism (liberalism in the broad philosophical sense, not the narrow sense pundits use the word): for example, is toleration a good in itself if the thing being tolerated is morally dubious, like the neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois? In other words, which is more morally fundamental – the toleration itself, or the inherent goodness or badness of the thing being tolerated? Sandel is right to point out that rudimentary questions like this rarely present themselves in the matter of public discourse.
Two more essays, “Dewey’s Liberalism and Ours” and “Political Liberalism,” a discussion of some of the readings and misreadings Dewey has incurred since his death and a critical discussion of John Rawls respectively, are both equally worthy of attention. In fact, Dewey’s influence on Sandel looms large; both are extremely concerned with the cultivation of a democratic citizenry, and what precisely this would entail. Both are also clearly disenchanted with the rights-based, voluntarist liberalism that has come to be almost unquestioned in the United States over the last century.
While some of the shorter pieces come to the conclusions that you would expect of someone of a Deweyan, communitarian liberal bent who values goods before rights, the longer pieces that I mention above really are good places to see the various ways in which philosophy dovetails into practical political concerns. They are consistently thought-provoking and critical of the liberal tradition within political philosophy when necessary. The short articles, while not totally worthless, are more cursory and may be of interest to those with a passing or historical interest interest, but they don’t provide the intellectual sustenance found in other parts of the book. ...more
Dominick LaCapra is a Cornell historian concerned with history and historiography, especially how traumatic experiences (which he also refers to as “lDominick LaCapra is a Cornell historian concerned with history and historiography, especially how traumatic experiences (which he also refers to as “limit experiences”) relate to historical writing. He might be called one of the first writers to ask serious questions about what has lately come to be known as “trauma studies,” in which he integrates concepts from psychoanalysis, critical and literary theory, and philosophy all for the purpose of better understanding, talking about, and writing about historical traumatic experiences. Because of the way this short book is constructed - it’s a series of five essays in addition to one long interview - there is no unifying thesis but instead a number of ideas that popped into the foreground and, at least in my opinion, were of both real theoretical and practical importance in the writing of history.
The first essay mostly carves out two kinds of historical writing, which LaCapra calls the “documentary or self-sufficient research model” and “radical constructivism.” In the former, “priority is often given to research based on primary (preferably archival) documents that enable one to derive authenticated facts about the past which may be recounted in a narrative (the more ‘artistic’ approach) or employed in a mode of analysis which puts forth testable hypotheses (the more ‘social-scientific’ approach).” The purpose of this method is to tell what happened, how it happened, oftentimes with an emphasis on facts, figures, dates, places, and names. Its extreme form is positivism, which was popular in nineteenth-century historical writing. Radical constructivism, less widely known outside of the academy, suggests that history is merely one mode of writing, and really has no pride of place over any other form of writing, whether it’s philosophical or literary, and that we are mistaken in believing that the writing of history is in any way more objectivist or “real” than a novel. Two proponents of radical constructivism working today are the theorists Frank Ankersmit and Hayden White. LaCapra eschews both of these and advocates for what he calls a “middle voice” – a term he takes from linguistics – which carves out a middle road between these two methodologies which can leave room for both objective facts, but also account for the performative, figurative, aesthetic, rhetorical, political, and ideological factors that “construct” structure and narrative. As LaCapra asks in another essay, “Rather, the problem [of resolving these two approaches] is how an attentiveness to certain issues may lead to better self-understanding and to a sensitivity or openness to responses that generate necessary tensions in one’s account. This attentiveness creates, in Nietzsche’s term, a Schwergewicht, or stressful weight in inquiry, and it indicates how history in its own way poses problems of writing or signification which cannot be reduced to writing up the results of research” (p. 105).
In the second essay, “Trauma, Absence, Loss,” he argues for a more clear distinction between loss and absence in historical writing – a difference which he says is often made ambiguous. Absence is transhistorical and signifies an existential lack whereas loss is always historical specific and tangible: something is taken away or let go. Therefore, loss always entails absence, but not always vice versa. “My contention is that the difference (or nonidentity) between absence and loss is often elided, and the two are conflated with confusing and dubious results. This conflation tends to take place so rapidly that it escapes notice and seems natural or necessary. Yet among other questionable consequences, it threatens to convert subsequent accounts into displacements of the story of original sin wherein a prelapsarian state of unity or identity, whether real or fictive, is understood as giving way through a fall to difference and conflict” (p. 47-48). In other words, ignoring or not recognizing this difference can exacerbate historical traumas needlessly by creating unnecessary tension.
Another essay, “Perpetrators and Victims,” is in many senses an extended criticism of Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” LaCapra raises questions as to what the real task of the historian is and what it’s not. Is the job of the historian to attempt to completely identify with the victim of traumatic limit events, or to stay completely, coolly objective? This is different, but slightly related to, the distinction between the two kinds of historical methodology outlined above. It will come as no surprise that LaCapra supports a mediating path that attempts both empathy and concern for the victim, but also a willingness to see how their accounts accord with and sing in tandem with others.
In a couple of the essays, LaCapra discusses another important distinction – between what he calls “acting out” and “working through.” In acting out, a person or society revisits the site (which is not always a physical place) or trauma over and over again, unable to come to terms with it. This is a compulsive behavior which blocks recovery, even if that recovery would never be complete or totally harmonizing. Though he doesn’t explicitly say this in the book, I would imagine two examples would be Nazi sympathizers in modern-day Germany who are still upset, seventy years on, about Allied victory in WWII. Another similar example would be modern-day Americans who historically fetishize the South and their affiliation with it, proudly flying their Confederate flags, denying that they ever lost the Civil War. The other kind of relationship to history – since “acting out” isn’t really a form of resolution at all, but rather a compulsive behavior – is “working through,” which involves a certain distance from historical trauma which will eventually allow for the possibility of healing, acceptance, and political progress. While these two are not mirror images of one another, I found them really useful in thinking about trauma studies as a field and the problems of history writing.
One of the looming themes running through the essays is that historians need to realize and reckon with what LaCapra refers to as, explicitly borrowing language from Freud, as our “transferential implication” in history. History isn’t something that we can separate ourselves from; when writing it, it is necessarily something we implicative ourselves in. While objective facts exist, the objectivism of positivism and the self-sufficient research model have wholly failed to realize this. This, along with their lack of affect toward victims and sensitivity toward kinds of narrativity, largely account for their failures as methodologies.
This is a superb book whose only weaknesses are due to its lack of cohesion as a unifying narrative. Then again, given what LaCapra’s trying to talk about here, this may have been an intended effect, not a mistake. If we’re lucky, we’re always working through history; we’re certainly always implicated in its processes however much we would like to see ourselves as separate from them. There are some wonderful ideas here that any intelligent students of history, in the academy or otherwise, should be exposed to. ...more
Books of intellectual history with this size and scope are always difficult to talk about. I’ve read some that were abysmal failures, while others werBooks of intellectual history with this size and scope are always difficult to talk about. I’ve read some that were abysmal failures, while others were highly successful. If I had to place this one along a spectrum, it’s certainly close to the latter for a couple of reasons. First, a point which has nothing to do with the quality of the book itself, but that I admire nonetheless: it was written not by an academic with narrow scholarly interests, but a wonderfully eclectic generalist, William Everdell, who has taught in the Humanities Department at St. Anne’s School (yes, a private high school) in Brooklyn for the last forty years. There’s something about the passionate amateur that I’m perennially attracted to. I don’t think we have enough of them.
“The First Moderns” is good not only for what it covers just as well as other related books of intellectual history, but also because it covers a lot of relatively new territory. We know the usual suspects: Einstein, Rimbaud, Whitman, Russell, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Strindberg, Picasso, and several dozen others. The names of Edwin Porter, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and Valeriano Weyler, however, usually don’t make it into books of this kind. Do people even recognize these names anymore? Everdell also widens the scope of the book by covering not only names, but topics that usually don’t get mentioned. We are used to hearing Modernism defined in terms of music, philosophy, and the visual arts. Very rarely do we see mathematics and science discussed, let alone the invention of the concentration camp.
The theme into which Everdell successfully manages to fit most of his vignettes is that of discreteness, continuity, and discontinuity. One doesn’t ordinarily think of something like mathematics as being potentially Modernist, but the discussion of Georg Cantor, Richard Dedekind, and Gottlob Frege makes wonderful sense in this context. They explored topics like infinity (actually, infinities), set theory, and the theoretical fundamentals of the field, including questions like, “What is an integer?” All of this work blurred the traditional lines of continuity and discontinuity that earlier logic and mathematics had felt so confident with. We also get a wonderful and highly intelligent, though non-technical, account of Ludwig Boltzmann’s work with statistical mechanics and his defense of atomism. If matter is made of atoms – millions of them – how do we discover anything about a concept as abstract as “energy”? Everdell details the ways in which Boltzmann invented new mathematical tools to think about energy and entropy as statistical averages of extremely complex states. The work of Boltzmann and the people after him showed how, when multiplied by trillions and trillions, tiny, individual discrete atoms can have physical properties en masse like temperature, energy, or entropy (which are all, in fact, related to one another). Again, we see how the information about discontinuous atoms can in fact yield useful information about matter when thought of as continuous.
And even when we get lessons from art history, or music, or poetry with which we are perhaps almost familiar, Everdell adds new contexts, new names, and new layers that enable each chapter in the book to potentially morph into a book of its very own. He gives a beautiful account of Seurat’s invention and exploration of pointillism, the “invention” of blank verse with Whitman, Rimbaud, and Jules Laforgue, and a whole chapter on Hugo de Vries’ discovery of the gene and Max Planck’s introduction of quantum theory.
Books like this, in their inexhaustible attempt to explain what a concept (like Modernism) might mean to wide swaths of human experience and creativity inevitably can be as a bit listy. “He was important … and so was this, but don’t forget her…” et cetera, and Everdell hasn’t fully escaped that here. But if that bothered me, I would never read this kind of book – a kind of book which I love very much. I read this sort of stuff to learn about new connections between ideas they already knew of, and I can handle the narrative jumpiness if the information is presented in an intelligent way, and Everdell is certainly the kind of intellectual cicerone who is going to teach you something fascinating. If you’re interested in this time period and intellectual history as a field, I would recommend William M. Johnston’s “The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History, 1848-1938.” To be honest, it’s dry as hay and not nearly as interesting as Everdell’s book, but his sense of curiosity and the amount of sheer information covered is truly impressive. It complements the information in here nicely....more
In the early 1920s, a formidable array of intellectual talent coalesced into a group that called themselves the Institut fur Sozialforschung (the InstIn the early 1920s, a formidable array of intellectual talent coalesced into a group that called themselves the Institut fur Sozialforschung (the Institute for Social Research). They would later come to be known more simply as the Frankfurt School. Consisting mostly of assimilated German Jews, they had a truly impressive body of interests, running from sociology, sinology, philosophy, Marxism, musicology, psychology, and psychoanalysis. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are probably most affiliated with the first generation of the school, but it also included Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Franz Neumann, many of whom are still read today.
But when one does hear the words “Frankfurt School” today, their influence on Marxism is perhaps what most immediately comes to mind. The members thought that the German Social Democratic Party was spineless and ineffective, but equally thought that the Communist party was too hard-lined and ideological. Because of this, their academic work paved a middle course between the bourgeois politics of the Social Democrats and the sclerotic, obsolescent, vulgar Marxism that they perceived in Germany, and which was soon to all but disappear.
Martin Jay uses this book as an opportunity to write a multi-person biography of many of the figures above, interlarded with the objective, measured perspective that I’ve come to know Jay for. (I’ve also read his “Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme,” which is a philosophical history of experience over the last four hundred years or so, and which I have also reviewed for this site.) He discusses the major work which they produced, including their analysis of Nazism, aesthetic theory and Adorno’s devastating critique of mass culture, and the later more empirical work that came out after World War II. In the last chapter, some of the contributions of Walter Benjamin, a figure more peripherally related to the school but still extraordinarily important in his own right, are more fully fleshed out. In school, I read Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which I’m sure that every student in a philosophy of art course is made to read), and found that it completely changed some of my assumptions about aesthetic experience. I have several other volumes of Benjamin’s work, including one of media criticism, and Jay’s book has made me much more curious to pick those up.
If there is one complaint that I could level against the book, it would be that Jay pays almost equal attention to everyone, even those figures that few people really read these days. For whatever reason, I thought “history of the Frankfurt School” might mean “a detailed discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno,” with maybe a little Marcuse or Benjamin tossed in for good measure. But he really tells the entire history of the Institute itself, including how it was funded and the minor figures that no one really except for perhaps academic specialists read anymore (like Neumann and Lazarsfeld). If you’re looking for a book that gives a more straightforward account on the major ideas of critical theory and its continuing interdisciplinary influences, this isn’t really the book that you’re looking for – which is what this book seemed to be – this isn’t really the book for you. If this is what you’re more interested in I’ve heard, though I can’t confirm since I haven’t read them, that the Very Short Introduction’s book on the group by Stephen E. Bronner or Thomas Wheatland’s “The Frankfurt School in Exile” might be more appropriate....more
“Return to Reason” is a valiant effort in trying to hold down the fort for post-Enlightenment, rational belief in a God. For a short book, it covers a“Return to Reason” is a valiant effort in trying to hold down the fort for post-Enlightenment, rational belief in a God. For a short book, it covers a lot of territory, including an argument against natural theology, and a critique of foundationalist epistemology (for definitions of these terms, see the second and third paragraphs respectively). It’s a great undergraduate text for what philosophers call “reformed epistemology” (again, see below) and introduces some of the most popular names in this tradition. Unfortunately, I found this book to be tragically flawed in several respects, and in the end, a terrible failure, both of the imagination and of philosophy.
Clark begins off on a solid footing with a thoroughgoing critique of natural theology – that is, the idea that a belief in God can be derived from logical propositions that all rational beings can agree upon. The most recognizable of these arguments are seen in Aquinas’ five proofs, including the argument from design and the cosmological argument. He rightly argues that different (rational) people can use different standards of evidence and only think these standards apply in certain situations. For example, regarding the argument from design, some people think that the argument from sufficient reason applies to all things within the universe, while others – namely the people who find the design argument convincing – think it can apply to the universe as a whole itself. Some astrophysicists have recently asserted that the Big Bang itself may not have had a cause (I’m thinking here of Lawrence Krauss), which would blow the entire lid off of the cosmological argument as we know it. Because of this, natural theology seems like a failure on all fronts: using only the tool of classical Enlightenment reason, it’s not the case that all people will agree on the positive truth value of God claims.
Because this relentless need for evidence and reason, which Clark terms “evidentialism,” cannot prove the existence of God, he sees it fit to critique foundationalism, the belief that all inferential beliefs are based on more basic beliefs. Instead, thinking that he’s offering a detailed critique of foundationalist epistemology, he really just goes on to flatly state that when you want to believe in something, you can “just do it.” In fact, in “Faith and Rationality,” Nicholas Wolterstorff states this flatly and unashamedly. “A person is rationally justified in believing a certain proposition when he does believe unless he has adequate reason to cease from believing it. Our beliefs are rational unless we have reason for refraining; they are not non-rational unless we have reason for believing” (Clark, p. 147). I’m sorry, but this simply isn’t the way that rationality works, and it’s relatively easy to see why. Say I want to belief that an Invisible Giant Meatball Sandwich causes things to fall to the ground, not gravity. Try proving me wrong.
Instead of changing his worldview in the light of insufficient evidence, like most philosophers would do, Clark followed in the footsteps of an unfortunate yet storied philosophical tradition known as reformed epistemology (so named because of its roots in the Protestant Reformation, especially in the theology of John Calvin), but recently revived by the likes of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston. Reformed epistemology holds that belief in a God is both basic and proper, or what philosophers call “properly basic.” “Basic” here means without recourse to being explained by something else (it’s a primary belief which doesn’t need explanation itself), and “properly” means that a belief is justified. In other words, reform epistemologists believe that God is both something that is justified, but also doesn’t have to be explained. Well, isn’t that just precious – and convenient. It seems obvious to me that reformed epistemology is simply a way of trying to smuggle in the back door what you can’t get in if you actually follow the rules of the game of philosophy: you know, like evidence, reason, and logical methods. Does anyone know of a reformed epistemologist who also happens to be an atheist?
Crickets. I hear crickets.
I’m by no means uncritical of the Enlightenment, or the traditions that flow from it. But what I find most dishonest about this book is not that it feels that it can dismiss centuries of philosophical thought in 150 pages, but that it makes the tremendously intellectually dishonest move of trying assert (note that I didn’t say “prove” or “demonstrate”) totally ad hoc a belief that can be introduced by no rational means. I’m also not someone who thinks that philosophy should necessarily in any way resemble science in content or method, but one really is treading ground when you import the word “rationality” here, leading people on to believe that it’s anything like the rationality of science. Clark, Plantinga, Wolterstorff and other reformed epistemologists haven’t really critiqued anything. They’ve skirted the issue, and have thereby created a whole new welter of problems for themselves. I can understand when someone asserts that their belief in God is basic – that it is primary, and can’t be explained by anything else. But saying that it’s properly basic – that these kinds of beliefs are justified – is simply not reasonable or rational. There’s a reason why they call it Calvinism. And it should stay in the sixteenth century where it belongs. ...more
“Twilight of the Idols” and “The Anti-Christ” are two of the last books, both composed in 1888, that Nietzsche wrote before his final descent into syp“Twilight of the Idols” and “The Anti-Christ” are two of the last books, both composed in 1888, that Nietzsche wrote before his final descent into syphilis-induced madness which occurred during the first week of 1889. It continues themes he had developed in his earlier work, and “The Anti-Christ” especially approaches Christianity with a particularly ferocious and critical eye.
As anyone who has thumbed through a volume of Nietzsche can tell you, his work isn’t composed of clear, well-defined propositions to be ultimately accepted or rejected; instead, his arguments have a kind of ravishing rhetorical force to them. His writing is less apothegmatic here than in other work, but is still never syllogistic or ratiocinated in such a way that we usually associate with philosophy. This isn’t a mistake; he intended his work to speak as much if not more through the force of style than anything else. In his “attack” on Socrates in the first book, he calls reason itself a “tyrant,” and wonders if Socrates enjoys his “own form of ferocity in the knife-thrust of the syllogism.”
The greatest part of “Twilight of the Idols” is the chapter called “Morality as Anti-Nature” in which he says that all moral systems up until now, and particularly Christianity, are wrong precisely because they try to deform and reshape human nature to their own image. For Nietzsche, the moral is the natural, but Christianity – and this is really an attack on all religious systems, though some more than others – stops being moral when it tries to impose concepts that are completely foreign to human beings like the idea that “everyone is created the same” or a selfless Christian charity. Whether or not you agree with the thrust of the argument, I found the idea of moral systems as rational attempts to remold nature an interesting one. Of course, people jump on these passages to try to make him look like some kind of nihilist or immoralist, when nothing could be further from the truth. He simply wants the principles and drives of human nature to inform ethical systems, not something foreign to them. Freud may have picked up on this, admitting as he did a great debt to Nietzsche. “The Anti-Christ” goes on to attack what I would call religious psychology, and especially the moral precepts of Christianity.
If you haven’t read Nietzsche and have some sort of caricature of what he says in your head, start with this book, probably one of his most readable, which is ironic when considered in the light of his mental breakdown immediately thereafter. His attacks are never the ones you hear from atheists these days, “that the idea of God is irrational” or “we have no scientific evidence for such a being.” His criticisms are fresh and invigorating, including accusations that the apostle Paul distorted Christ’s message beyond measure and that Christianity focuses on another world essentially devaluing this one. Again, this isn’t about agreement or disagreement with his basic assertions. (Some of the people on whom he had the biggest influence fundamentally disagreed with what he said.) It’s the punch that he packs while delivering them. There was a reason why he subtitled the book “Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert” (“How to Philosophize with a Hammer”).
Other than Nietzsche’s writing itself, some of the most impressive things about him are the downright preposterousness of the criticisms that people levy against him, the sheer width and breadth of intellectual laziness with which people read him. Just from reading a small sampling of the reviews posted on this book alone, there are accusations of him “deriding self-control” and being “obnoxiously right-wing,” the first a willful misreading, the second a risible attempt to foist a set of anachronistic political opinions on the ideas of a man who was hugely contemptuous of the German politics of his own day, left and right alike. Those who are trying to discover their token protofascist in Nietzsche would do better to look elsewhere, especially at his contemporaries Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, all of whose ideas make Nietzsche’s supposed illiberalism look like mere child’s play (for details, see either Fritz Stern’s marvelous “The Politics of Cultural Despair” or my review of it posted on this site). That Nietzsche still serves as a lodestar around which people feel free to hang their own various political opinions can only be a testament to his continued cultural importance. ...more
Ernest Gellner (1925-1995) was a French-born Czech-Englishman whose interests are as varied as his string of ethnonyms would suggest. In addition to hErnest Gellner (1925-1995) was a French-born Czech-Englishman whose interests are as varied as his string of ethnonyms would suggest. In addition to holding well-known chairs in sociology, anthropology, and philosophy, he was also interested in the methodological foundations of science, the political culture of Islamic societies, and dismantling what he considered to be three of the biggest con-games that have taken in intellectuals of the twentieth century: postmodernism, Freudianism, and Marxism. Perhaps his best-known book is “Plough, Sword, and Book.”
This is an imprint from the University of Wales called “Political Philosophy Now,” and aims to summarize Gellner’s oeuvre. Lessnoff does a competent job at this, even if his approach isn’t nearly as witty and sharp as Gellner’s notoriously was. His delivery is flat and academic, but he’s clearly very familiar with Gellner’s work, and especially the conversations in which Gellner was intellectually engaged. Since I haven’t read any of Gellner’s original work, I can only assume that his interpretation of Gellner is accurate. He’s certainly not an apologist for Gellner, and openly criticizes him when he feels it is necessary.
I won’t discuss all of the topics here, but I thought that some of Gellner’s work deserved particular attention. The best part of the book is the last chapter of the book called “Relativism and Cognitive Ethics.” Cognitive ethics is, as I understand it, essentially Gellner’s way of defining intellectual honesty, and is loosely synonymous with the scientific standards of testability and falsifiability in the Popperian sense. He accuses Freudians and Marxists of lacking this cognitive ethic, because imbedded in these systems are ways of deflecting all criticisms. If you’re not a Freudian, you’re simply in a state of false consciousness (note the similarity to Marxist rhetoric); you’re in denial of Freud’s truth. If you deny Marxism, you’re a useful idiot for the bourgeoisie, blind to the alienating effects of capitalism. Basically, all these systems (he goes on to critique postmodernism along the same lines), have internally coopted all criticisms, and therefore completely protects itself from attack. They’re unfalsifiable, and therefore necessarily unscientific – which is a problem when many of their practitioners wear the cloak of scientific respectability.
There are also chapters on nationalism, Gellner’s theory of history (as presented in “Plough, Sword, and Book”), politics in modern society, and a blistering attack on the linguistic philosophy popular at Oxford during the middle of the century, especially that of Wittgenstein (found in “Words and Things”). The only chapter that I didn’t find convincing was the one on Islamic society in which he states, quite oddly, that theocracies are particularly adept at conforming to modernist ideals and suggests a distinction between high and low Islam. This was counterintuitive at best.
Lessnoff’s book is a great survey of Gellner’s life’s work. I would certainly suggest this for anyone in reading one of Gellner’s books, which many of which seem difficult but very rewarding. ...more
This book is a set of five essays in response to Ranciere’s earlier work “The Ignorant Schoolmaster.” All of these pieces are tied together by RancierThis book is a set of five essays in response to Ranciere’s earlier work “The Ignorant Schoolmaster.” All of these pieces are tied together by Ranciere’s attempt to overcome the dyad so often associated with modernist aesthetics of passive spectator/active seer. The title essay extends the concept set forth in “The Ignorant Schoolmaster” by suggesting that the knowledge gap between the educated teacher and the student should be given up in place for an “equality of knowledge.” The goal of this is not to turn everyone into a scholar, however. As Ranciere says, “It is not the transmission of the artist’s knowledge or inspiration to the spectator. It is the third that is owned by no one, but which subsists between them, excluding any uniform transmission, any identity of cause and effect” (15). This is by far the most cogent and understandable of the essays in the collection, and it offers an interesting suggestion in rethinking the space between the actor and viewer, teacher and student, or any other relationship. However, it struck me as the kind of idea most at home in the world of theory, one that might not be well-translated into praxis.
The second essay, “The Misadventures of Critical Thought,” Ranciere criticizes the traditional role of the spectator by claiming that it, even though a mode of criticism itself, it “reproduces its own logic.” He looks at photos from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Vietnam, by Martha Rosler and Josephine Meckseper. Some people do not want to view these graphic photographs, however that very refusal perpetuates and continues the logic of the war in the first place. Therefore, a critical stance toward the image needs to shift away from this approach toward the uncoupling of two logics, “the emancipating logic of capacity and the critical logic of collective inveiglement” (48).
The last essay, “The Pensive Image,” sustains a further opening up between the formalist opposition of the active and passive. Ranciere argues for a shift – again, what he argues to be an emancipating shift – away from the “unifying logic of action” toward “a new status of the figure” (121). The end of pensiveness (of being, literally, “full of thought”) lies between narration and expression, one the mode of the active artist, the other of the passive spectator who fixes upon the artistic vision in order to impart to it a kind of reality.
Like a lot of (post)modern Continental writing, Ranciere’s writing can be elliptical, and his arguments somewhat hard to follow, perhaps because they are difficult to sustain, however engaging. I chose this because it was short enough and seemed like a suitable introduction to his body of work. The essays were interesting and provocatively argued, but sometimes they seemed less than original: for example, the title essay really seems to add nothing to the old breaking apart of the bipolar opposition of active and passive in theatre, art, and political conscientiousness; it recapitulates it nicely, but imports nothing new to the conversation. Those looking for ways to re-imagine issues in contemporary aesthetics will find something new here (as well as penetrating discussions of the poetry of Mallarme and the films of Abbas Kiarostami), but it will unnecessarily frustrate the casual reader. ...more
Modernity was a troubling thing for those who had to live through it. Pure, objective, unassailable science was quickly supplanting religious ideas, aModernity was a troubling thing for those who had to live through it. Pure, objective, unassailable science was quickly supplanting religious ideas, and paring those ideas down to what they were – mere myths perpetrated on us by those who wanted to exert social and cultural control. Or at least this was the conclusion reached by many who, with the advent of a new way of approaching universal truth, now wanted nothing to do with that old-time religion. But not everyone felt the same way. This very short book introduces the thought of Rudolph Bultmann, one of the leading German theologians of the early twentieth century and proponent of “demythologization,” and Karl Jaspers, the well-known German existentialist and philosopher. First, there is a very capable introduction by R. Joseph Hoffmann, followed by an opening statement by Jaspers, a reply by Bultmann, and then a closing reply by Jaspers. Jaspers and Bultmann both being dyed-in-the-wool Heideggerians, it is interesting to read about their intellectual justifications regarding the respective virtues and weaknesses of hermeneutics as applied to religious myth.
As I mentioned earlier, toward the latter part of Bultmann’s career, he started to talk about something called demythologization, in which he attempts to divest religious meaning and intent from the original myths in which they are couched. For Bultmann, the Ascension and the Virgin Birth (just to name two highly representative religious myths) mean something, but the fact that the religious content is ensconced in the language of the miraculous is a serious stumbling block for the modern man whose mind has come to see the miracle as ridiculous and impossible. Therefore, these myths need to be reconfigured – divested – of their Biblical form and given a structure which is makes getting at their meaning and significance possible for someone living in the twentieth century.
Jaspers, however, sees the element of myth as indispensable from the content of religious belief itself. Jaspers claims that “reading” these myths without their mythical structures is impossible. He rejects the idea that any religion can be understood apart from its mythical origins. The topology of the origins themselves, he argues, is essential to our understanding. Religious myths are not there to provide us with a decoding project; their cutting away cannot happen without the simultaneous disappearance of any possibility of a religious message. Myth is, for Jaspers, das Umgreifende (the Great Encompassing) by and through which we can escape the worn dualities of subjectivity and objectivity, and achieve a sort of transcendence.
Jaspers saw Bultmann’s project of demythologization as a sanitizing one, one that failed to understand myth as an essential vehicle for apprehending and describing the transcendent. Jaspers comes close to the one that Northrop Frye constructs in “The Great Code: The Bible and Literature,” in which he suggests that modern attempts to read the Bible are often foiled because we no longer read and write in the mythical; rather, he thinks, following Vico’s tripartite theory of language, that our system of writing has since taken on empirical, positivistic concerns. While Frye thinks that one cannot read the Bible without myth since it is written in myth, Jaspers respects the mythic, and asserts that the religious person must come to terms with it. Jaspers accuses Bultmann of a scientism which sees itself as being responsible for not be accused of foolish mythologies.
I would like to include a word about the construction and editing of the book itself. It has a wonderful introduction by R. Joseph Hoffmann which provides one of the greatest contexts and explanations of the rise of liberal theology in the nineteenth century. However, Jaspers’ first parry in the conversation includes a lot of material from his Existenzphilosophie which is completely unnecessarily for the overall understanding of the text and the content of the argument at hand. This part of the text includes explanation the reader could have done without, like “We cannot think unless something becomes an object for us. To be conscious means to live in that clarity which is made possible by the split between I and the object. But it also means to live within the walls constituted by the split between the I and something known to be an object.” And so on. If this language had been excised, the book would have made its argument in tighter, more cogent terms. Also, of the 88 pages devoted to the back-and-forth of Bultmann and Jaspers, Bultmann is allotted a grand total of 12 pages, which makes me think the editor may have had a slight bias. In any case, the substance of the debate is fascinating, but these weak points to detract from the overall rating. I would recommend a close examination of these ideas for anyone interested in the shapes and trends of liberal theology in the twentieth century, but one can probably find another publication whose editor is less clumsy in communicating them. ...more
In an effort to be very fair, I will review this book for what it is, and not what I wanted it to be. What is it? A highly serviceable introduction toIn an effort to be very fair, I will review this book for what it is, and not what I wanted it to be. What is it? A highly serviceable introduction to the lives, thought, and influence of the four titular historical personages. I cannot stress the word “introduction” enough here. Unless you have had no exposure to the figure that you are curious about, you will be hard-pressed in learning anything new about him. This, however, wasn’t my first encounter with any of the four figures.
What did I want this book to be? Considering the reputation of Jaspers, I was expecting something more scholarly, yet I should have known better from the length of the book (just under 100 pages, not including the endnotes and bibliography). Considering he is mostly known for his “Philosophy and Existence,” I thought that he might try to take a syncretic approach, blending his own brand of thought with these paradigmatic figures of the past. No such luck. I also thought that it might have had something other than strictly a “summary” type of feel that it did. It reads like lecture notes in that it’s somewhat disjointed, a lot of the thoughts he explores do not go fully developed, and you are left wanting more.
Unfortunately, much of the stuff here is derivative and fails to shed any new light on the material it covers. Since this series pulled together from a variety of different sources in Jaspers’ own writing (edited by his mentee, Hannah Arendt), it is difficult to tell whether or not this is the way he intended it to be. However, as I mentioned above, the book is not without its audience. It would be very suitable ancillary material for an introductory course in world religions. ...more