If you view the modern project as sailing the gulf between Nature (wonderful spring days, happy babies, Pompei, The Plague), and human nature (love, mercy, humility, hatred, cruelty, egoism), then a certain depressive realism seems reasonable.
Part of my journey has involved being interested in the arts, making my way to Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Leo Strauss and Plato early on. After giving the arts a go, I made an attempt to broaden my scope, trying to better understand a particular set of problems.
While attending Penn State, I sat-in on a lecture by Jacques Derrida. He discussed his work on the work of Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan. Listening to the arch-deconstructionist spending an hour discussing Ashglory was interesting, if a bit baffling. There was a lot of brilliance, gibberish, insight, ambition, and hubris in that room. Looking back, if I’m honest, I suppose some of it was mine.
I didn’t take notes and kept wondering why so many did.
In bearing witness to the modern quest of wringing every last drop of meaning from the Self (Self-Help books, confessionals, gurus), I get worried. When I look around and see so much energy spent ‘deconstructing’ comedy, cartoons, pop-culture and political ideals, I worry deeper trends are playing out (see the confessional postmodern poets of the 1950’s).
It’s not so much (R)eason, but the attempts to define Man’s (R)ational Ends within political doctrines I worry about. The less people have in their lives about which to feel purpose, the more many will look to political movements.
I worry that trying to synthesize the arts and sciences in popular fashion will not halt the turn towards postmodern anti-reason and irrational modern mysticism.
It’s not so much neuroscience and psychology as expanding fields of knowledge which worry, but the oft smug certainty of many institutionalized folks justifying personal and political interests in the wake of such thinking. It’s all too easy to mistake the edges of one’s thinking for the edges of the world.
It may be meritocrats all the way down, lightly tapping upon the heads of radicals.
It’s not so much progress which bothers me, but progressivism writ large (and so many other ‘-Isms’) uniting in-groups against out-group enemies insisting change ought to be the default position.
Where your thoughts are, your actions and hopes tend to follow.
‘This work provides as ambitious and complete a defense of traditional natural theology as is currently in print. Its aim is to vindicate the view of the greatest philosophers of the past— thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, and many others— that the existence of God can be established with certainty by way of purely rational arguments. It thereby serves as a refutation both of atheism and of the fideism that gives aid and comfort to atheism.’
‘Edward Feser, a Roman Catholic philosopher, disagrees. His book is an exercise in the drive to go where Hobbes, Hume and Kant said we could not go, finding something lying behind the world as we know it, something necessary and unchanging that sustains and in some sense explains the contingent, shifting, natural world and our capacity to think about it.’
‘Edward Feser himself is not at all drawn to silent contemplation inside the monastery walls. He is a vigorous proponent of a morality of natural law, holding, for instance, that abortion is as bad as murder. His ancient exercises in logic are more than just intellectual amusements. They are preludes to the will to power, and if it were not for the Enlightenment, so little admired by John Gray, they would doubtless have continued to be preludes to persecutions and the auto-da-fé.’
‘On the one hand, Blackburn must limit the powers of human reason sufficiently to prevent them from being able to penetrate, in any substantive way, into the ultimate “springs and principles” of nature. For that is the only way to block ascent to a divine first cause – the existence and nature of which, the Scholastic says, follows precisely from an analysis of what it would be to be an ultimate explanation...
…On the other hand, Blackburn has to make sure that this skepticism is not so thoroughgoing that it takes science and Humean philosophy down too, alongside natural theology.’
On that note, on the profound and what I’d call ‘Will’ tradition nihilist skepticism of modernity, progress and high liberalism, as Blackburn also reviews John Gray’s new book ‘Seven Types Of Atheism‘
‘After this taxonomy the book is largely an indictment of misguided thinkers and writers since the Enlightenment, peppered with discreditable stories from their biographies. The examples are sad enough, and Gray uses them to support a general pessimism about human beings altogether, other people being just as bad as religionists. Woe to those who think that things have been or could be improved! Eventually the list becomes reminiscent of Monty Python’s “What have the Romans ever done for us?” substituting the Enlightenment for the Romans. We are all lying in the gutter, and the right things to look at are not the stars above, but the rubbish all around us. The only thing we progress towards is death’
If you’re interested, the below are from past related posts on this site:
‘John Gray’s “Silence of Animals” is an attack on humanism. He condemns this widely accepted secular faith as a form of delusional self-flattery.’
‘The question Gray poses is of fundamental importance, so one wishes the book were better. It is not a systematic argument, but a varied collection of testimonies interspersed with Gray’s comments.’
Clearly humanism could use more serious critics and pushback.
Nagel finishes with:
‘Gray thinks the belief in progress is fueled by humanists’ worship of “a divinized version of themselves.” To replace it he offers contemplation: “Contemplation can be understood as an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be.” Though he distinguishes this from the ideal of mystical transcendence toward a higher order of being, it, too, seems more like a form of escape than a form of realism. Hope is a virtue, and we should not give it up so easily.’
Gray discusses the book here:
While science may proceed and real progress is taking place, in the realms of ethics and politics, Gray suggests things are learned but they don’t stay learned.
Are we rational beings? Rational animals?
What about a Church Of England, somewhat Hegelian, defense of conservatism as a defense of that which one loves?:
In the Q & A afterwards, Scruton receives about as pointed a post-lecture questioning on his metaphysics as I’ve seen.
“Nigel: Has relativism had its day as an influential philosophical position?
Simon: No – and I don’t think it should ever die. The danger is that it gets replaced by some kind of complacent dogmatism, which is at least equally unhealthy. The Greek sceptics thought that confronting a plurality of perspectives is the beginning of wisdom, and I think they were right. It is certainly the beginning of historiography and anthropology, and if we think, for instance, of the Copernican revolution, of self-conscious science. The trick is to benefit from an imaginative awareness of diversity, without falling into a kind of “anything goes” wishy-washy nihilism or scepticism….”
It looks like we’ve been dealing with such a problem for a long time, in one form or another.
‘Here perhaps lies postmodernism’s greatest failure of nerve: as Khanin puts it, where the modernist posture was one of pathfinder and conqueror, the postmodernist prefers the passive life of a voyeur. The former posture may have been presumptuous, but the latter is senseless. Why this mood of fatigue has so much current appeal in the industrialized world is, I readily admit, mysterious to me. I can only affirm my view that the Enlightenment in its modernist and postmodernist manifestations is still a vital enterprise in science, politics, and even art. Though its completion is nowhere within our sights, it demands our active engagement.’
‘You can’t keep a good idea down. You can be gently derisive and hope it will go away. You can make things hot for True Believers by exposing their ideas to ridicule and scorn. Or adopting a more serious approach, you can research and write and publish two mighty volumes of overwhelming argument printed in several editions over a period of forty years, which make vividly clear the intellectual error of Platonic politics, the practical folly of using them as a guide to action, and the numberless vices which invariably ensue.’
‘These developments owe much to the recent prominence of French postmodernist thought. Many young feminists, whatever their concrete affiliations with this or that French thinker, have been influenced by the extremely French idea that the intellectual does politics by speaking seditiously, and that this is a significant type of political action. Many have also derived from the writings of Michel Foucault (rightly or wrongly) the fatalistic idea that we are prisoners of an all-enveloping structure of power, and that real-life reform movements usually end up serving power in new and insidious ways. Such feminists therefore find comfort in the idea that the subversive use of words is still available to feminist intellectuals. Deprived of the hope of larger or more lasting changes, we can still perform our resistance by the reworking of verbal categories, and thus, at the margins, of the selves who are constituted by them.’
Up First: John Gray speaks to Western Universalism, and a ‘convergence of divergence’ when it comes to separate thinkers positing a liberal telos. Of course, philosophers never agree about the roots of things. When one comes to understand a few thinkers, they can seem like trees, awkwardly growing atop a plain, dug into differing soil.
Is it all the same soil?
Russian and Chinese interests and leadership, as well localism within interconnected networks, might be evidence working against many Western Universalist claims. Distance-shortening technologies won’t simply manifest a world any one of us, alone, or in groups, might be working towards.
It looks to me more like liberalism in the U.S. has been heading towards rule with technocratic elements, bureaucratic elements, liberation elements, and a rather authoritarian hand.
Freedom is next!
Now, what about Safetyism? Might it be a sub-category of above described liberal thinking?
For the case: Rationalist rule, and rule by something which appears like the scientific method (soon softening into mild corruption), is kind of meek. It tends to eschew honor, viewing codes of honor, nationalism, and local traditions as relics blocking an historically emergent Global Order.
The radicalism in the ‘liberal church’, so endemic, I think, to human nature, seems to be forming powerful new quasi-religious, moral movements.
Such ideals must unite vastly differing groups, often both identity and individualist, radically collectivist and pro-market, into political coalitions seeking power and influence.
Wear a mask! Don’t go outside! Cars are dangerous! Put that helmet on, mister.
Dear Reader, let’s say the following is mostly true: ‘In lieu of religious belief; the orienting structure which Christianity provides, most people in the West will replace faith with something else.’
Portions of this debate are as old as the Enlightenment, (much older, really) with regard to the natural sciences, born out of what was once natural philosophy.
Depending on what’s true and what is known, an additional question looms: Who ought to be in charge?
As many readers know, I’ve been looking at liberal and secular humanist leadership, finding much rot and confusion (modern conservative movements are hardly models of principled health and organization, Dear Reader).
Whether or not the proposition of the first sentence above can be empirically proven as emergent behavior, rooted in biology, at the level of basic individual consciousness, I believe to be another matter. I’m not expecting the growing fields of neuroscience and evolutionary biology to answer all questions as to deepest human problems.
As to bearing the weight of faith, true-belief and social organization, (how to live, what to do), such fields as evolutionary biology and neuroscience seem woefully inadequate; subject to ad hoc departments of ethics and groupthink (enforcers of the emergent, and often ideologically rooted, norms).
I will say I think neuroscience may be analogous to where internal medicine was right before the x-ray. It’s going to do a lot of us, a lot of good, a lot of the time.
Furthermore, I’m also of the mind that wrestling with one’s own heart, and works of creative genius, is what a good humanities education was supposed to be doing before the field drifted into the postmodern morass.
A lot of good art, poetry and music can elevate our base impulses into appreciation of the beautiful, the good, and what’s true.
I also expect a lot of modern leadership to claim the arts and sciences as credentials, and reasons to trust their leadership, freezing-out political enemies. I’m looking at a lot of the new moralizing busybodies, nitwits and ad-hoc ethicisists with skepticism.
Endless pursuit of (S)elf, the individual isolated and alone, drifting along currents of Romantic–>Modern–>Postmodern conceptualizations, has made for a kind of mystic gnosticism. Modern, feelings-first primitivism is drifting fast into something like a new religion.
Additionally, something I’m calling Neo-Romantic Collectivism, or Romantic Primitivism, generally tends to drive much behavior I see in Seattle (as if you care and as if you were planning a move):
‘If we all give ourselves to collectivist principles by sticking it to the (M)an, everyone will be made equal. The trains and buses will run on time. Gaia will be happy.’
We already know the modern ideologies promise a new telos (end-point) to (M)an’s affairs, politicizing private life into the public sphere, often as a badge of righteous honor.
As Roger Scruton continually pointed out, a basic organizing principle of the ‘conserve first’ mindset, with all its drawbacks, brings more mid and long-term stability: ‘What if our existing institutions are already representations of who/what we are?’
I’m not sure having to pass through Schopenhauer’s looking-glass is necessary, nor on through Nietzsche’s Will-to-Power, but it helps understand where a lot of people are coming from.
Long-story short: There are many people pursuing something like tenets of faith, rule-following punishment, and a commitment to thoughtless conformity during these times.
But we pretty much already knew this to be true, if that opening statement is mostly true.
“For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies,” the program said in a statement on its website.‘
Some academics stood up to the administration and the decision:
The letter’s signatories include several of the university’s most respected academics, including Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent historian, Dr Michael Rosie, senior lecturer in sociology, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy, and Jonathan Hearn, professor of political and historical sociology.
During my humanities education, I developed an increasing suspicion of the postmodern rejection of tradition, rules, laws, rituals and beliefs, at least with regard to reading, writing and thinking. In engaging with some dull, and other absolutely mesmerizing, works of the creative imagination, I realized many of my own rituals and beliefs were being challenged. There are many experiences, and views, and ways to understand both myself and the world.
This is a good reason to get a good education!
It also slowly dawned on me that the lack of pedagogy, endless deconstructionist academic discussions, canon-less syllabi and increasing identitarian drift (is this person a professor because he/she’s the best poet/teacher or because he/she’s black/female or some mix of both?) were a problem.
A lot of this aimlessness and rebellion had ramped-up in the 1960’s, but since then, I’ve come to understand there are even deeper problems.
I aim to be open-minded, but not so much as to notice my brains falling out.
Interesting paper presented by Erika Kiss, beginning about minute 32:00 (the whole conference is likely worth your time for more knowledge on Oakeshott).
According to Kiss, Oakeshott’s non-teleological, non-purposive view of education is potentially a response to Friedrich Hayek, Martha Nussbaum, and Allan Bloom, in the sense that all of these thinkers posit some useful purpose or outcome in getting a liberal education.
Friedrich Hayek’s profound epistemological attack on rationalist thought is still a system itself, and attaches learning to market-based processes which eventually drive freedom and new thinking in universities. The two are mutually dependent to some extent.
Martha Nussbaum attaches liberal learning to ends such as making us ‘Aristotelian citizens of the world’, or better citizens in a democracy, which has struck me as incomplete at best.
Allan Bloom is profoundly influenced by Straussian neo-classicism, and wants love, classical learning, honor and duty to perhaps be those reasons why a young man or woman should read the classics. This, instead of crass commercialism, the influences of popular music, deconstructionism and logical positivism.
Via A Reader-Isaiah Berlin’s Lectures On The Roots Of Romanticism. Romanticism–>Modernism–>Postmodernism–>Wherever We’re Heading Now
Maybe it all started with Beethoven: Everyone’s a (S)elf.
Isaiah Berlin pretty much blackballed Roger Scruton, so it’s not all roses.
“The works of Shakespeare contain important knowledge. But it is not scientific knowledge, nor could it ever be built into a theory. It is knowledge of the human heart”
“…in the days when the humanities involved knowledge of classical languages and an acquaintance with German scholarship, there was no doubt that they required real mental discipline, even if their point could reasonably be doubted. But once subjects like English were admitted to a central place in the curriculum, the question of their validity became urgent. And then, in the wake of English came the pseudo-humanities—women’s studies, gay studies and the like—which were based on the assumption that, if English is a discipline, so too are they.”
“And since there is no cogent justification for women’s studies that does not dwell upon the subject’s ideological purpose, the entire curriculum in the humanities began to be seen in ideological terms.”
Terry Eagleton, British Marxist and professor in the humanities, debates Scruton below.
Will Marxism & continental philosophy become further guiding lights for the humanities here in America as we find much more so in Britain?
The nihilist claims are deeper than you may think, and the Nietzschean, and Will–>Will to Power German influence is also deeper than most people think; offering profound criticisms of the scientific project, liberalism, liberal institutions, and a secular humanism which is the air many folks breathe these days.
Here’s a somewhat similar vein of thought. From friesian.com:
Although Anglo-American philosophy tended to worship at the feet of science, the drift of academia to the left has led to characteristically totalitarian political attacks on science itself — this despite the leftist program to use “climate science” to impose a Sovietized command economy on energy and the tactic to smear climate skeptics, i.e. “Deniers,” through associaton with Creationism or Neo-Nazi Holocaust denial. None of that has stopped the “post-modern” move…’
The visual arts, painting and architecture are all areas where Spaniards thrive, and where much genius is funneled and compressed through the culture. Madrid’s also a governing city, with a certain staid heaviness found in such places.
Earthlings were visited, many times this past century, by beings from the planet Utopia. Little is known about these curious creatures, but they were advanced, and went about vigorously erecting structures across our planetary surface.
What were they trying to tell us?
Concrete, as a material, was used, presumably because it was so common and functioned as our ‘lingua franca’ (so hard to use well). Shapes were decided upon that might please and delight us (flowers, blocks, dodecahedrons), but also shapes that could disconsole, consigning some souls to work and live in an eternal present, possible futures winking upon the horizon.
Dear Reader, rumor has it these beings whispered in Esperanto, but only into the ears of those most ready to receive such comprehensive knowledge and advanced understanding; humans beings closer to knowledge of Universal Shapes and Human Destinies.
As posted, come to the University of Washington, where neo-Gothic meets brutalism. The Global People’s Revolutionary Movement is just around the corner within the Department of Studies’ Studies:
We should be comforted when corporate/bureaucratic art is bland, bad, and uncommunicative. After all, do you think you’d trust a bank more or less if it had a shocking modern/pop art sculpture in the lobby?
What about when their marketing team tells you how you should think, behave and act?
The attempt to seek collective purpose and postmodern meaning in modern art, music and even cartoons etc. is fast upon us. The flirtations with nihilism can encourage more desperate collectivist/ideological impulses to fill the void. The excesses are many.
As for a critique of Albany Plaza, another modernist/bureaucratic concrete wonderland, here’s Robert Hughes:
Arnhart is taking a closer look at Friedrich Nietzsche over a series of posts. Worth a read.
‘But despite the obvious brilliance of Nietzsche’s early and late writing, Lou shows that his middle writing has a scientific basis that makes it far more intellectually defensible than is the case for the other writing, which shows a delusional religious fantasy that has no grounding in reality and thus leads to the madness into which Nietzsche fell.’
‘The third insight is that the deepest motivation for Nietzsche was his religious longing, so that once he lost his childhood faith in the Christian God, he had to find a replacement for God that would give the world some eternal meaning; and he did this by divinizing himself as Dionysus and eternalizing human experience through eternal return’
Nietzsche’s project against Christianity was deeply personal.
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) tendencies: