2003 Reading Review

by Ralph Dumain

I want to review the thrust of my reading over the past several months.  You can trace what I've put on my web site for yourself.  Regarding online discussion lists, I think it was over the winter that I wrote a number of posts on the problems of music, mysticism, culture, and epochal shifts.  I have intervened occasionally regarding other issues of cultural forms, e.g., with a few comments on the Matrix movie phenomenon in preparation for a full-scale ideological analysis.

I also did not neglect one of my major interests, the intellectual life of the masses and marginalized individuals beyond the officially sanctioned organization of knowledge and culture.  I reviewed some of the work being done of the reading habits and intellectual life of the working classes of Britain, France, Canada, and Australia.  I initiated a new section of my web site devoted to the little known playwright, writer, and labor organizer Manny Fried from my hometown Buffalo, NY, whose life and career was deeply affected by McCarthyism.  At the time of my friend Jim Murray's death, I put up the letter of support Einstein wrote to Fried after Fried refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.  I also put up a piece Fried wrote on how Leslie Fiedler of all people supported his university study when other people in the English Dept. in Buffalo tried to stop him.  I have since read Fried’s small volume Meshugah and Other Stories, portraits of life in the Great Depression and the radicalizing influence it had on Fried.

The major theme in my reading this year has been an examination of philosophical traditions, their underlying dynamics, and their relationships and disjunctions one with another.  From this emerges a picture of the artificiality of the (historical) organization of philosophical knowledge, a patchwork of traditions which imperfectly reference one another at best rather than a uniform development of the total state of knowledge at any given time.

Roy Wood Sellars (known for his "critical realism" and emergent naturalism) contributed his perspective on "American Philosophy", revealing a taste for synthesis, an affinity to Marxism coming from a totally different intellectual tradition, and dissatisfaction with the artificial fragmentation of philosophical traditions.  Marvin Farber, the main mover in introducing phenomenology to America, rejected the subjectivist foundations of phenomenology and embraced an overall materialist perspective with a Marxist view of society.  (See my American Philosophy Study Guide for more on Sellars and Farber.) John Ryder's excellent book Interpreting America, on the unknown Soviet historiography of American philosophy, provides a very good perspective on this history.

On a related track but with other purposes in mind as well, I read Christopher Phelps' Young Sidney Hook, which revealed a vigorous indigenous American Marxist intellect that fizzled out in 1938.  Paradoxically, though pragmatism had a formative effect on Hook, I could not detect anything uniquely pragmatist about Hook's Marxist work in Phelps' account.

I also began a review of some of the works of major figures of the Frankfurt School, with an eye towards their acuity about the ideological/philosophical tensions of our modern world, but also towards their fundamental weakness, their ignorance of science and their failure to distinguish it from the positivism they opposed.  With this in mind, I began with some of the major essays of Horkheimer.  I enjoyed Adorno's attack on Heidegger in The Jargon of Authenticity.  I thought that Horkheimer and Adorno failed to make their case about the Enlightenment in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and their analysis of the culture industry revealed some important mechanisms but did not succeed in proving the all-powerful impact of these mechanisms on specific cultural forms.  

I also interjected an analysis of the late paranoid phase of Wilhelm Reich's work, illustrating his unique though bizarre twist on the positivism/lebensphilosophie dichotomy now a major focus of my work.

As the summer weather kicked in, I returned to the work of C.L.R. James and his comrades in the Johnson-Forest Tendency.  I re-read the Tendency's State Capitalism and World Revolution, some of James's essays collected in the three Allison & Busby anthologies, James's Modern Politics, Raya Dunayevskaya's collection of philosophical essays The Power of Negativity, Grace Lee Bogg's autobiography Living My Life, and a collection of philosophical essays by Raya's disciples. 

I kept Jim up to date via this discussion list or via private e-mails.  Outside of the James work, none of this was his bailiwick, but he admired my boldness and independence in developing my own analytical perspective on this variety of material.   Naturally, he encouraged my analyses of James, Raya, and Grace.  Given his cynicism (as well as mine) towards the later trajectory of Raya and Grace, he admired nonetheless my ability to give the underlying dynamics of these two a serious analytical framework.  Whatever the topic, if he thought I had made a bold or striking observation, he would let me know and give it his own spin.

I should have suspected something was wrong, then, given Jim's silence after my last writing on Dialectic of Enlightenment. His last week on earth, given over to dark thoughts and a sense of isolation, as I only found out towards the end, was for me a week of great intellectual absorption and inspiration.  I was wondering why I hadn't heard from him in some days but I assumed he was busy with his new intern.

The past month has been a living hell for me.  One of my outlets for extreme stress has been reading at a furious pace.  There are many simple tasks that are beyond me, but reading is so natural and effortless to me I'll be doing it long after I'm gone.  So I read James's Facing Reality, Marcuse's Reason and Revolution, Sidney Hook's Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, Charles Reitz's important new book Art, Alienation, and the Humanities: A Critical Engagement with Herbert Marcuse, and John Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy.

All of this has sharpened my perspective on the curious crazy-quilt of intellectual traditions and the integration of knowledge.  We could never have progressed this far without dedicated specialists doing all this work in academia.  Academia though is incapable of achieving the needed integration of knowledge and is in fact organized against it.  A crumbling civilization cannot be saved by politically and ethically compromised institutions.  Only outside of official society can a redemptive perspective be obtained.

(Written 20 August 2003)

Following my last report, I read Horkheimer's The Eclipse of Reason, a breezy read.  I now have a fairly good idea of what the leading Frankfurters were up to—Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse—their strengths and especially their limitations.  There are differences among the leading Frankfurters but also a consistency of background, intellectual heritage, and central European bourgeois culture.  Their flaws are obvious to me—epitomized by their inability to engage with natural science beyond their obsession with positivism as the main enemy—but given their monopolization by academic snob culture in this part of the world, the likelihood of progressing to the next step is unlikely.  I need to read much more, but I am already beginning to get sick of these people.

I also read some chapters of Exiles In Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America from the 1930s to the Present by Anthony Heilbut, which has chapters on Adorno and related individuals as well as others of various intellectual backgrounds.  The book is about how German intellectuals adjusted or did not to American conditions, and quite revealing about their mentality in that regard.

I then read Radicals Against Race: Black Activism and Cultural Politics by Brian W. Alleyne, a very important history of the New Beacon circle in Britain.

I've since read several chapters of another important new book, The Intellectual Life of The British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose.  This is very different fare from the Frankfurters.

I decided to take a break from this farrago of historical detail with some light trashy philosophical reading, Reflexivity by Hilary Lawson, a childish piece on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, proving the fundamental incapacity for any self-consciousness that counts on the part of subjectivists.

(Written 4 September 2003)

Manny Fried continued to send me material, including his dissertation, a chapter of which I put up on the site.

I have to write reviews for publication of the above-mentioned books by Reitz, Alleyne, and Rose.  Plus I promised a review of Ryder’s book.  In mid-September I read another important new book I have to review: The Philosophy and Politics of Bruno Bauer by Douglas Moggach.  This is the first full-length study of Bruno Bauer in English and an understudied subject even in German. 

Following up the subject of audodidacticism, public intellectual life, and reading audiences, I discovered by chance the work of Robert Darnton on the French Enlightenment in mid-October and read The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.

I received a review copy of Bertell Ollman’s Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method.  I wrote a critique for an online discussion group.

This has been a year for developing a perspective on the history of philosophy.  To this end, a study of Hegel is mandatory.  I attended the conference on which this collection of papers was based, but it was helpful to be able to read the papers: Hegel's History of Philosophy: New Interpretations, ed. by David Duquette.  My particular interest here is Hegel’s approach to Indian philosophy.

In March I wrote an extensive summary and review of perhaps the most important study of Soviet philosophy in English, Soviet Historiography of Philosophy by Evert van der Zweerde.  During the first half of November, I surveyed Theodore Oizerman’s works on the history of philosophy.  I put some of this material on the site, and reviewed two of his books, Problems of the History of Philosophy and Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by Oizerman and A.S. Bogomolov.  While there were some rewarding facets to this work, there were some disappointments as well, as you will see from my reviews.  Oizerman performs well in analyzing the history of philosophy up through Hegel.  Afterwards, he falters, though he continues to point out general failings of the main trends that follow—positivism and irrationalism (and also neo-Thomism)—and particularly the shortcomings of the irrationalists’ perspective on history of philosophy.  However, Oizerman views the post-Marx development of bourgeois philosophy largely as a degenerative process, and coupled with his formulaic advocacy of Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism, he fails to do justice to more contemporary developments in philosophy.  Most telling, he has nothing to contribute about rival trends in Marxism, which one must assume were far more threatening to the Soviet regime than bourgeois philosophy, because of the anti-Stalinist nature of many of them, such as the Frankfurt School.

Thus Oizerman, in reviewing philosophical traditions, falls short of my own integrative efforts.  The Frankfurters and related figures have to be brought into juxtaposition with dialectical materialism—for starters—as their respective achievements and shortcomings will throw light on one another.  As I’ve stated in some of my essays, Horkheimer and Adorno were peculiar materialists, lacking the development of a positive ontology incorporating the natural sciences, but supplying perspicacious analyses of the shortcomings of idealism.  An adequate critique must incorporate the sophisticated insights of Adorno’s Against Epistemology: A Metacritique, for example.

Recently I was sent a paper written by the late Marxist philosopher Harry K. Wells, "Historical Origins of the Logic of Classification and the Logic of Genesis" (1961).  This is an analysis of the historic defeat in western thought of the logic of becoming (Heraclitus) by the logic of classification (Plato and Aristotle), and the inability of logic to modernize its perspective except for Hegel, who remains neglected by logicians.  I wrote a critique of this paper, pointing out the decisive elements missing in Wells’ purview.

A few days ago I read Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacob.  I once had quite an interest in Newton, circa 1979, when I was interested in the dynamics of the totality of his thought (which includes alchemy and theology) in the cultural-philosophical-ideological complex of his time.  This little book shows how archaic Newton was in his overall perspective—he was no mechanist that we would recognize.  Aside from his vitalistic conceptions of matter outside of the realm for which he is famous, his aversion to materialism with the ever-present atheistic tendencies attributed to or associated with it reveal a Newton not fully modern and a society caught in irresolvable ideological contradictions.  Newtonianism was ideologically tinged with non-scientific political preoccupations: it could be an apology for order or a call to revolution.  Newton was of the party of order and moderation, favoring neither revolution nor absolute monarchy.

I am now reading chapters of English Literature and British Philosophy: A Collection of Essays edited by S.P. Rosenbaum.  With my interest in British-German comparative studies, particularly comparative Romanticisms and the influence of German philosophy on British writers, I want to learn more about how literary trends mesh with philosophical trends.  Ironically, I do not know much about the influence of British philosophy on English literature.  I assumed the two would not harmonize, but I’ve discovered I have much to learn.

Filling in the gaps on some relevant readings this year . . .  Toward the beginning of the year, I continued my winter readings on Herman Melville, philosophy, and Romanticism.  I also read some additional works in the philosophy of the history of philosophy.  In February I read Engels After Marx ed. by Manfred B. Steger & Terrell Carver.  This contains an essay by Peter Manicas, whom I later became acquainted with in connection with the history of American Philosophy.  In May I took a look at Jeffrey Herf’s Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich.  Aside from the critique of Horkheimer and Adorno, it also fits with the theme of reactionary anti-science such as criticized by Meera Nanda with respect to India, whom I read some of earlier in the year.  (See "Dharma and the Bomb: Postmodern Critiques of Science and the Rise of Reactionary Modernism in India.) In June I read a doctoral dissertation by Charles Senger, Hegel's Aesthetic Theory and the Critique of Romanticism (Oakland, CA: Swing Shift Press, 2001 [orig. 1991]), which can also be found on the web. At the beginning of June I read and critiqued an infuriating article online by Loren Goldner, “The Renaissance and Rationality: The Status of the Enlightenment Today”, which advocated an interpretation of Marx as part of a Third Stream in philosophy, which Goldner regards as the hermetic tradition as opposed to the Enlightenment and Romanticism.  In addition to the books by Phelps and Hook, I also read an article by Christopher Phelps, “The Rise and Fall of Sidney Hook” (New Politics, no. 34, vol. IX, no. 2 [new series], Winter 2003, pp. 112-115).

Various additional topics have come up this year in online and face-to-face discussions, lectures, exhibits, thinking, and writing; among them, creativity, relativism, metaphor, cosmology (Big Bang theory), artificial intelligence, free choice and free will, Einstein, surrealism, dialectical logic, Sartre, Habermas, Hegel, Marx, William Blake, Ray Bradbury, Bob Dylan, the folk revival, the evolving social meaning of movies and television, the popularization and social relevance of philosophy.  My work related to C.L.R. James would require a separate discussion, although I summarized my most important book reading above.

Finally, I have begun to organize a number of e-mails written over the course of the past year into essays for this site.  I have begun with my reviews of works by members of the Frankfurt School, and figures of related interest such as Lucien Goldmann.  Habermas presents a research project all by himself.  In January I reviewed Metacritique: The Philosophical Argument of Jürgen Habermas by Garbis Kortian, translated by John Raffan, with an introductory essay by Charles Taylor and Alan Montefiore (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980).  My main line of study, however, has consisted of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse.

The resultant essays so far are:

Max Horkheimer's Materialism: The Struggle with Traditional Theory, Science, Positivism, & Irrationalism

R. Dumain's Critique of Dialectic of Enlightenment

On Goldmann, Lukacs, Heidegger, and Adorno

Heidegger's Jargon

Aside from the works already mentioned on this web page and in the pages cited above, forthcoming commentaries will include (further) discussion of these works:

Adorno’s Against Epistemology: A Metacritique
Adorno, Critical Models, esp. the essay “Why Still Philosophy?”
Marcuse, "On Science and Phenomenology
Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance
Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality (with focus on Gramsci, Della Volpe)

(Written 19 November 2003)

Compiled & edited 19 November 2003
© 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.


Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

American Philosophy Study Guide

December Diary 2003

New Year's Resolution: Exploring Philosophical Cultures (December 2003 - January 2004)


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©2003 Ralph Dumain