“Studies in a Dying Culture”


by Ralph Dumain
“The escort service of the intellect”

Dedicated to Christopher Caudwell (1907-1937)
(Pseudonym of Christopher St. John Sprigg)
Martyr of the Spanish Civil War

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads
against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the
Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could,
forever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.

— William Blake, Preface to Milton


“Everybody wants to get into the act!” Even the culture of critique is overloaded, as the dumbing down of America gets more lowdown than anyone imagined possible, and American culture scrapes the dirt way below the bottom of the barrel. Yet no one manages to dig deep enough to undermine this process. The benumbed and demoralized general populace remains uncritical as ever, but what of critical culture? Can critique be reduced to an algorithm? Can critique mystify as well as reveal? Is it possible to escape being overwhelmed by the propaganda environment? How does one climb out from under layers piled upon ideological layers? How to think one’s way out of this morass? How to escape the confines of popular, middlebrow, and academic culture? How to avoid entrapment and stasis, and creatively surmount the limitations of the age? With these thoughts as well as reservations I approach the already bloated blog culture. This cultural crisis is not just a replay of the 1930s, but aside from taking note of discomfiting historical parallels, we can pay tribute to the courageous resistance of the past. Christopher Caudwell’s Studies in a Dying Culture (1938) and Further Studies in a Dying Culture (1949) were my inspiration when I first publicly spoke on this crisis in December 1988, a year that was a turning point for me. My framework has since grown more sophisticated, but the political decline of the USA has now reached crisis proportions. Hence again I borrow Caudwell’s title for my own. (RD—10 July 2006)


Murray Bookchin, Leading American Anarchist Intellectual, Dies

Rebecca Goldstein on the 350th Anniversary of the Excommunication of Baruch Spinoza

Anti-Nietzsche (5)

Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Jews (1):
Anti-Nietzsche (4)

Anti-Nietzsche (3):
Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism by Peter Sloterdijk

Anti-Nietzsche (2):
Bernard Reginster on Brian Leiter on Nietzsche

Anti-Nietzsche (1)

Critique of Critical Thinking (5):
Butterflies and Wheels

Critique of Critical Thinking (4):
The Critical Thinking Industry Continued

Critique of Critical Thinking (3):
The Critical Thinking Industry

Critique of Critical Thinking (2):
Critical Thinking vs. 'Skepticism'

Critique of Critical Thinking (1)

Philosophy's Future?

Jim Murray (April 10, 1949 - July 21, 2003 )
3rd anniversary of his death
In memoriam: Still in pain

Strong Men


Adorno's ‘True Thoughts’ & the Logic of Aphorisms (2)

Adorno's ‘True Thoughts’ & the Logic of Aphorisms (1)

My Yiddishe Spinoza

Rediscovering Isaac Rosenfeld

Borges (1):
“Borges, Politics and Ethics” lecture by Dr. Bruno Bosteels

On Aphorisms

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (4)

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (3)

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (2)

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)

C. Wright Mills on Intellectuals

Julien Benda's Treason of the Intellectuals

Bergson's Vitalism & French Philosophy

Nietzsche's Super-Laughter

Philosophical Portrait of a Dying Civilization


“I labour upwards into futurity.”
— William Blake?, 1796
[Keynes, 262]

31 July 2006

Murray Bookchin, Leading American Anarchist Intellectual, Dies

Murray Bookchin, Visionary Social Theorist, Dies At 85
by Brian Tokar
July 31, 2006

My one encounter with Bookchin was not pleasant, but I feel a loss—as are all endings, and this is another marker of the end of an era.

31 July 2006

Rebecca Goldstein on the 350th Anniversary of the Excommunication of Baruch Spinoza

July 29, 2006
The New York Times
Op-Ed Contributor
Reasonable Doubt

"THURSDAY marked the 350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised."

This is a cut above the average editorial—a ringing defense of the Enlightenment, connecting Spinoza to Locke and Jefferson, and implicitly indicting Baby Bush's faith-based reign of terror. Verdict: reason, NOT faith.

[—> My Yiddishe Spinoza]
[—> October Reading Review (1)]

31 July 2006

Anti-Nietzsche (5)

With considerable justification several scholars have attributed to Nietzsche an anti-politics. As countless commentators since World War II have pointed out, Nietzsche would never have supported anti-Semitic politics, the Nazi regime, or any such regime. His aristocratic individualism would have kept him away from any system of governance, which he would have felt beneath him. The Nazis for their part should not be judged competent readers of Nietzsche in spite of their obvious affinity for some of his thoughts.

Thus, the relationship between Nietzsche and reactionary politics demands a more sophisticated correlation. This is one reason I reference Raymond Williams' The Politics of Modernism. In any event, the 20th century was filled with avant-garde artists and thinkers sympathetic to fascism but who never would have been accepted into fascist circles due to the latter's conservative, philistine cultural tastes, which also figured into their manipulation of the masses. I believe the Italian Futurists were an exception; I don't know about others.

Similarly, the claim that Nietzsche represents the interests of monopoly capital in the age of imperialism requires refinement. To understand this properly, one needs to understand the historical position of Romantic anti-capitalism. This, however, is the province of disaffected petty bourgeois intellectuals, not of monopoly capitalists themselves. Lukàcs made this oversimplification in The Destruction of Reason. This is only a guess on my part, but I suspect that Lukàcs based himself based on the Comintern's self-serving theory of fascism as the organ of monopoly capital in its final dictatorial, terroristic phase. But in actual fact fascism in several countries did not originally issue from the existing state or big capital but from other disaffected social strata, and was a mass movement. Of course it became tied to monopoly capital as capital's means of ensuring its own survival and as an expression of its own corporatist tendencies, especially in rapidly industrializing nations. (I suppose that in Japan fascism just came from the top and was never a petty bourgeois mass movement, but I'm open to correction.) Romantic, quasi-religious, superstitious and anti-scientific tendencies are the ideological expressions either of the disgruntled petty bourgeois intelligentsia or of modernizing elites barely out of feudalism.

In general, disaffected artists and intellectuals smell which way the wind is blowing, regardless of their specific social ties, and the 19th century is already replete with examples of sensibilities and premonitions of developing trends. There is no unique starting point, but the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment and modernity beginning in the late 18th century reveals this development in embryonic form. It is interesting to watch these Romantic tendencies unfold with the historical developments of the 19th century. The citation of Engels on Carlyle in Landa's article helps to illuminate forces already in play. In philosophy, the birth of Dilthey's hermeneutics and Lebensphilosophie exemplify the widening split in the bourgeois mind. Already in 1851 Melville takes in all of these ideological contradictions in Moby Dick. Nietzsche, however, marks a historical turning point. Nietzsche's aversion to practical politics is well known; that makes him no less a forerunner of the reactionary trends of 20th century bourgeois thought. See Stuart Hughes' Consciousness and Society to see the rising tide of reactionary thought from the 1890s on.

Raymond Williams' The Politics of Modernism has only three passing references to Nietzsche, in connection with August Strindberg, who adored Nietzsche and who was also celebrated by the Stockholm Workers' Commune. Williams explains this complex conjunctural political affinity in chapter 3, "The Politics of the Avant-Garde." Both workers and modernist/avantgardeists had a common enemy in the philistine bourgeoisie, both factions expressing their wish to destroy the existing order from different vantage points. Here is a brief extract on the characterization of the concepts with which this avantgardeist hostility was expressed:

But it is not only that the enemies have changed, being identified now as those tendencies which had hitherto been recognized as liberating: political progress, sexual emancipation, the choice of peace against war. It is also that the old enemies have disappeared behind these; indeed it is the strong and the powerful who now carry the seeds of the future: 'Our evolution . . . wants to protect the strong against the weak species, and the current aggressiveness of women seems to me a symptom of the regress of the race.' The language is that of Social Darwinism, but we can distinguish its use among these radical artists from the relatively banal justifications of a new hard (lean) social order by the direct apologists of capitalism. What emerges in the arts is a 'cultural Darwinism', in which the strong and daring radical spirits are the true creativity of the race. Thus there is not only an assault on the weak—democrats, pacifists, women—but on the whole social and moral and religious order. The 'regress of the race' is attributed to Christianity, and Strindberg could hail Nietzsche as 'the prophet of the overthrow of Europe and Christiandom.' [p. 50]

Williams highlights the ambiguous loyalties of this conceptual language, perhaps clarifying how Nietzsche, acclaimed by many socialist intellectuals (but by workers?) could be assimilated by the Romantic left as well as right. This gives us a more elaborate picture of what's happening here, more complex, I would say, than Lukacs' condemnation of Nietzsche. The question then would be, is Landa missing out on something here?

Well, Nietzsche's contempt for the common herd doesn't seem to be supplemented by any social understanding of what makes the herd a herd, because he is completely lacking a social theory and has only his idealist genealogy and crackpot (non-racist) racialism to offer. His rage against the perceived mediocrity of the proletariat as well as the bourgeoisie (the two forming, perhaps, a social unity in his mind—Nietzsche as a non-dialectical, anti-marxist Marx?—an anti-Kautsky!) exemplifies a sensibility itself molded by a mystified relation to society. Nietzsche has a harsh view of his society—perhaps he is justified in it—he's got a bad attitude toward the poor and miserable, seeing them as the enemy; he even needs their mediocrity so his genius can stand out so much the more.

Indeed, it's easy to see how Nietzsche would have disdained being part of any political movement, even a right-wing one. His adoration of the Laws of Manu, his abstract glorification of coldness and war—his fantasy life—is rather aloof from any conception of organizing society in the modern world. His particular petty bourgeois fantasy is a prophetic one, not a political programme. But what is it prophetic of? Nietzsche has created all the elements of the new sensibility. All that is required is to connect it to a dissatisfied class that does want to seize power.

There is more to be said about the contemporary appeal of Nietzsche among the liberal and the leftish, fanning out from Nietzsche-based French poststructuralism. The French intellectual elite has a more obvious vested need to épater les bourgeois from deep inside its highly centralized cultural system. The self-cannibalization of cultural capital as a form of self-indulgent alienation will have a similar basis of appeal elsewhere, and will gather momentum in the academic brainwashing process. This extra layer of social mystification masks the severely regressive nature of this movement.

Why Marx and not Nietzsche? Marx early on had to grapple with the ontology of social being (his focus of interest being different from Engels' later dialectics of nature), but not for the purpose of doing traditional philosophy. There's a twofold perspective to be had here:

(1) Marx's "ontological" perspective is invested in a historically evolving metabolic interchange between humans and nature—not understandable purely physiologically —as compared to the static materialism of the French Enlightenment (or today's sociobiology, for that matter);

(2) Marx decidedly rejects the deduction of empirical realities from metaphysical constructs. And thus he doesn't do traditional "philosophy", or for that matter metaphysical anti-metaphysics á la Nietzsche and Heidegger. (Adorno already busted Heidegger in 1931.)

Thus Marx's approach to social theory is fundamentally different. This difference is so huge, and Marx towers so far above the rest, it is essential to get a panoramic view of how and why bourgeois ideology functions as it does, and why it cannot reconcile its romantic and positivistic tendencies in a non-mystified whole.

"The Intellectuals and the Workers" by Karl Kautsky (1903)
The "Intellectuals" and Party Principles by Karl Kautsky (1912)
The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict by Ann Robertson

[—> Anti-Nietzsche (6)]

30 July 2006

Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Jews (1):
Anti-Nietzsche (4)

Yovel, Yirmiahu. Dark Riddle: Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Jews. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

Apparently I never wrote the second half of this review, which would have been about Nietzsche. Note remarks on Hegel vs. Spinoza, the Enlightenment, and the problem of the volksgeist.

Written 14 August 2000:

Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Jews by Spinoza scholar Yirmiyahu Yovel is a book of great importance and multiple applicability. Although eschewing any pretence to grand conceptual generalization and limiting himself to the minutiae of intellectual history, he does throw out a general issue of great importance: while it is usually thought that Enlightenment rationalism is associated with cosmopolitanism and opposes parochial prejudices, and the irrationalist reaction is intimately tied to anti-Semitism, the cases of Hegel and Nietzsche refute such generalizations, for Nietzsche in the end becomes an advocate of the modern (not ancient) Jew, and Hegel never overcomes his youthful antipathy to the Jews but moreover views them as an historical fossil, just the opposite of Nietzsche. All the questions of the relation of Jews to modernity are implicated here, and I presume Yovel draws them out in the course of his book. We shall see. Before I started reading the first chapter, I immediately saw some important implications which Yovel himself may or may not recognize. Here my some of my thoughts before I read any further:

(1) Yovel does emphasize Hegel as a rationalizer of the basic world view that sees the telic progress of civilization as essentially European and Christian. This is the view of Geist, which I claim that Marx totally obliterated in his turn to historical materialism, regardless of any other residual West European prejudices he may have indulged from time to time. One could also immediately deduce why Nietzsche, as a cultural warrior in his campaign against Christian civilization, would want to reverse the usual order of values and support Jews as a modern cosmopolitan people against the established view of the evolved state of Christian civilization, Nietzsche's otherwise anti-democratic world-view notwithstanding.

(2) In any event, this immediately shows up a fundamental weakness of Hegel if he continues to look at the world in essentially mythic terms, rationalized or no, that only sees Jews as a heterogenous element in the grand march of European Christian civilization. This highlights what is most pernicious about geistig thinking. It is also what Marx opposed in his polemics on the Jewish question against Bruno Bauer, which is often accused of being an anti-Semitic tract, whereas in essence its purpose is to overthrow the whole mythological interpretation of the history of peoples, along the way opposing the inherently volksgeist tradition which Bauer (as an atheist theologian) inherited, which is fundamentally far more anti-Semitic in its implications than any cracks Marx ever made about Jews.

(3) Also, I've thought for a long time that the role of Jews in modern European thought is a far more serious indicator of European theoretical racism than the intellectual prejudices against Africans. For all the pathetic attempts by black bourgeois philosophers to discredit the entire Enlightenment by collating all the racist remarks made by Hegel, Hume, Kant, etc., I contend that the overall result of such effort is quite meagre in both extension and intension, and that the geographical and practical distance of most European philosophers from the slave trade (i.e. those who had no direct investment in justifying slavery) meant that their psychology and cultural habits were not as thoroughly and profoundly saturated with their racial prejudices against a distant continent as with the intensity and constancy with which they turned their energy against the Jews, a people living on their soil against whom their culture had cultivated a deep-seated animosity for a millennium or more, and whose mythology is deeply bound up with Christianity.

(4) I'm looking forward to Yovel's correlation of Hegel's anti-Jewish orientation with Hegel's opposition to Spinoza, which in se is inherently ambiguously motivated. One could say on the plus side that Hegel in recognizing historical development and substance as subject that Hegel places greater emphasis on the integrity of the individual than in Spinoza's seemingly impersonal and super-holistic system. On the other hand, some Marxist critics have favored Spinoza over Hegel on various grounds, among them that Spinoza has a utopian flavor that anticipates post-class society while Hegel's historicism concedes too much to the Machiavellianism and bloody hands of history. Perhaps even more significantly, one could show that Hegel's evaluation of Spinoza as opposed to his own system is seriously compromised by the implicitly mythological character of his philosophy of history. In other words, that Hegel does not deliver what he promises, and that Spinoza's "oriental" philosophy (as Hegel described it) undermines all the presumptions of Christian civilization, but not in a regressive, pre-individualist manner as Hegel pretends.

(5) Conclusion: Yovel's book could prove a crucial testing ground for uncovering the covert cultural dynamics of certain philosophical systems and their relation to social development.

I have just finished the chapter on Hegel's phenomenology. The book is proving to be invaluable though there is not yet a direct test of any of my larger hypotheses attempting to unravel the mythology of the geistig interpretation of cultural evolution, though there are some important clues to be found. But the book is priceless in showing how tightly Judaism and Christianity are tied together in the struggle of modernity and reason with religious tradition.

Before Hegel enters the picture, the stage is set with the complementary strategies of Spinoza and Mendelssohn, followed by Kant. One of Spinoza's innovations is to deny any metaphysical claims to Judaism and to intepret it as a strictly political religion. Spinoza is not concerned with the covert rational content of superstition. As an advocate of the secular state, Spinoza aims for a direct relation between the abstract citizen and the secular state, not to be mediated through the political rule of the religious corporation. Spinoza was after all excommunicated by the Jewish establishment. Mendelssohn's strategy is somewhat different. As an Enlightenment figure Mendelssohn has a stake in the rule of reason, so he interprets Judaism exclusively as concerned with moral law and commandments and not with beliefs and metaphysics. This is one way of defending the Enlightenment, preserving Judaism's role in an emancipated secular society, albeit a strategy poised on very thin ice.

The treatment of Kant is very interesting, esp. when the influence of his Jewish colleagues and his attitudes to Judaism are brought into account. There is an important distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that must be maintained, though the boundary is very fragile. Kant exemplifies this as his contempt for Judaism as a religion shades later in life into explicit anti-Semitic prejudices about the mentality and behavior of Jews as people, though Kant had close Jewish friends and colleagues. More important though is the relation of Kant's Enlightenment aversion to superstition and his conception of moral law as internal to his hatred of Judaism as strictly a religion of external moral compulsion.

There is another important factor. I can't recall what pertains to Kant and to Hegel but I believe it pertains to both as well as to a broader picture: all the very worst characteristics of Christianity are attributed to Judaism: the rule of external compulsion, intolerance, etc. If one accepts that such defects exist, there is only one remaining question: whether Judaism gets sole blame as the scapegoat for the sins of Christianity, or whether Christianity itself is ascribed its share of the blame. Catholicism is also a culprit in this picture. I guess there is some argument over Protestantism, in which at least the interiority of religious conviction comes to the fore whatever other defects remain. The only thing then left out of consideration then is the initial assumption: that because Judaism is a political religion founded upon external compulsion, that there is no remainder of authentic spiritual content within it.

Then the one remaining issue is the character of the Jewish people themselves, who embrace such a religion. So far there is no accounting for any discrepancy between official morality and real behavior and personal rationalization, which of course is where the thin line between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism vanishes. One must assume that geistig views of the world are the most prone to the occlusion of such distinctions.

Lessing's Nathan the Wise, inter alia an Enlightenment intervention against traditional anti-semitism, also enters the picture in terms of the negotiation between the morality of individual Jews and Christians and their collective moral record and proclaimed values. One curious consequence of the Enlightenment is that both Kant and Hegel have a means of despising Jews collectively while respecting some of them individually based on universal human characteristics.

There is so much to say about Hegel; it is difficult to remember it all, and I haven't even got through him yet. Important factors to remember: Hegel's aversion to the austerity, joylessness, and asocial character of Kant's conception of morality; Hegel's changing relationship to Christianity as a positive religion, and Hegel's historicist attempt to find a rational spiritual content to religion rather than dismissing it as superstition. Judaism comes off very poorly in this quest. The early Hegel denies any spiritual content whatever to Judaism; it drops out of spiritual world-historical development though paganism does not! The end of the Jewish state means the end of the development of the Jews in world history; they persist as a frozen and sterile culture as they survive beyond their time. Also very interesting is Hegel's account of the ancient Hebrews, whom he considers to be craven, unprincipled, and slavish. Only on one occasion does he give any credit for Jewish heroism.

Most fascinating is Yovel's treatment of the Phenomenology. The virtual silence about the Jews in this book speaks very loudly: the absence of Judaism from the evolution of spirit, the exclusion of the Jews from the master-slave dialectic, but also the covert presence of Judaism, for example, at the birth of Christ, central though non-spiritual in the birth-pangs of Christianity.

I probably forgot some things, and there remain a few chapters of the mature Hegel to cover, before the fascinating account of Nietzsche's anti-anti-semitism begins (that's right!). There is much to digest here. Clearly, the role of the Jews is absolutely central to any historical interpretation of Christian Europe's cultural self-conception. If culture or religion or volksgeist is the conceptual foundation of sociology and historiography, rather than historical materialism, then everything that happens within history must be filtered, from our secular perspective, through an essentially metaphorical screen. Herein lies the extreme danger of geistig explanations, which also implicit in what Althusser calls the expressive totality.

The relation of Hegel to the Enlightenment remains to be triangulated: does his treatment of religion and civilization represent progress, regress, or both? There is the ahistorical, abstract Enlightenment, and there is historicism and the attempt to penetrate the hidden truiths of the concrete. Which is more progressive? Doesn't it seem that, whatever additional sophistication historicism adds, that it is in fact dangerously illiberal? No, Hegel did not oppose Jewish emancipation, but isn't his fundamental world-picture far less liberating than that of Spinoza? An old cliché applies here: is it good for the Jews? And much more foundationally: doesn't the effect of philosophy on the Jews foretell its effect on all other peoples? There is a reason Louis Farrakhan and Pat Buchanan think about the Jews as they do, but the danger they pose is not to the Jews themselves but to their own people in the first case and to all American citizens in the second. Compare what abstract secular man did for the Jews to what the volksgeist did to them (and later to the Palestinians); then tell me where you stand.

While I never finished this review, I wrote a follow-up post the same day:

I believe the blurb on the back cover of Yovel's book paraphrases a statement made in the preface. But one cannot make do with such an incomplete statement without reading the body of conclusions Yovel draws from the Nietzsche case. All I have done is some random browsing. Yovel says something about Nietzsche's overall anti-democratic views and the overall uselessless of Nietzsche for any political position. He also suggests something about Nietzsche's uniqueness as a philosopher not to be understood in conventional terms. But this is not revealing much. I doubt very much though that Yovel is willing to reduce Nietzsche's significance to the question of whether he was good for the Jews . . . .

The decisive unasked question is not anti-semitism or philo-semitism, but the basis of either one. To curse the Jews for being money-hungry or to admire them for being so talented in business are in the end not antithetical positions, and neither is flattering. . . .

Which brings us to another problem of volksgeist thinking. It is not merely a question that ethnic metaphysics cannot account for individual variation; it cannot account for the infinite adaptability of any religious or metaphysical system to a seemingly limitless variety of interpretations, factions, temperaments, and contexts. Any ideological framework that is rich enough to bind the most diverse social forces together to create a common imaginative terrain must be rich enough in conceptual possibilities to suit every possible occasion, temperament, and facet of human existence. Hence one cannot necessarily predict the specific adaptation of religious ideology to an individual's personal metaphysics and value system just from a general interpretation applicable to a whole civilization. The idea of a one-to-one correspondence between a civilization and its religious superstructure remains tenable without extreme modification only so long as one's knowledge of human culture and world history is strictly constrained.

I am, generally speaking, anti-Nietzsche, and nothing is more loathesome or telling than the postmodernist adoration of Nietzsche. Nevertheless, Nietzsche was not a garden-variety irrationalist reactionary mediocrity. He was brilliantly perceptive up to a point, and then his materialist tendencies revert to ideology and subjectivism. But a chief failing rarely commented on is that he fails to advance beyond the prison of the ideological forms of appearance that kept the Young Hegelians from breaking through. The genealogy of morals is not historical materialism. It is an advance only in terms of breaking through one veil of ideological appearance, but sociologically, there is not the slightest advance beyond Bauer and Feuerbach, and politically, Nietzsche is already a regression from Bakunin. Nietzsche reamins limited to the geistig view of world history. Nietzsche's haughtiness is the apex of mediocrity itself. He is a wimp posing as a lion on paper and that is why the professors love him so. Nietzsche is an insignificant little piss-ant in the wake of William Blake.

[—> Anti-Nietzsche (5)]
[—> My Yiddishe Spinoza]

30 July 2006

Anti-Nietzsche (3):
Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism by Peter Sloterdijk

Written 1 Jan. 2001:

Sloterdijk, Peter. Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism; translation by Jamie Owen Daniel; foreword by Jochen Schulte-Sasse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

In the intellectual world, it seems that outside of every silver lining there’s a cloud. Or, for every promise contained in the work of an innovative thinker, there is always a containment strategy lurking within it to ensure that nothing useful ever comes of it. When Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason appeared in English translation, its basic concept inspired many more people than are normally concerned with trends in German philosophy. The essential insight of cynical reason as enlightened false consciousness was contained in the first dozen pages; one hardly needed to read the hundreds that followed, and those uninitiated into the ways of European intellectuals would likely have gotten lost anyway, perhaps misled as to Sloterdijk’s ultimate agenda. His huge preoccupation with the somatic should have been a tip-off that something was wrong, but alas, many of us were clueless as to how he would defuse the dynamite contained in his original insight.

This brings us to Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism. At the start Sloterdijk poses the question:

Has not the division of the labor of talent that characterizes our times led to the tendential opposition of the psychic attitudes that capacitate scientifically oriented knowledge to the expression of the self, while those that accommodate self-expression betray a propensity that is hostile to knowledge? [p. 12]

We shall see how Sloterdijk fails to resolve this dilemma. But Nietzsche, an intellectual centaur, breaches the gap between the scholar and the artist. Nietzsche defies the professional specialization of his time, resists the "intellectual division of labor" [pp. 12-13]

The bulk of the book is devoted to Nietzsche’s premiere work, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, and the struggle between two primary modes of being, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Nietzsche becomes the first philosopher-psychologist, and the path to knowledge given such radical duality is laden with self-doubt [pp. 31-32]. Nietzsche uncovers the compulsion to lie at the basis of the will that was heretofore alleged to be the will to truth [pp. 37-38].

If, however, truth is not something that can be sought, and if any search is defined for it in advance as terrifying, intellectual candor finds itself in a position it had not expected to be in. Truth no longer reveals itself—if it reveals itself at all—to the seeker and the researcher, who actually want to elude it, but instead to him who exhibits the deliberateness and courage required to not seek it." [p. 38]

Let us introduce one more ingredient before we regroup. Nietzsche is shown not to be a simple advocate of the Dionysian, for he remains true to his Apollonian tendencies. Sloterdijk delineates the relationship between the two tendencies in an illuminating manner, and this is probably the greatest strength of the book.

Let us pause here to consider what is encompassed by truth within or beyond the division of labor. The philosopher/scientist-artist who has rejected the narrow specialization of the scholar (Nietzsche was a philologist on the intellectual fringe), who has rejected the self-identity of philosophy (and by extension science) and hence its straightforward self-assertion as the quest for truth, unites the aesthetic, the somatic, and the psychological within himself, overthrowing the pretensions of the disembodied mind. Yet what can this type of synthesis—or even de-alienation if you will—yield in the modern world? The psychological, the personal, the somatic—the immediacy of the battle of these forces undergirding the operations of the intellect—yield an impressive drama, but is the enterprise of the philosopher-psychologist sufficiently encompassing in today’s world, or does its immediate physicality show it up to be another abstraction in the end? On the one hand there are the mechanisms of rationalization and self-deception, and on the other there are the objects of reflection. Considering the range of these objects, is it possible to reduce the matter to considerations of subjectivity without simultaneously engaging the objective world in all its dimensions?

In matters directly personal and political, the mandate of psychological projection and rationalization is not hard to ascertain for the philosopher-psychologist. The history of social theory, political theory, moral theory, religion and its theoretical dimension (theology) are all fitting subjects for such scrutiny, as the objects are just as much products of will and projection as are the subjects. Moving outward from the province of the directly human, we can see mechanisms of rationalization in the realm of metaphysics as a whole—in philosophical idealism. In the realm of the sciences, biology is most susceptible to political projection. Beyond that, what can be say about the will to deception or self-deception in the other realms of scientific endeavor—in chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics, or logic? The sociology of science has piled up reams of paper analyzing the imperatives of self-preservation in the organization of scientific research. Here one’s attachment to one’s pet theories may in the majority of cases in modern times not be ideologically characterizable with any greater definition other than to show how people are deeply attached to views of reality they already hold and/or have a material interest in perpetuating. Yet, the fundamental error—itself highly ideologically motivated—of a strong sociology of science that would reduce the question of objective truth to an issue of personal or social interest, treating all objects of human knowledge entirely externally, as if hundreds and thousands of years of engagement with the natural world and with the analysis of the nature of human cognition itself were merely an arbitrary and subjective affair, as if there were no natural constraints on this process, as if the objective did not worm its way as deeply into the subjective as vice versa.

How does this general concern over ideology relate specifically to the problem of Nietzsche? The engagement with the universe and the quest for truth encompass vast structures of the natural and social worlds. In modern times to reduce all this to a matter of individual psychology and to call this an overcoming of fragmentation and specialization: this is the rankest intellectual act of hypocritical philistinism imaginable, at the end of the day yet another abstraction external to the totality of the objective world, masquerading as something really concrete because the intellectual entitles himself to get hot and sweaty once again. Leaving Nietzsche to the side for the moment, we need to indict Peter Sloterdijk on just these grounds, for delimiting his universe in just this way.

A short memoir I wrote on 16 April 1995:

Well, today's visit to my local was not as inspiring as yesterday's, but I did get through all but the last couple pages of Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism by Peter Sloterdijk. What a writer.

Actually, another woman came in today and asked me what I was reading. Knowing her I knew she would be as complacently blase as ever, but I handed her the book so she could see it for herself. She turned it over and read the back cover, and then with that characteristic facial expression and "you couldn't possibly be interesting enough to make me think about something other than my nails" sigh, she asked: "And what do you intend to apply this to?" Caught somewhat off-guard, I hesitated and said, "Well, let me think about that." She asked, "Are you taking a course?" I replied: "No, I'm not taking a course." She passed the book back to me and resumed her characteristic self-satisfied blankness.

However, I was thinking: well, how am I going to apply this? I thought I knew why I picked it up, and what was on my mind when I started, not that I would want to bore the first person I saw with the esoteric, minute details. I picked up the book because of the e-mail interchange on Critique of Cynical Reason and I needed something short to read to fill some spare moments and I thought, why not see what else Sloterdijk has to say. When I started to read the book, I was struck by Sloterdijk's remark on Nietzsche and the division of labor. And as I progressed in my reading, just before she got on my nerves, I was really getting into the poetic brilliance of Nietzsche's expression of his ideas. And I realized that I was going to apply this book to myself as a writer. However crude, scatological, and autoerotic, my modus operandi has been to combine strong emotion and even theater of the absurd with the sober logical expression of concepts. It's in my nature. My exuberance of pleasure and pain, of ecstatic communion with the cosmos and snarling impatience with buttheads who have the nerve not to be on my wavelength, it's all got to come out. Reading about Nietzsche again after a hiatus of 15 years reminded me of why I was so inspired by him in the first place. This afternoon he reminded me of my own identity as a communicator.

For now just a few stylistic remarks on the book. Once in a while I become reminded of Sloterdijk's European landscape and neuroses and his preciosity, but most of the time I am stricken by the metaphorical and stylistic beauty and precision of his manner of expression as well as his thoughts. There are many memorable passages.

[—> Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Jews (1)]
[—> Anti-Nietzsche (2)]

30 July 2006

Anti-Nietzsche (2):
Bernard Reginster on Brian Leiter on Nietzsche

Reginster, Bernard. Review of Leiter, Brian, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality, Routledge, 2002. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2003.01.02.

Written 4 January 2004:

Judging from Bernard Reginster's review alone, Leiter seems to be colonizing irrationalism for positivist technocracy, rather than the reverse.

These two paragraphs esp. caught my eye:

The distinction, and the chief merit, of Leiter’s account is its emphasis on the naturalism of Nietzsche’s approach to morality. Leiter may not quite be the first to portray Nietzsche as a naturalist, but his characterization of Nietzschean naturalism in connection with morality is the most systematic and compelling to date. Chapter 1 carefully circumscribes Nietzsche’s naturalism, by way of some distinctions. According to Leiter, Nietzsche’s naturalism is primarily methodological—he believes that the methods of philosophy ought to be continuous with the methods and results of the empirical sciences—and qualifiedly substantive—he rejects any explanation in terms of non-natural causes (e.g., God), but, in contrast to many contemporary naturalists, he also opposes “materialism,” i.e. the reduction of all phenomena to physical phenomena.

In broad outline, Nietzsche’s naturalism implies that all human beliefs, values, and actions, including moral ones, can be explained by appealing to causal determinants in features of human nature. At the heart of this naturalistic account of morality, there is what Leiter calls the “doctrine of types,” according to which “each person has a fixed psycho-physical constitution, which defines him as a particular type of person” (p. 8). These type-facts, in combination with environmental factors, such as a prevalent moral culture, determine the actual trajectory of a person’s life.

Clearly the reviewer at least doesn't know what materialism is, and, furthermore, does not understand the nature of Nietzsche's biologism. But overall, there is something quite naive and stupid about all of this.

Addendum, 30 July 2006:

The dominant application of the philosophical term materialism in anglophone philosophy is restricted to the mind-body problem. Not only should this not be allowed to pass, but also the restrictive limitation of the term to a reductionist physicalism. Ontologically, naturalism is a highly ambiguous term, but if it means merely the abjuration of supernatural entities, causes, and explanations, Nietzsche could be classified thusly.

It is also suggested that such naturalism is automatically continuous with the empirical sciences, i.e. that the latter are seamlessly integrated, without distortion, into the former. However, this is not necessarily the case, especially given the history of social darwinism and racialist pseudo-science. A naturalistic or biologistic posture does not guarantee a liberation from metaphysics. There are now several books on Nietzsche's extensive interest in the sciences, and these as well as Nietzsche's philosophy of science should be closely analyzed. However, it is also the case that Nietzsche's naturalism is heavily saturated by his Romantic orientation, and thus mere rational calculation and empirical science would not agree with his overarching metaphysical perspective, and specifically, not with his nonsense about the Eternal Return. The gullibility and superficiality of American philosophers is truly remarkable, now that they are selectively admitting "Continental Philosophy" into their canon. Like all bourgeois philosophers, they really do not understand the mutual interdependence of positivism and Lebensphilsophie. It is not surprising, therefore, that these silly people could integrate Nietzsche so smoothly into positivist philosophy of science.

There are more damning considerations. The opportunism and intellectual dishonesty accompanying the integration of 'continental philosophy' into the American philosophical establishment necessarily involves the exclusion or distortion of Marx, who gives the lie to all these people stand for. The mere admission of a naturalistic perspective, or even materialistic perspective, if you will, does not even begin to imply an adequate basis for social theory, let alone the integration of social theory into natural science.

Coincidentally, in researching Bakunin, I just came across an essay that explains the issue brilliantly:

Ann Robertson, The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict
What's Next, December 2003.

[—> Anti-Nietzsche (3)]
[—> Anti-Nietzsche (1)]
[—> Philosophy's Future?]
[—> Brian Leiter, Nietzsche, and American Philosophy]

30 July 2006

Anti-Nietzsche (1)

Anti-Nietzsche Bibliography
(Or, Why Marx & Not Nietzsche)

This is a selected bibliography focusing on Nietzsche and his influence, race, fascism, and philosophy of science.

If this subject interests you, you really must get hold of this recent article:

Landa, Ishay. "Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion," Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 18, no. 4, 2005, pp. 461-499.

This has got to be one of the most important articles on Nietzsche I have read. The author's thesis is that Nietzsche's atheism is not only not similar to Marx's, but is its direct opposite. That is, Nietzsche's atheism was constructed in conscious opposition to socialism and egalitarianism and thus to Marxism. Atheism as such was not a novelty in Nietzsche's time. It was linked to humanism and it already had a role in demystifying and combatting the arrogated authority of the ruling classes. The minions of the ruling classes, e.g., John Henry Cardinal Newman, were quite anxious about this. The Death of God was the key issue for Nietzsche, in that the positive value of religion was its ability to sustain hierarchy, and what he most despised about Christianity was its egalitarian and democratic dimension, and thus the Death of God must be exploited as an occasion for the transvaluation of egalitarian values into a new apologia for hierarchy. God "humanized" the universe; but the pessimistic nihilism issuing from the Death of God issue in the frisson of coldness and heartlessness. How does the naturalization of humanity according to Nietzsche's prospectus differ from Marx's? Since the universe does not strive to imitate man, "humans should imitate the universe, bow before the indifference and absurdity of existence and rearrange their lives accordingly. . . .Thus, it does not suffice to affirm that the world is nonhuman; somehow we must all exult in this nonhumanity, come to applaud the magnificence of the void; we may even wish to consider a glorious plunge into its 'chaotic' depths." (472)

This is in direct opposition to the vision of socialist atheism. Above all, Nietzsche's Zarathustra dissociates himself from "these poisonous spiders"—the "preachers of equality." Socialists are excoriated as continuators of the Christian disease. (479-83)

To me this sounds akin to the Nazi Heidegger. Heidegger is not mentioned, but this peculiar 'naturalism' is linked to the Nazi desecularization and reenchantment of the world. (474) The view of nature as alien, hostile, pitiless, and meaningless is of course a staple of existentialism, and Marxists—Frederic Jameson is cited—have fooled themselves into thinking it compatible with Marxism, though it is in contradiction with Marx's conception of de-alienation (cf. 1844 mss). (475)

Since life is not about peace and self-preservation but war and conflict, the affirmation of life entails the affirmation of cruelty and death, and ultimately a "yes-saying to death," i.e. a death cult. This is one paradox of Nietzsche's Lebensphilosophie; another is the curious reification of life (apart from concrete lives) as an abstract force, linked to the Übermensch. (483-5)

The final section of the article is devoted to Marx's and Engels' refutation of the Ubermensch. Landa analyzes their critique of Eugene Sue's The Mysteries of Paris in The Holy Family. Religion is criticized as a dehumanizing and inegalitarian force. 'Good' and 'evil' are criticized as moralistic abstractions in contradistinction to the empirical experience of good and evil of the poor. The overcoming of moralism and metaphysics for Marx and Engels lead to conclusions diametrically opposed to Nietzsche's 'beyond good and evil'. Working class 'anthropomorphism' is an anticipatory manifestation of the drive to humanize the world, in opposition to Nietzsche's dehumanizing naturalization of the human.

Marx and Engels provide, in retrospect, only an indirect preemptory refutation of Nietzsche. But Engels' critique of Carlyle's aristocratic Romantic anti-capitalism cuts closer to the bone. Carlyle is remarkably observant of the realities of capitalist "progress", but from a mistaken metaphysical, moralistic and aristocratic perspective. Engels accepts Carlyle's empirical observations but directly attacks Carlyle's mysticism and all notions of the superhuman. On the contrary, for Engels "Man's own substance is far more splendid and sublime then the imaginary substance of any conceivable 'God'. . ." Engels also defends democracy, limited and transitory as it is, against Carlyle's anti-democratic perspective. In other words, to hell with irrationalism, pantheism, vitalism, and all the alternative mysticisms.

Landa concludes with the ironies of the ensuing century—secularism and religious revivals crossing back and forth between social classes and political loyalties, with both God and godlessness fighting on both sides, at various times. The ideology of contemporary society is ruled by a schizophrenic God.

References to note:

Engels, Frederick. "A review of Past and Present, by Thomas Carlyle, London, 1843." Written January 1844, published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844.

Gedö, András. "Why Marx or Nietzsche?", Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 11, no. 3, 1998, pp. 331-346.

[—> Anti-Nietzsche (2)]
[—> Nietzsche's Super-Laughter]

28 July 2006

Critique of Critical Thinking (5):
Butterflies and Wheels

I have remarked on the Butterflies and Wheels: Fighting Fashionable Nonsense web site in my essay Professional and Popular Philosophy: Online Debates, in my Emergence Blog, and in various communications, covering the time span 22 September 2003 to 17 March 2006. I'm going to cobble all these bits and pieces together, and hastily fuse them into a new piece. Let's hope they cohere reasonably.

The ability to apply critical philosophical thinking to the whole range of human experience, both in everyday life and in relation to the intellectual capital inherited from the past, would be most subversive. I have not found a single book that teaches anybody how to do this in a meaningful fashion. It's all shallow gimmickry at best, even the propaganda for critical thinking. For example, there is Critical Thinking on the Web, with an accompanying mail list, critical@yahoogroups.com, which is quite uncritical of much of the material it promotes.

There is the lack of a real vehicle for philosophical synthesis. The bourgeois marketplace of ideas affects the left press as well as mainstream Anglo-American publications such as Philosophy Now and The Philosopher's Magazine. Note also the bourgeois dualities and the one-sidedness of defenses of scientific rationality such as butterfliesandwheels.com, the Sokal affair, the sociobiology dispute, etc. Everything seems to be driven by the logic of the marketplace rather than by the need for synthesis. I don't keep up with the magazine Radical Philosophy, but I suppose the same problem must prevail there. How about the journal Historical Materialism? I cannot think of a single organ for philosophical synthesis.

The editor of The Philosopher's Magazine has a web site, Butterflies and Wheels, dedicated to the debunking of fashionable nonsense—postmodernism, New Age pabulum, occultism, antiscience, irrationalism of all kinds. This project is linked to a general orientation of secular humanism, atheism, and scientific rationalism. There is some terrific material on the site, but there is also the smug tone and sound bite mentality of this sort: they glibly dismiss 'fashionable nonsense' (including dialectical biology) without a deep critical understanding of what they either oppose or defend. The site is limited in that its war against irrationalism does not recognize any real problems with existing science or established institutions, and tends toward a certain smugness, not recognizing that bourgeois rationality and bourgeois irrationality comprise a unified system.

Looking at both sides of the science/culture wars, I couldn't but be struck by the futility of this dynamic. (There is, of course, an obvious parallel to the general naivete of the atheist/secular humanist movement in the anglophone world.) The defenders of science, including philosophers, are not always terribly sophisticated.

But worse, in an oversaturated propaganda environment, everything gets turned into a sales pitch. Critique becomes reduced to pop debunking. Ideas have become so cheap in our soundbite culture that rational discussion of any subject becomes impossible. While it is good to see a countermovement to the postmodernist dispensation, the soundbite techniques of advertising and propaganda are also prevalent in it. Jeremy Stangroom, an editor of this site and of The Philosopher's Magazine, has come out with a new book: The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense: A Guide for Edgy People. This, I suspect, goes beyond Sokal's original program, and furthers the tendency to reduce ideas in our society to sloganeering even as it purports to combat irrationalism.

The shallow, sound-bite approach is evident in Butterflies and Wheels' Fashionable Dictionary. The problem of backsliding into generalized propaganda in the manner of campaign slogans, advertising, flash and hype is ubiquitous. Escape from this situation is almost impossible. The campaign for rationalism adds to the superficial marketing and sloganeering of canned positions, without any real depth of social analysis. A sensationalist, propagandistic approach to "fashionable nonsense" only feeds into the dominant cultural vulgarity.

This fashionable dictionary is a perfect illustration of what I mean by the shallow, propagandistic, sound-bite approach, naively reproducing the technocratic-managerial mentality of the mainstream of the secular humanist movement, which, though superior to the irrationalist obscurantism it criticizes, is nonetheless ideological itself, and thus incapable of following through on truly critical thinking. Just look up the "definitions" of "dialectical biology" and "Marxism", and you will see how little thought there actually is here.

It is instructive to search for unwitting illustrations of the aggregative polarities and tendencies of bourgeois thought, in our discussion, the science vs. mumbo-jumbo camp in the Anglo-American world (of which the fraudulent dichotomy of analytical and continental philosophy is a manifestation). The defenders of science who oppose religion, postmodernism, etc., nonetheless have no problems with all kinds of pseudo-science that suits them. To take an example: they lump together dialectical biology (we'll set aside its possible deficiencies for later discussion) together with postmodernism and all other kinds of claptrap as 'fashionable nonsense'. Yet these opponents of religion and other irrationalisms proffer pseudoscientific piffle like memes and God genes. The Dawkinses of the world—quite eloquent in opposing religious nonsense—have no conception of social science.

A couple samples of Butterflies' offerings:

Higher Superstition Revisited: an interview with Norman Levitt

Misunderstanding Richard Dawkins

Here is a case in point of Stangroom's shallowness:

"There is Something Wrong With Humanism"

The reasoning behind this is shallow and idiotic. The author's specious reasoning is based on the ways the fact-value relation can go wrong in assessing scientific claims, i.e. that humanist values may pre-empt science, for example, when science shows us to be biologically more limited than our pretensions are willing to accept. In following such a line of argument, Stangroom unwittingly shows us what is really wrong with the humanist movement, i.e that it is dominated, apparently in the UK as in the USA, by managerial-technocratic types who can't see past their limited role in the social division of labor, and hence cannot perceive how limited bourgeois rationalism and irrationalism together form a social totality.

Luckily, this web site offers a rebuttal to Stangroom's piffle:

"There is Nothing Wrong With Humanism" by Kenan Malik

There is even more to be said about the social basis of these ideological conflicts. There are also implications for understanding the artificial boundaries enforced within the knowledge industry, for example between analytical and Continental philosophy, i.e. between scientism and the philosophy of the subject. But there are alternatives to both shallow Anglo-American empiricism and anti-scientific subjectivism. Let's end this digression here.

A phrase like 'fashionable nonsense' lacks the requisite dimension of sociological and ideological analysis combined with the history of ideas. The attribution of these postmodern tendencies to the 'academic left' is a misnomer; there's no such a thing. Postmodernism is what you get when you take the labor movement out of the picture. The only egalitarianism the pomos know is the diversification of elites, the cosmetic surgery of multiculturalism. Beyond this they are all bluff and show.

Personally I'm in favor of the scientists fighting back against the postmodernist SOBs. (You should have seen them howl then when Sokal exposed those wankers at Social Text). The issue comes down to the conceptions of scientificity and science that are being defended, whether the motives of the science defenders are questionably political or more 'innocent '. I think the question of where scientists go wrong on the big synthetic questions is also a subject for conceptual analysis.

Here liberal critique, which is not radical critique, must be criticized. Popperians for example are like little children who prattle on about falsifiability, testing, criticism, etc., but really have little to say about why things go as wrong as they do. Establishment science defenders, unable to address what the real free market is really about, are also naive about the 'free market of ideas'. Moreover, liberal scientists are incapable of advancing to the level of social theory and philosophy that would embrace and explain more phenomena than they are prepared to engage. This goes for the staunch defenders of evolutionary theory like Dawkins; it goes for the advocates of 'critical thinking'; it goes for butterfliesandwheels.com. They all are unprepared to recognize and address the ideological antinomies of bourgeois society. What they do is valuable, but it is not adequate to the situation.

I don't know what Sokal has to say about mystifications in his own field of expertise. physics. Politically, he is an avowed leftist. Most of those holding the fort for science against the forces of irrationalism—the atheists, secular humanists, "skeptics", Norman & Levitt, Dawkins, butterfliesandwheels.com, etc.—can only fight the rearguard position of defending the mainstream position without any serious grasp of ideology or social theory or the history of ideas to draw upon, and thus to some extent remain intellectually and politically helpless in the face of the right-wing onslaught. The universe of discourse is so restricted that certain deeper, more radical questions cannot be raised, even though the magnitude of the social crisis demands that they be raised. Liberalism is so weak, tenuous, and endangered that it can barely defend itself, let alone incorporate a more radical critique that would in fact explain and address its weakness.

Now if you know people trained in the natural sciences, as I do, you know they are not primed to think in certain terms—dialectical materialism, dialectics of any kind, critical theory, Western Marxism, etc.—you get the idea, I hope. This is foreign to the way they think, just as partisans of said intellectual streams are customarily incapable of engaging scientific matters credibly. Though I haven't read Sokal's book, I've read enough reviews of it to note the deep contempt the intellectually hip have for an intellectual hick like him. But it's also the case that a much greater scientific and political figure—Chomsky—is incapable of grappling with social theory. How does one propose to bridge the gap between the scientifically oriented among the left and those on the other—now misleadingly dubbed 'continental'—side of the intellectual divide?

The futility of the science wars, including the weaknesses of the scientific (and usually liberal) contingent of the 'two cultures' and the pseudo-radical, scientifically and philosophically incompetent and irresponsible (postmodern) social studies side, hit me when I was researching Paul Forman on the web. I was following links to and from Ivor Catt's highly eccentric website, where I found his piece:

Whig History of Science

I also had a somewhat troubling interchange with Chris Mooney, author of the superb new book The Republican War on Science, which also reminded me of the intellectually confining limitations of liberalism.

I'm all for united fronts, and I definitely believe in taking sides with liberal scientists to smash the irrationalist right and the postmodern liberal capitulators to it. (It would be a mistake to call these people the academic or any kind of left, because there is the only thing left about them is that they're what's left of liberalism without the labor movement.) But there is something naive in the merely liberal defense of science just as it is.

I have never given one inch in the defense of individualism, individual autonomy, and freedom of thought. These are virtual principles engendered by bourgeois society, but bourgeois society cannot and will not sustain them. They have rhetorical value in an allegedly "free society" like the USA that ritualistically must uphold them even while suppressing them—it's part of our folklore. But the relationship between these ideal values and the material conditions governing society has always been problematic, and liberal ideologues have never solved them; rather, they must gravitate toward idealism as an escape from the acknowledgement of social causality. Habermas never solved this problem. Popper was a second-rate propagandistic hack.

Liberalism cannot successfully defend liberal values, for nothing exists in a vacuum, not even intellectual independence, individualism, and the free play of ideas. At its best, liberalism is like virtual reality; at worst, it's a game of make-believe played by the professional upper middle class.

26 July 2006

Critique of Critical Thinking (4):
The Critical Thinking Industry Continued

On May 29 I received a couple of interesting responses to my previous intervention. One respondent quoted from the critical thinking literature:

Here's a sidelight from the leading college textbook on Critical Thinking (Thinking Critically by John Chaffee, published by Houghton Mifflin). [This] includes a major section on "Thinking Critically About Moral Judgements" . . .

After examining the usual proferred rationales which people give for the moral choices they make (Conscience, Scripture, Authority figures, greatest good of the greatest number, my own happiness, etc.), this book posits a "Thinker's Guide to Moral Decision-Making" for "constructing your own moral code."

The components of this Guide are:

  • Make morality a priority—by increasing AWARENESS of the moral choices you make every day.
  • Adopt an "ethic of justice"—by treating everyone equally.
  • Adopt an "ethic of care"—by nurturing your empathy.
  • Universalize your moral choices—à la Kant.
  • Treat people as Ends, not Means—ditto.
  • Accept responsibility for your moral choices.
  • Seek to promote human happiness—esp. in OTHERS, as well as yourself.
  • Develop an informed Moral Intuition.
  • Choose to be a Moral Person.

My response:

What does Chaffee advise the putatively moral person to do when he realizes that his society is organized to achieve precisely the opposite set of goals from those he counsels?

And furthermore, what does it mean to treat everyone equally?

The other respondent began as follows:

Yes, viz critical thinking for skepticism, since the latter seems to me a passive exercise in doubt which connotes nothing. On the other hand critical thinking itself begs the question. What are the values of the critical thinker. We naturally assume that critical thinking will be anchored in the values we treasure.

My response:

This is indeed the essential dilemma. What values are critical thinking rooted in? One might also ask, in what objective knowledge of the world, for the merely formal exercise of criticism lands us in the same boat as a priori skepticism.

However, I'm disappointed in the turn the argument takes [not quoted above]. While the thinking of CEOs, terrorists, and dictators may well be as much 'thinking' as anyone else's, by what definition does it qualify as critical thinking? Very few of such individuals can be said to engage in critical thinking. These are not good examples. One would do a better job were one to pick examples of terrorists and dictators that manifested in some respect critical thinking but not in others.

The Unabomber would be a good example. He was 'critical' enough to question some of the presumed values of his society, but not critical enough to put his conclusions together with any critical notion of social movements. Bred on lone hero cowboy films, vigilantes dispensing their own justice, etc., plus completely alienated from other people and thereby unable to imagine reaching them in any other way, the Unabomber apparently never heard of a social movement or collective political organization. He formulated a first thought in his head but not a second. The Unabomber is not terribly atypical; he's the quintessentially stupid American.

Partly critical dictators might include people with some ideas, however limited, of reorganizing society, such as Stalin or Mao. Second rank dictators and killers typically have no real ideas—Pinochet, Amin, the list is endless.

I also think that the formulation of putting aside one's "personal interest for the benefit of the whole" is based on false premises. No less than Karl Marx ridiculed that notion. "Informed self-interest" gets closer to the issue.

But returning to the main question, one can formulate abstract principles for critical thinking as for "open-mindedness". Paradoxically, it is impossible to act on them using some quasi-algorithmic procedure, for critical thinking is only critical with respect to some defined situation. There is no guarantee that advocates of critical thinking are in fact capable of exercising it when they need to. In such instances, 'critical thinking' becomes another ideology, unaware of the forces actually operating behind its back. Popper would be an example of this problem. But one could also, in philosophy, counterpose Spinoza to Descartes (and Kant, who of course comes later), or Marx to the Young Hegelians.

[—> continuation]

26 July 2006

Critique of Critical Thinking (3):
The Critical Thinking Industry

Written 27 May 2006, continuing a discussion.

Instead of "skepticism" I generally would use a term such as "critical thinking." The question then naturally arises: well, what does this imply in terms of the ability and desirability of doubt and affirmation about some subject at some given point in space and time? There is a whole literature and mini-industry on critical thinking which addresses its components and characteristics. See the links I've collected.

I would like to make a project of examining this literature across the board, in a critical fashion, to reveal the tacit assumptions, world views, ideologies, and commitments embedded in it, because I think that some of it is rather uncritical of ideas where it should be. But this is a basic and general problem with the liberal idea of 'open-mindedness': is there really any such thing, or is this too another ideological conception unconscious of its preconceptions? I don't think this issue has been adequately examined, and where it has been raised, its attempted resolution is not one I agree with, e.g.:

There is a fundamental tension at the heart of liberal theory, which ties in with the free will and determinism issue: is the autonomous individual a reality or a fiction? If a fiction now, can it become a reality in the future? If so, what conception of reality is needed to reconcile freedom and determinism in an intelligible fashion?

[—> continuation]

26 July 2006

Critique of Critical Thinking (2):
Critical Thinking vs. 'Skepticism'

Written 26 May 2006, as part of an online discussion I'll be excerpting in subsequent entries.

Philosophical skepticism—the doctrine of the impossibility of objective knowledge—is useless for ordinary skepticism, and historically, may even work against it. See Popkin's history of skepticism, also Max Horkheimer's essay on Montaigne.

Philosophically, skepticism should be seen, à la Hegel, as a moment in the quest for objective knowledge. The skeptical challenge propels us forward in the development of a more sophisticated philosophical position.

But I have a problem with "skepticism" as a synonym for critical thinking. Being "skeptical" in an abstract sense is meaningless; it all comes down to concrete cases. When you wonder if people can/should be 'skeptical' about their own positions, you really mean 'critical'. I really dislike the term 'skepticism' to denote a generalized philosophical position, including the investigation of paranormal claims. It's a confused concept.

I'd also advise seeing the excellent film Thank You for Smoking. The protagonist, a PR man for the tobacco industry, consistently uses skepticism as the primary tool of his BS. He teaches the technique to his son, who becomes quite adept as a sociopath. Another reason to be skeptical about 'skepticism'.

Furthermore, paranoia and conspiracy theory—skepticism become cynical and out of control—is historically a tool of the right, not the left. Occult conspiracies—Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, etc.—have an affinity with fascism. This is the reason that in a cynical age, paranoia rather than critical enquiry is injected into popular culture. TV shows such as the X Files, Dark Skies, etc., are part of the paranoid landscape and are essentially right-wing. They've never turned anyone into critical thinkers. Just the opposite, they soften people up for further manipulation. In explaining this to people while consuming alcohol (they, not I) I would say, "If you believe anything is possible, you'll believe anything."


Georg Lukacs on Irrationalism and Nazism: The Unity of Cynicism and Credulity

Cynicism & Conformity, by Max Horkheimer

[—> continuation]

26 July 2006

Critique of Critical Thinking (1)

I posed a series of cryptic questions in the introduction that tops this blog. Yes, even "critical thinking" can become an ideology. And now part of the critical thinking literature examines 'critical thinking' critically, attempting to transcend a formalist perspective. I shall review some of the alternative perspectives—some which are on the right track, some bankrupt (especially the feminist literature). The critical examination of critical thinking is one of the central intellectual issues of our time.

I'll begin with extracts and paraphrases of a communication I sent out on 15 March 2006, in response to a friend.

"Magritte said that one could not provide a valid explanation of something until one had explained that explanation."
                                                    — Bernard Noël

(1) Problems of infinite regress and so forth are endemic to philosophy, and there's a long history to them, but again, I don't find a formal logical approach particularly useful for our concerns.

(2) The questions and potential paradoxes of relativism, self-consciousness, and reflexivity also have a long history, often related to skepticism. The question of bias becomes more common in our time than in the past; we become more aware that we have biases without knowing what they are. As a result, many claim openmindedness as a principle. This may be better than the alternative, but I don't think such formal "openmindedness" ever makes anyone open-minded in a given practical situation. I will return to this point repeatedly.

(3) My most recent experience of liberal "openness" was in interaction with devotees of Karl Popper. Liberals turn out to be very slick at preaching about being open to criticism while remaining utterly clueless about their own presuppositions in practice. The liberal approach to critical thinking is not a radical approach. The formalism of liberal open-mindedness is the ideological correlate of the free market.

(4) The notion of reflexivity is very popular among the postmodern crowd, primarily due to the aftereffects of the cultural revolution of the '60s-'70s and the increasing abstractness of social existence. The literature comes from philosophy, the social sciences, social theory, cultural theory. Now does this generate a problem of infinite regress? Well, once you observe what the problem really is, you should realize it's not a formal problem, but a structural problem of ideology being ratcheted up several levels, i.e. new layers appearing, the more abstract social life becomes. The fact that millions of people can easily consume and understand a highly abstract cultural product like The Matrix—i.e. virtual reality—means that the masses have mastered what used to be avant-garde thinking, which is in actuality (i.e. real reality beneath ideology) rather trivial and childish. It is the specialty of critics and intellectuals to analyze this stuff, but even their analyses form new levels of ideology to be penetrated. Hence we are in a trickier situation now than in any time in history.

Some web pages of mine are relevant to these issues:

Reflexivity & Situatedness Study Guide (with side orders of slumming & liberal guilt)

This is my master guide to the whole problem. It points to other central themes, e.g.

Cynical Reason Today: A Selected Bibliography

Cultural Sophistication and Self-Reference on American Television: Seeds of Hope?

Ideology Study Guide

. . . . and to bibliographies on other sites.

While the theme of reflexivity is common today, my approach to the question is unique. Nobody else does what I do.

(5) Re the notion of "Indoctrination to Indoctrinate": two ideas have been proposed. I have already disposed of the formal problem, involving matters of infinite regress and formal open-mindedness, originally posed thusly: '"we become aware of the inescapable fact that we are 'Indoctrinates' investigating the 'Indoctrination' of other 'Indoctrinates'." Instead of treating this as a formal logical dilemma, I suggest there are specific current problems of critique itself becoming another ideological industry that requires yet another layer of mystification. This is unique to our time and may well correspond to its other distinguishing ideological feature, "cynical reason", defined thusly:

What Is Cynical Reason? Peter Sloterdijk Explains

(6) Addressing this question: "Elaboration on this subject, I believe, is of critical if we are to gain an insightful understanding, not only of the process by which individuals become indoctrinated, but how their initial indoctrination is key to further indoctrination." How we are initially indoctrinated, as we all are, sets us in a mindset that primes us for the next input of indoctrination. If we are indoctrinated to be receptive to indoctrination, as opposed say to resisting it (a paradox to be sure), then there may be a closed feedback loop as in the case of fundamentalism or other totalitarian ideologies. But if we were never comfortable in our initial indoctrination, and it was the wrong kind, then we may struggle with unease even if we haven't a clue as to how to get out of it. Either way the apple-cart may be overturned by catastrophic social or individual events that force us to change our assumptions. Or maybe not.

If you approach the question this way, then the initial indoctrination of both the uncritical and the critical individual are both subject to critical examination. Also, I see no infinite regress here, because once you question your questioning you have the whole dynamic in place. There is reflection on reflection, but an infinitely higher series of levels of reflection on reflection on reflection is qualitatively meaningless; it's just formalistic masturbation.

[—> continuation]

26 July 2006

Philosophy's Future?

The Future for Philosophy, edited by Brian Leiter. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Brian Leiter has become prominent in the world of professional philosophy (at least in this part of the world), not least of all for his ranking of graduate programs—The Philosophical Gourmet. See also the Leiter Reports blog. He has a special interest in Nietzsche. This anthology surveys perspectives in academic philosophy, according to Leiter and his contributors. I'm not terribly impressed. Some of the questions posed may be prominent academic questions, but not necessarily the most important questions that could be asked. What constitutes the cutting edge—other than in formal terms of what are the dominant trends in Leiter's corner of the world—is a debatable matter of perspective. Of course, now that "continental philosophy" is recognized along with the analytical philosophy that created this bogus category after repressing its subject matter, one might think the perspective given here is open, comprehensive, and universal. See the table of contents for yourself to get an overview.

Leiter himself is the only one in the volume to acknowledge Marx, in his essay "The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Recovering Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud." The title alone, inspired by Riceour, itself is enough to make one suspicious. Quoting someone else (Cohen?) to dismiss summarily any scientific claims for Marx, Leiter aims to rehabilitate Marx for moral theory. Though Leiter seems to be under attack by right-wingers, I am not terribly impressed by any great perspicuity on his part regarding Marx or even one of his specialties, Nietzsche.

This is hardly a reliable volume for those seeking philosophical synthesis, though undoubtedly one can pick up some of the scattered ingredients one needs.

For my purposes, the most immediately interesting contribution is "Philosophy and History in the History of Modern Philosophy" by Don Garrett (pp. 44-73). On this subject see also my Philosophy of History of Philosophy & Historiography of Philosophy: Selected Bibliography.

[—> Anti-Nietzsche (2)]
[—> Brian Leiter, Nietzsche, and American Philosophy]

21 July 2006

Jim Murray (April 10, 1949 - July 21, 2003 )
3rd anniversary of his death
In memoriam: Still in pain

I don't know what to say to commemorate this occasion. It's too painful to discuss. So for now, just a couple of links:

The C.L.R. James Institute: Jim Murray Memorial

Jim Murray Memorial Address by Ralph Dumain

And these are the gems of the Human Soul
The rubies & pearls of a lovesick eye
The countless gold of the akeing heart
The martyrs groan & the lovers sigh

— William Blake, The Mental Traveller

19 July 2006

Strong Men

"Strong Men" by Sterling A. Brown (published 1931, 1932)

I'm pretty sure I first encountered this poem during my teenage years. As I recall, the standard anthologies of black literature then were Black Voices and Dark Symphony. Some of this material was fairly current circa 1968; probably the bulk was older. The black power movement propelled a tendency toward ideological posturing and bad poetry to the forefront. I was much more responsive to older stuff. Among the limited number of writers I was exposed to (or exposed myself to, as my exposure in high school was severely limited, and then mostly to aforementioned posturing), the writers (among those few I recall) impressing me the most were Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry . . . and, for some reason, this poem by Sterling A. Brown stuck in my mind. I doubt I even paid much attention to the details, but the general concept imprinted itself on me—the feeling of a gathering historical momentum building up to an imminent climax. I thought the idea was brilliant.

As a teenager in the '60s, I could have not been more clueless, but luckily I have learned a few things in the past three and a half decades.

One association I made a few years back when this poem popped into my head was with Hegel's master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Mind. In the historical process, the slave/bondsman/serf, while initially at a disadvantage after being subjugated, gains strength through his rootedness in the objective world and his mastery of natural processes through labor, while the master/lord becomes more dependent, and eventually a critical point is reached when the balance of power is reversed. This poem to me exemplifies that principle.

In thinking this, I was still going on vague memories. Re-reading this poem now, I see much more. I never paid attention to the date of publication. Considering that this poem was published as early as 1931, its perspective and militancy are remarkable. This date follows the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance and the Garvey movement, and stands poised just as the labor radicalism of the 1930s is beginning to take shape, and a decade prior to the March on Washington Movement, and then the Detroit and Harlem riots of 1943, and the modern (1950s+) Civil Rights Movement known to us today.

This poem is structured as an historical abstract, first, of the social forces pressing down upon black Americans through the course of American history, and secondly, their response in song, suggesting their mood and bearing in response to their situation. The recurrent refrain "The strong men keep a-comin’ on / The strong men git stronger" insinuates subterranean energies stirring beneath their cultural expression even in its least overtly political manifestations, signaling a social counterforce that will someday bust loose. Whether Brown's approach was rare or commonplace in his time, I can't tell you, but from today's vantage point, I find it remarkable. C.L.R. James made a comparable prophetic observation in 1948, which readers now still find striking. Such a perspective is now commonplace in what is called Cultural Studies, and here we find it already in 1931! So returning to my youth as well as to the American past, I come full circle. Revisiting our past, we find new things in it.

17 July 2006


Where then, lies the duty of surrationalism? It is to take over those formulas, well purged and economically ordered by the logicians, and recharge them psychologically, put them back into motion and into life . . . In teaching a revolution of reason, one would multiply the reasons for spiritual revolutions.

Gaston Bachelard

Only the beginning of the 1990s did I discover the article from which this quote originates. Many of my youthful interests went into hibernation in my adult life. As I explain in my epistle, "Surrationally Yours", I first came upon Bachelard and surrationalism in my teenage years, almost certainly from this book which I found in the public library when I took up an interest in surrealism:

Caws, Mary Ann. Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.

Caws' point of reference is Bachelard's book The Philosophy of No. Perhaps I looked at the book then; it is rather scarce now, especially if one wants to buy a copy.

There is little else on the web that I can find.

A French Popper destroyed by sorbonnism?
Note cites from The Philosophy of No.

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, Translated from the French by Maria Jolas
Reviewed by Joan Ockman
Representations/Misrepresentations Number 6, Fall 1998

Other uses of the word:

The surrealist painter Victor Brauner is said to have authored an article using this word in 1924.

Scott Mutter: A More Perfect World

Years ago, I bought a calendar, I think, of "Surrational Images." Maybe this is the same guy? This fellow authored a book called Surrational Images. The same person, I suppose? Did he get the word or concept from Bachelard?

The term "surrationalism" has also been used in architecture. For example, Hans Ulrich Öbrist deploys the term. See also the book Surrealism and Architecture.

Back to the philosophers. Information on Bachelard is more plentiful, in English and French. You could begin with the Wikipedia entry in English, but see also the French version for links. The usual online reference sources seem to underrepresent Bachelard. If you read French, the place to go for information is:

Bienvenue sur www.gastonbachelard.org, site de l'Association des Amis de Gaston Bachelard

There are scarce references to surrationalism here, mostly bibliographical.

An interesting educational application of Bachelard's philosophy of science:

An explanatory model for conceptual development during A-level chemistry (1999) by Keith S. Taber

17 July 2006

Adorno's ‘True Thoughts’ & the Logic of Aphorisms (2)

Continuing from the previous entry:

True thoughts are those alone which do not understand themselves.
(Jephcott translation)

The only true thoughts are those, which do not understand themselves.’
(Redmond translation)

Aphorisms that contain paradoxes are some of the most striking. How would one translate statements like these from ordinary language into logical expressions? Is it possible? And proceeeding in the reverse direction: could it ever be possible to generate thoughts like these from a basis in logic?

People generate meaningful though non-obvious statements all the time. Should these be viewed by logic-worshippers (like the old logical positivists) as meaningless, or non-cognitive (as they claimed poetry to be)?

The first observation to be made here is that the underlying logic of this statement (and others of this nature) is complex, and covert. Two ways of logically unpacking it and describing its meaning are: (1) hermeneutics or literary interpretation/criticism, (2) translation into formal logic. The relation between (1) and (2) is not entirely clear. Some low-level interpretation is necessary simply to get this expression into elementary logical shape.

A mathematician and I did this as an exercise two days ago, but with a difference, as I had I misremembered the aphorism as 'great thoughts' instead of 'true thoughts'—I don't know whether this made the task easier or harder or less insulting to logic. The attempt was made on as simple-minded an interpretation as possible. The most formidable semantic obstacle is: how can a thought understand itself, since people are the ones who understand as well as generate thoughts? So our universe of discourse was people and thoughts, and the predications or functions included thinking, (fully) understanding, and because I had misremembered the quote, greatness. A further assumption was that person x who thinks the thought is the same one who does/does not understand it. Another assumption was to ignore the problem of degree (though it may be more than that) represented by the word fully. So the logical formula generated came to something like this: For all x: there is a person x and there is a thought y and thought y is such-and-such and x thinks y, and if all these conditions hold, then x does not understand y. This is a godawful mess. I'm not sure what this says, but I think it asserts that if people generate great (or true) thoughts, they don't understand them. I don't know how the logical formula holds up syntactically, but semantically, it's pretty much nonsense, if one assumes that people have to understand what they think and then assert, or they couldn't generate anything that made sense, let alone that was true or outstanding. If thay did so, then the fact that they are people and that they think is rendered superfluous. (Why not a computer program functioning automatically? But then a computer, let us assume, neither thinks nor understands, though it functions according to logic.)

This problem does not seem to me essentially the same problem you get from vagueness or poetic symbolism. It is true that metaphor is involved and that expressions like these cannot be taken literally. But there is logic mixed in with metaphor and double meaning. At issue in this case is the nature of thinking, understanding, and interpretation. I'm not sure that an identity or differentiation between the generator and recipient of the thought is decisive. Perhaps this is why Adorno referred to thoughts as not understanding themselves, even though thoughts don't think. Furthermore, as I introduced interpretation into the universe of discourse, I have to relate the two concepts understanding and interpretation. Understanding is not an either/or proposition, but grows with an increasing depth of interpretation. This process, according to the aphorism, is determined by the properties of the thought, not only that, but by the truth value of the thought, wherein truth is not simply a matter of assigning a truth value (T, F, or even the spread of truth values one gets via fuzzy logic) to an expression. Depth implies layers of meaning, perhaps navigation of multiple frameworks.

I don't know how the apparatus of formal logic can handle this. I attempted to unpack the aphorism using an informal logical process as well as semantic interpretation, but note the primacy of semantics in this exercise. Though the notion of thoughts understanding themselves cannot be taken literally, it's not quite poetic symbolism either. And while the notions, thought, thinking, understanding, interpretation, and depth are not precisely defined, is the problem simply one of vagueness or polysemy? I think it is something else. Once we get to this point of unpacking the aphorism, we have an intuitive grasp of what is being said, or we have made more explicit the intuitive grasp we had in the beginning. We have thought this through with informal logic up to this point. Perhaps you can take it farther, but I doubt we can think these thoughts in formal logic. I also wonder about the extent to which logicians and mathematicians can decipher the meanings of statements made in natural language. The larger question, is: do they—and can they—apply their norms of logical rigor to the affairs of personal and social life, and with what degree of perspicacity?

Logic as a discipline arose via abstraction from actual arguments to the delineation of their formal properties, divested of content. While ontology got mixed into it—or was never separated from it—by philosophers, one could at least view logic as the science of pure inference. But at this point the relation of its formal apparatus to empirical reality is not so straightforward, for the actual meanings of terms and their conceptual structure, overt or covert, are decisive for their validity as inputs to the logic processing machine. Logic really had nothing to offer to the scientific revolution, nor did it comfortably co-exist with the new mathematics—calculus or analysis—for a couple of centuries. A number of developments in mathematics and logic came together in the late 19th century to usher in a whole new era. The philosophy of language took off as well. One should not forget the development of linguistics as a science, which underwent two major revolutions—structuralism early in the 20th century, and the Chomskyan revolution publicly inaugurated in 1957. How all this fits together today I cannot tell you, but I'm betting that the fundamental problem I outlined remains. What if there remains an unreconciled duality in our thought, and the perfection of logic is comcomitant with the perfection of alienation?

17 July 2006

Adorno's ‘True Thoughts’ & the Logic of Aphorisms (1)

Following up on my recent entry on aphorisms . . . A great master of the philosophical aphorism is Theodor W. Adorno. He may be most widely known for his famous phrase (often misquoted and almost always out-of-context) ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’. Several of his works are eminently quotable, but he wrote a brilliant book consisting almost entirely of aphorisms. The standard English translation is:

Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1974. (in German, 1951)

Here are some quotes from it:

Quotes: Theodor W. Adorno

There is also a different, online translation:

Minima Moralia, translation by Dennis Redmond (2005)

Section 122 is subtitled Monograms. Someone made a slide show of sorts out of it:

Minima Moralia: No. 122 Monograms

This is one of the aphorisms. In Jephcott’s translation:

True thoughts are those alone which do not understand themselves.

Redmond renders it:

The only true thoughts are those, which do not understand themselves.’

I wrote this commentary on 18 Dec 1999:

I take Adorno's statement to mean that writers who formulate great truths or profound models of social reality objectively say more than they can possibly intend or be conscious of; later generations may see implications that the actual creator of the “true thought”could never have anticipated, hence the thoughts unintentionally say things beyond which they were consciously willed to say. The delicious irony of this aphorism is that any truth that totally understood itself would be trivial, which contravenes the full self-consciousness one ordinarily expects of truth, and the paradox of a great thought is that it seems to be inexhaustible and uncontainable; understanding can always improve and enrich the truth content of the true thought, but that the thought cannot initially fully comprehend all its implications or contain its future interpretations.

[—> continuation]

15 July 2006

My Yiddishe Spinoza

Reviews of books on Spinoza in The Forward (formerly The Jewish Daily Forward):

Spinoza: Hero, Infidel, Celebrity
by Daniel B. Schwartz
June 30, 2006
review of: Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein

An excellent review! I only skimmed the first 130 pages of the book. This review summarizes it well. Haven't gotten to the punchline, i.e. Goldstein's actual interpretation of Spinoza. The reviewer tells us we are in for a disappointment.

The Essential Louis Zukofsky
by David Kaufmann
April 7, 2006
review of: Selected Poems by Louis Zukofsky, edited by Charles Bernstein

I have not read a single word of Zukofsky, but after reading this review, I've got a hard-on for him. Anyone who would write a rebuttal of that fascist douchebag T.S. Eliot has got something going for him. (So different an approach from CLR James, a veddy British Trinidadian who preferred the dry-wit rebuttal of Eliot.) I like Zukofsky's overall attitude.

Oh, on Spinoza:

In the epic, 24-part collage poem (titled "A") that occupied him for most of his adult life, he includes other translations from Yehoash, renderings of the Bible and long quotations from Martin Buber's accounts of the Hasids. (To be fair, though, he also finds a place for almost everything else under the sun — from Arapahoe chants and books on physics to direct quotations from Baruch Spinoza, as well as a retelling of "The Epic of Gilgamesh.")

Who knew?

. . .and Muse
by Joshua Cohen
June 30, 2006
review of: Conversation With Spinoza: A Cobweb Novel by Goce Smilevski, translated by Filip Korzenski

This novel looks intriguing. But almost as intriguing are the reviewer's comments about Spinoza's current popularity—a popularity I sense exists but can't prove:

A few centuries too late, it seems that Spinoza's time has finally come. In a world in which many Jews are yet again attempting to assert a secular identity as the dialectic antipode of extremism, Spinoza has been credited lately as the first secularite, as the founder of Modern Jewry, identifier of its humanitarian agenda and prophet of the existential crises that follow the philosophical limitation of God's meddling within the mundanity of His creation. As unwitting subject or spokesperson, Spinoza is especially attractive to American Jewry because he seems to us a rebel, the Enlightenment equivalent of a bar mitzvah boy gone bad.


I suspect that the current Spinoza obsession in America has much to do with our need to justify our secularism, in substantiating it as not just a modern dereliction but as an actual European creed, with history behind it, the bona fide of ages of thought on the nature of man's relationship with God.

Could it be?

[—> Rebecca Goldstein on the 350th Anniversary of the Excommunication of Baruch Spinoza]
[—> Constantin Brunner (1)]
[—> October Reading Review (1)]

15 July 2006

Rediscovering Isaac Rosenfeld

Check out this article by Benjamin Balint in the July 14, 2006 issue of the Jewish Daily Forward. It's the 50th anniversary of his death.

I first discovered Rosenfeld upon reading Alan Wald's The New York Intellectuals. I subsequently read a non-fiction book by Rosenfeld, don't remember which. Most of the New York intellectuals didn't do much for me, but I was intrigued by Rosenfeld. Glad to know he is remembered. Sometimes we need to regroup.

15 July 2006

Borges, Politics and Ethics, lecture by Dr. Bruno Bosteels

I attended this remarkable lecture on 13 July and will report at length. And now I am inspired to pursue my thoughts on the implications of Borges' idealism, not only my old thoughts of decades ago, but brand new ones.

"Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger." — Jorge Luis Borges, "Borges and I"

For the reading list, add the short story "The Congress" from The Book of Sand.

Here is a list of relevant links.


Bon Voyage, Aisha!

[—> Borges Revisited (2)]

14 July 2006

On Aphorisms

The World in a Phrase: A History of Aphorisms by James Geary (2005)

This is a terrific topic. The amazon.com reviews describe the contents pretty well. The most interesting chapter is on heretics. The quotable quoted include Spinoza and Blake, and naturally Nietzsche. There is a brief mention of Bob Dylan. No Adorno, though.

[—> continuation]

13 July 2006

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (4)

Contemporary Chinese Philosophy, edited by Chung-Ying Cheng and Nicholas Bunnin. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Click on the link above to find my amazon.com review, which condenses my commentary here.

13 July 2006

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (3)

Contemporary Chinese Philosophy, edited by Chung-Ying Cheng and Nicholas Bunnin. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

The 2nd installment outlined the generic problems in dealing with Asian philosophies and specifically with Chinese philosophy, while the 1st reviewed my relevant intellectual encounters of the past few years. Perusing the book now under review yielded a number of these same complaints. For reference, consult the book's table of contents as you read what follows.

Apart from the introductory and concluding essays, the contents are organized according to these broad periods and categories:

Part I: Pioneering New Thought from the West
Part II: Philosophizing in the Neo-Confucian Spirit
Part III: Ideological Exposure to Dialectical Materialism
Part IV: Later Development of New Neo-Confucianism

Of these, the categories named by parts II and IV are bound to create the greatest irritations.

The co-editor Nicholas Bunnin in his Introduction indicates two categories of excluded philosophers:

(1) lesser though better-known philosophers, mainly Mao;
(2) Chinese philosophers whose work fits entirely into the category of Western philosophy, e.g. philosophy of science (including the dialectics of nature).

Dammit! It's this second category that most interests me. And already we see dishonesty at work. Or am I wrong? An excuse could be made for inclusion/exclusion selecting works representative of "Chinese Philosophy" either in a statistical sense, or in the sense of dominant schools of thought within said national/linguistic entity, or perhaps of the most distinctive contributions. Compare to what one might include under French, British, or American Philosophy, or some other national, regional, ethnic, or linguistic entity in the past or present. This might still be a dangerous game, but let's grant some latitude for the sake of argument. The problem is that there is a presumption not just of philosophical schools but of civilization and cultural tradition that from the start distorts the project and the generalizations to be made. Why could not not-distinctively-Chinese work in philosophy of science yet constitute a distinctive contribution to the field?

Now I will single out a few essays of interest.

8. Feng Youlan's New Principle Learning and His Histories of Chinese Philosophy: Lauren Pfister.

Feng is of pivotal importance, also for his role in the anglophone world. Note his Marxist turn with the establishment of the People's Republic, the Hegelian influence and applications of historical materialism.

9. He Lin's Sinification of Idealism: Jiwei Ci.

Note his incorporation of Hegelian idealism into the Confucian revival.

Part III: Ideological Exposure to Dialectical Materialism:

Chapters 10-12. The editors picked out what they considered to be the most creative (and presuambly most "Chinese") adapatations of Marxist philosophy.

10. Feng Qi's Ameliorism: Between Relativism and Absolutism: Huang Yong.

Wisdom: the transition, knowledge —> wisdom, is a leap, effected by intellectual intuition.

Dialectical logic: theory —> method. Dialectic between:
   analytic & synthetic methods,
   knowledge & practice,
   logical & historical methods,
   disagreement & agreement.

Freedom: theory —> virtue. Principles of:
   being self-conscious,
   being voluntary,
   being natural
   individual self.

Feng Qi criticized Confucianism and Chinese communism for ignoring the individual (p. 230).

11. Zhang Dainian: Creative Synthesis and Chinese Philosophy: Cheng Lian.

12. Li Zehou: Chinese Aesthetics from a Post-Marxist and Confucian Perspective: John Zijiang Ding.

Kantian subjectivity & post-Marxian anthropological ontology
Heidegger, Wittgenstein, & Foucault
future of philosophy
"the fourth outline of human subjectivity"

I did not take better notes that these on these chapters. But let us proceed to the Afterwords section to see what more we can learn of the editors' perspective.

Recent Trends in Chinese Philosophy in China and the West: Chung-ying Cheng.

While there was early discussion of Chinese philosophy in the West when it was first discovered there, there was an absence of conversation until Russell and Dewey came along, and then there was a tendency for the Chinese to reject tradition in the quest of modernization. Important figures mentioned are Wing-tsit Chan, Chung-ying Chen, Antonio Cua, Fu Weitun[?], Liu Shuxian, Tang Liquan, Qin Jiayi, Du Weiming.

An Onto-Hermeneutic Interpretation of Twentieth-Century Chinese Philosophy: Identity and Vision: Chung-ying Cheng.

The challenge of the West to Chinese tradition —> logic, science, analysis, identity issues. Cheng outlines 5 stages of Chinese philosophy's modern development, 4 of which are covered in this anthology. There remains a 5th stage to discuss:

Stage 5: Reinterpreting Chinese and Western philosophies (1960s-present)

Cheng provides his explanation of the transition from Confucianism to Marxism (and susbsequent fusions)—both stem from social and ethical needs, and the latter could be considered an adaptation of common needs to new conditions. Western philosophy challenged Chinese tradition based on the organic unity of substance and function. Considerations proceed under these headings: horizon, method, truth, creativity, applications.

Cheng summarizes current issues:

(1) I Ching — issue of change
(2) human person
(3) moral metaphysics
(4) nonseparation of method & truth (traditional philosophy was methodologically underdeveloped)
(5) science & scientific methodology — problem for holism
(6) undeveloped political philosophy

Perspectives for the future: Traditions work like scientific theories (cf. Quine's holism) in the process of a dialogue of civilizations.

I consider the last word of the book to sum up its bankruptcy. It's all about the artificial packaging of a tradition, based on dubious metaphysics and premises. I find this as rotten and ultimately uninteresting as what I found in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy. It turns out to be another aspect of the globalization scam. One would be well-advised to turn elsewhere for intellectual synthesis.

13 July 2006

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (2)

In my previous entry I summarized my reactions over the past few years. Before I launch into the book under consideration, I want to make a few more general comments.

Before the advent of the postmodern dispensation, amongst the general public and also in scholarly circles the most common theme was "the meeting of East and West." For Westerners, the alternative to the mere escapism from modern (Western) civilization was the notion of the complementarity of East and West. This of course is predicated on a view of the essential characteristics of both civilizations/ways of life/philosophies and their histories, and implies an interpretation of society and history.

This is, however, a conception that excludes (aside from the sordid realities of "Eastern" civilizations) imperialism from history, and Marxism from philosophy and historical-social interpretation. The exclusion is total and necessary to maintain the framework of "East" and "West" and the possible "meanings" of each. There is also a history of how these notions of "East" and "West" were created as well as the ideological negotiations involving both parties.

There are also watershed historical moments in the alleged pursuit of intercultural understanding. One such was the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Another important moment was the Universal Races Congress of 1911. A significant lapse in these various gestures towards international understanding and mutual respect is absence of imperialism from the dialogue. What we now call 'cultural imperialism' would be a theme for discussion, but real, material, honest-to-god imperialism, no—that is the elephant in the room. This also means: on all sides, whose interests, whose world views, whose interpretations of history and society enter into the conversation?

Marxism, excluded from the "meeting of East and West," has a whole different history. In the colonial and underdeveloped world, it was inextricably tied to problems of modernization and the overcoming of tradition, with a perspective on history and society not based on "culture" or "civilization" as the foundational explanatory category. Even with nationalistic undertones where Marxism took root, or under the crude iron heel of the Stalin era and the Maoist Cultural Revolution, Marxism's theoretical and ideological stance incorporating notions of universalism, scientificity, historical materialism, class struggle, and historical progress effected a different interpretation of history and cultural traditions. Even in their crudest, most schematic, propagandistic form, Marxist approaches to philosophy in the West were the least Eurocentric, without romanticizing Eastern thought. (The question of Russocentric, Sinocentric, and Afrocentric slants on Marxism needs to be treated separately, but even in the worst cases of national-cultural chauvinism and manipulation of traditions, a fundamentally or explicitly volkisch philosophical view won't fly.)

Boundary lines are not absolute, but outside the intellectual world of Marxism, another question of modernization arose in the non-Western world: for those who want to follow this path, how to update traditional philosophies to make them viable in a modernizing world? My memories of how this went with Chinese philosophy have faded over the decades, but my general impression is that various metaphysical systems (Neo-Confucian?) were retooled, and I found the results dubious. From a materialist or an empiricist standpoint, there is something hopelessly artificial and arbitrary—metaphorical, mythological, and even theological—and ultimately sterile and obscurantist—about maintaining a metaphysical system in the traditional sense, especially an old one—even one that purports to accommodate modern scientific discoveries. It is very much like updating and liberalizing religions, or updating metaphysics that accompany the religions (as has been done, e.g., for Catholicism and Islam). Even updating (relatively) secular metaphysics runs into the same problems.

Historical consciousness is not traditionalism. Other than simply jettisoning outworn traditions for modern science and its philosophical correlates, there are other approaches to addressing the past, to philosophical history: (1) logical analysis of philosophies and the problems they attempted to address; (2) socio-historical analyses, perhaps in combination with (1); (3) judging the heritage of the past based on (1) and (2) suggesting what is worth preserving, either as a monument or something still viable; (4) finding the hidden meaning of metaphysical systems, translating idealism into social, historical, materialist terms (Feuerbach, Horkheimer), (5) unearthing the hidden truth content of thought systems (Adorno); (6) relating philosophical systems and their evolution to the state of scientific knowledge and the organization of society (post-Stalin Soviet philosophy).

There is, though, in the past quarter century, a new wrinkle, that affects Chinese philosophy and its reception as it has affected Indian philosophy and African philosophy (already in a much more frustrated situation): the introduction of what is loosely termed postmodernism. In certain parts of the world postcolonialism is a going concern. Now that globalization is the buzzword, the whole world is potentially mixed into the ideological stew. There is a curious exclusivity to be found in all this promiscuous syncretism. If we look at the rise or resurrection of continental philosophy in the Anglo-American world—an entity having no real existence except as an artifact of the historical amnesia of analytical philosophy—persons with a broader grasp of intellectual history might detect some curious biases and omissions. One might be fooled because the continental philosophy package with its assembly of analytical techniques is diverse and seemingly inclusive, and also includes some varieties or elements of Marxism as one ingredient, but a slippery ideological bias and selectivity can be found in this packaging. And when we here in the Anglo-American sphere expand our attention to draw in other areas of the world in globalized dialogue, we will find the same selectivity and tacit ideological agenda at work. Of course!—since these are the outcomes of the same overall social forces.

Several sections of my philosophical diary New Year's Resolution: Exploring Philosophical Cultures (December 2003 - January 2004) detail the chicanery alluded to in the preceding paragraph.

[—> continuation]

12 July 2006

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)

For appropriate links, begin with:

Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism, & Countercultures: Selected Bibliography

This links to a number of interesting contributions, including several on Indian philosophy, and to my related bibliography:

Holistic Thought, New Age Obscurantism, Occultism, the Sciences, & Fascism

I have suggested many times that western engagement with Asian philosophies merits a great deal of suspicion. I take dissident voices within Asian traditions themselves far more seriously, as indicated by my selections on Indian philosophy. I've seen little comparable literature on Chinese Philosophy since the crude polemics produced during the Cultural Revolution.

After many years of inattention, I had a chance to catch up in January 2004 with the 30th anniversary issue of the Journal of Chinese Philosophy (vol. 30, nos. 3 & 4, September/December 2003). I found it pretty disagreeable then, and after reviewing it in August 2005, I found it just as obnoxious. I don't know what is going on in philosophy in the People's Republic these days, or whether mainland Chinese are involved in this journal. But if this anniversary issue is representative, the field is not to be trusted.

Most obnoxious of all are the combinations of traditional philosophies with postmodernism, e.g. mixing deconstruction or hermeneutics with Confucianism or Taoism. It makes me want to hurl. But all in all, I don't find most of this stuff interesting intellectually in the least. There were only two articles of interest to me in all 300 pages of this issue. One is summarized in my bibliography. The other is:

Bunnin, Nicholas. "Contemporary Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Analysis", 341-356.

Following a rather impressive condensed summary of the development of analytical philosophy, modern Chinese philosophers impacted by western philosophies are outlined, including Hu Shi (whom I read over 30 years ago), Jin Yuelin, Hong Qian, Feng Youlan (author of a standard text on the history of Chinese philosophy), Zhang Shenfu, Zhang Dongsun, Mou Zongsan, Li Zehou (347-51).

I found references to two contemporary books of possible interest. One I am about to review. The other is:

Mou, Bo. Two Roads to Wisdom? Chinese and Analytic Philosophical Traditions. Chicago; La Salle: Open Court, 2001.

My next major engagement was a group study of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) which I led in the spring of 2005. (Since most people my age are more familiar with the old transliteration, I will henceforth refer to Taoism instead of Daoism.) This was a fascinating experience, and our discussion was of much higher quality than anything you will read by the scholars in English. (One day I must compile my notes and publish them on this site.) This is because the agenda if not the credentials of everyone invested in this subject matter is untrustworthy and the perspective distorted. Reading several commentaries of amateurs and experts alike confirmed this impression, as did this book, which I reviewed:

Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West). 23 May 2005.

One other datum before I proceed to the book I intend to review: a few years ago I attended a lecture on contemporary Confucianism at the Library of Congress. The only useful thing the Maoists ever did was attempt to obliterate Confucianism. I don't know how well they fared in the end on the mainland, but they couldn't touch it on Taiwan or elsewhere. The lecturer was an advocate of contemporary Confucian ethics and morality, which sounded as wonderful as any moralism sounds detached from the slimy social order which produced it. I noted that the metaphysical pronouncements of the virtue ethics of any civilization are noble cover-ups of social realities, and I deemed this lecturer duplicitous.

Now that you have digested the appetizers, in my next entry I will serve the main course, a review of this book which I scrutinized yesterday:

Contemporary Chinese Philosophy, edited by Chung-Ying Cheng and Nicholas Bunnin. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

[—> continuation]

12 July 2006

C. Wright Mills on Intellectuals

"The independent artist and intellectual are among the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and to fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuinely living things. Fresh perception now involves the capacity to continually unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect with which modern communications [i.e. modern systems of representation] swamp us. These worlds of mass-art and mass-thought are increasingly geared to the demands of politics. That is why it is in politics that intellectual solidarity and effort must be centered. If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience."

SOURCE: C. Wright Mills, Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, ed. Irving Louis Horowitz (New York: Ballantine, 1963), p. 299.

This is quoted in Edward W. Said's Representations of the Intellectual, p. 21.

For other quotations from C. Wright Mills, see:
C. Wright Mills - A Few Quotes

Some other Mills sites and pages:

C. Wright Mills' HomePage

The World of C. Wright Mills by George Novack

On my web site, see this very important treatise:

The Incoherence of the Intellectual: C. Wright Mills' Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action by Fredy Perlman

12 July 2006

Julien Benda's Treason of the Intellectuals

See my amazon.com review of this 'classic'—an alternative to the conservative customer reviews.

See my companion review of Edward Said's Representations of the Intellectual.

Note my coinage of the term 'Left Benda-ism'.

See all my amazon.com reviews on one page.

11 July 2006

Bergson's Vitalism & French Philosophy

Burwick, Frederick; Douglass, Paul; eds. The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy. Cambridge [UK]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. See table of contents and publisher description.

This book seems unavailable anywhere at this moment, but it likely hits the bullseye as far as the subject matter is concerned. The conceptual structure of the fundamental philosophical duality of modern society is addressed in my study guide:

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Bergson, though he eventually went out of fashion, spearheaded the irrationalist charge in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. (One of his opponents, though not without his own shortcomings, was Julien Benda, author of the famous La Trahison Des Clercs [The Treason of the Intellectuals].)

There is a connection here to the Nietzsche revival in French philosophy.

Alain Badiou
The Adventure Of French Philosophy

Badiou is the flavor of the month from France. This article is a succinct summary of a slice of intellectual history, but what blows me away is how fundamentally unconscious Badiou seems to be of the underlying dynamics motivating his intellectual universe. I wrote about this last year. Perhaps I will transpose my analysis to this blog. Unfortunately, this article is no longer available for free.

[—> Julien Benda's Treason of the Intellectuals]
[—> Irrationalism in Modern Thought Culminating in Overpriced French Philosophy]

11 July 2006

Nietzsche's Super-Laughter

Weeks, Mark. "Beyond a Joke: Nietzsche and the Birth of 'Super-Laughter'," Journal of Nietzsche Studies, no. 27, 2004, pp. 1-17.

This article opens up a new vista for me viz. the history, sociology, and philosophy of humor. The closing decades of the 19th century is claimed to be imbued with a comic spirit, coinciding with what is generally termed postmodernism, and which also looks back to historical (modernist) predecessors—Nietzsche, Bergson, Freud, etc. But there is a 'shared anxiety' at work. If, as Milan Kundera claimed (Immortality, 1991), that 'the boundary between the important and the frivolous' has collapsed, without any effective sense of normalcy and thus perspective by incongruity, then how can the comic do its work?

The incongruity theory of laughter is traced from Kant to Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, figuring in the role of the tragic. Nietzsche chafed against the popular comic atmosphere pervading 19th-century Europe: counterpoised to will, it represents the irresponsible 'cheerfulness of the slave', hence fails to joyfully surmount fate. The dovetails with Bergson's heroic vitalism. For Bergson, the comic degrades art, and belongs to the common herd.

There are some subtle discriminations to be made here. Laughter as a physiological release is not equivalent to joy. Nietzsche's writings are analyzed with respect to this distinction. Nietzsche begins to shift his position in The Gay Science, wondering if there's a future for laughter, wherein tragic striving would finally overcome the anti-heroic laughter of the crowd.

There is a lot of postmodernist garbage intermixed with this exposition, most which does not bear the waste of space. But there are concerns in the generation preceding—Bataille and Sartre—as to whether laughter can ever be revolutionary, as it is so easily manipulated by the Right. Perhaps the 'subversion of temporality' of laughter really subverts the future rather than the present. Similar doubts could be raised about the recent past, once the flush of the Bakhtinian revival was spent. Umberto Eco made a shrewd remark: Carnival can exist only as an authorized transgression."

Nietzsche's Zarathustra is placed in a defensive position: Weeks—"The laughter response constitutes the wall between the visionary philosopher and the common folk . . . " Nietzsche takes up the challenge, prompting his readers "to will a new kind of laughter." And then Weeks delivers what is for me the punchline, if not for him: "Nietzsche's strategy is, in a sense, to neutralize laughter's fundamental indifference by rendering as a privileged marker of hierarchical difference." (14)

Aha! Of course, as we knew all along: Nietzsche's prime directive is to wage war on equality.

This is the mirror image of Bakhtin, who posits a revolutionary community above a conservative individual. Bakhtin's arguments, though, are alleged not to hold up well to scrutiny.

While modernists might have had the ambition to marshall laughter as a progressive force, laughter became the emblem of playfulness for postmodernists, but they could not see that the endless carnival of the marketplace would overrun all subversive pretensions, a fact that would not please Nietzsche.

This article is rich with implications, beyond the conscious intentions of the author. For there is an implicit duality in his argument. His narcissistic preoccupation with postmodernism, as if invested in exactly what he criticizes, results simultaneously in a containment of the argument within the logic of this illegitimate investment and a transcendence of same. The final Bakhtin coda notwithstanding, the argument ends at its point of origin: Nietzsche's entire philosophy is based upon the institution of social inequality. Now what are the implications for the validity of the entire line of argument?

That an exceptional individual may be more perceptive than his fellows is not an infrequent occurrence, but the actual logic of this situation is obscured by the metaphysical notion of the 'common herd'. Otherwise the question of a counterstrategy of securing the subversive function of laughter against cooptation could be explored. But aside from the suggestiveness of the Bhaktinian option, Weeks completely misses an alternative logical path, because he assumes that the ostensible if thwarted objective of postmodern laughter was somehow emancipatory. But it never was. It was only the cynical play of a privileged class. Week's is tripped up by his own disillusioned Nietzscheanism.

Yet one would be self-deluded in romanticizing the masses. There is much uncomfortable truth in this argument: one need look no further than television comedy to see how powerfully conservative laughter can be, and in the daily life of the nation, how can satire ever keep up with the shameless self-parody of the American freak show? Weeks has pinpointed a central ideological problem of our time. Factoring in cynical reason will explain how perverse the situation has become.

Two footnotes for further deliberation— (1) In anatomizing the temporal character of laughter and its relation to will, Weeks suggests to me a distinction between laughter (as a visceral response) and comedy (the world view or cognitive orientation of the humorist). (2) We are given this neologism 'super-laughter'. Could it factor into an antidote to what Teresa Ebert calls metacynicism?

Humor & Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

"The Simpsons, Hyper-Irony, and the Meaning of Life" by Carl Matheson.

"Why Marx or Nietzsche?" by András Gedö

[—> Anti-Nietzsche (1)]

10 July 2006

Philosophical Portrait of a Dying Civilization by Ralph Dumain

Full paper

Embarrassed though I am by my writing of the 1980s, I nevertheless resurrect a paper I delivered on 29 December 1988 in Washington, DC to a meeting of the Society of Philosophers at Work in the World (SPWW) as part of a conference of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.  I have not heard from SPWW since 1990, so I assume that the organization is defunct. The title and concept of the paper was inspired by Christopher Caudwell's critical studies in the 1930s of the ideas of a civilization at the end of its rope. Errors detected in proofreading have been corrected; errors of content remain preserved for posterity.


On this site:

Christopher Caudwell: Selected Bibliography

Emergence Blog

The Frankfurt School: Philosophy in Relation to Social Theory, Cultural Theory, Science, and Interdisciplinary Research.
Phase 1: Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in the 1930s.
Study Group Syllabus

Ideology Study Guide

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

Links to Philosophical & Related Web Sites
(also critical thinking links)

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Blog archives:


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