From The Spiked Review Of Books: “Re-Opening The American Mind”

Full piece here.

Our author, Sean Collins, revisits Allan Bloom’s “The Closing Of The American Mind” 25 years on.  He tries to clear away some misconceptions:

‘The obscure professor certainly threw a cat among the pigeons. Conservatives pundits such as George Will and William Kristol praised the book in reviews, framing it as an indictment of liberal administrators and professors. Liberals in turn, as Ferguson notes, ‘took the book as a personal affront and reacted accordingly’

But Bloom wanted to get at something deeper, namely, how to restore a vision of classical learning in place of a pop culture, academic culture and a broader American culture infused with Nietzschean nihilism.  For Bloom, Nietzsche’s existential crisis and its effects through post-modernism and moral relativism especially, are something to get around, or over, or simply away from:

‘Bloom admires Nietzsche for his ‘profound philosophical reflection which broke with and buried the philosophical tradition’. Nietzsche finds that man is left without an overarching reason to be; that objective knowledge, truth and morality are all fictions. To both Nietzsche and Bloom, this is a profound problem. But to the countercultural American left of the 1960s onwards, it is seen as something to celebrate. ‘

Nietzsche, American style?  I certainly appreciate the attempt to try and understand how we’ve ended up with such balkanized groups in the liberal arts, e.g.  women’s/feminist studies, black studies and now gay studies.  This approach leads to a strong continental influence in the Academy that trades in relativism and nihilism lite as Bloom pointed out.  For some brief discussion on this site, see: Repost-Camille Paglia At Arion: Why Break, Blow, Burn Was Successful… Roger Scruton In The American Spectator Via A & L Daily: Farewell To Judgment.

Bloom explored Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s work on the subject in order to get back some openness of mind against such influence.  As Collins notes and quotes:

‘‘Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.’

But what is the scope of that power outside of such nihilism?  What are the bounds of reason as Bloom might define them? Which strains of Enlightenment thought and which thinkers work particularly well within our American traditions against this nihilism?

Our author seems to think Bloom fails to get back across the Enlightment/Anti-Enlightenment divide as it’s been discussed here:

‘Bloom essentially shares the critique of the Enlightenment and modernity put forward by Nietzsche (as well as Heidegger and Max Weber). According to this view, the Enlightenment rationalism of John Locke et al is instrumental and technocratic; it does not satisfy the soul. Bloom’s agonising over the soulless MTV generation derives from this anti-modern outlook.’

Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

How do you ground the liberal arts and define a liberal education, especially if an exceptional phase in American economic growth and educational opportunity may be at an end? Is it at an end?


Incidentally, I take Bloom and Leo Strauss as wrestling with Nietzsche’s project and trying to chart a course out of it.  While seeing Nietzsche as a problem, they have been deeply affected by his thinking and offer a cautionary tale.

The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy has more:

‘Leo Strauss, and many of his followers, take rights to be paramount, going so far as to portray Locke’s position as essentially similar to that of Hobbes. They point out that Locke defended a hedonist theory of human motivation (Essay 2.20) and claim that he must agree with Hobbes about the essentially self-interested nature of human beings. Locke, they claim, only recognizes natural law obligations in those situations where our own preservation is not in conflict, further emphasizing that our right to preserve ourselves trumps any duties we may have.

On the other end of the spectrum, more scholars have adopted the view of Dunn, Tully, and Ashcraft that it is natural law, not natural rights, that is primary. They hold that when Locke emphasized the right to life, liberty, and property he was primarily making a point about the duties we have toward other people: duties not to kill, enslave, or steal. Most scholars also argue that Locke recognized a general duty to assist with the preservation of mankind, including a duty of charity to those who have no other way to procure their subsistence (Two Treatises 1.42). These scholars regard duties as primary in Locke because rights exist to insure that we are able to fulfill our duties.’

Is there something he’s missing about Locke?

Related On This Site:  Bryan Magee’s series available on youbtube is useful:  Here’s Nietzsche scholar J.P. Stern on Nietzsche’s anti-Christian, anti-secular morality (Kant, utilitarians), anti-democratic, and anti-Greek (except the “heroic” Greek) biases…

Martha Nussbaum also offers a vision of classical learning using Aristotle, the utilitarians, and Enlightenment ideals to broaden a platform for feminism, and is not much of a friend to religion, nor using religious belief and thought to guide laws…:  From The Harvard Educational Review-A Review Of Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.’… From The Reason Archives: ‘Discussing Disgust’ Julian Sanchez Interviews Martha Nussbaum.

Jesse Prinz defends cultural relativism and weaves Nietzsche in as well, but wants to get back to Hume and a theory of Moral Sentiments (morality has its roots in the emotions):  Jesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.

God and continental philosophy…regulated markets and progressive liberation theology?: Robert George And Cornel West At Bloggingheads: “The Scandal Of The Cross”…Maybe if you’re defending religion, Nietzsche is a problematic reference: Dinesh D’Souza And Daniel Dennett at Tufts University: Nietzsche’s Prophesy…

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