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Thursday, November 24, 2011


Some of my older readers may recall that in 1987, Allan Bloom, a dyspeptic epigone of the late unlamented Leo Straus, published an angry attack on modernity called the Closing of the American Mind. The book was two parts nostalgia for the classics [Plato, Machiavelli, and such] and three parts cry of horror at the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, Women's Lib, and all things countercultural. It also contained a thinly-disguised sigh of love to Mick Jagger, but of that, the less said the better. When the book appeared, ACADEME, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, asked me to write a review, which I did. Since the Preface to Bloom's book had been written by Saul Bellow, Bloom's colleague on the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, I chose somewhat maliciously to construe the text as a brilliant intellectual novel by Bellow, who had created a wonderfully funny, cranky, bilious U of Chicago professor whose name, "Bloom," was an obvious homage to Joyce. Despite appearing in a rather obscure publication [which I had actually not heard of until they asked me to review the book], the review had something of a success. One sweet but not too bright professor from somewhere in Pennsylvania actually called me to ask whether Bloom was real. She had called the University of Chicago, she said, and had been referred to a Research Assistant when she asked for Professor Bloom. This earnest young man assured her angrily that Bloom was indeed real ["I talked to him this morning."] and said he had been fielding calls all day long from people who thought his mentor was just a character in a novel.

At about the same time, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a respected University of Virginia English professor, published Cultural Literacy, a cri de coeur occasioned by dismay at the lamentable ignorance of today's young people [i.e., people who were young in 1987, which is to say, today's forty-somethings.] Hirsch, ever the earnest academic, actually concluded his book with a long list of names, places, and things that the culturally literate person should know.

Hirsch made much of the fact that young Black men and women in the ghetto had a very dim idea of world geography. He made it sound as though these benighted individuals were so utterly at sea, topographically speaking, that one could almost imagine firehouses, police stations, and corner convenience stores in Harlem filled with children unable to find their way home. I reflected at the time that Hirsch's notion of culture, much like that of Bloom, did not rise much above the level of name-dropping. I was willing to bet that the sheer number of "cultural items" that a ghetto youth could identify, or attach some association to, was on the same order as that for a suburban boy or girl. But the lists, if compiled, would turn out to be very different indeed.

These thoughts are provoked in me by the current contest for the Republican Presidential nomination, which has showcased a know-nothing celebration of belligerent ignorance that apparently flourishes in right-wing Evangelical Christian circles. Hostility to reason is of course not new to the Christian tradition. ["I believe because it is absurd, credo quia absurdem est " as Tertullian is universally credited with having said, although apparently he neglected to do so.] Still and all, the sheer refusal of the Republican base to admit what is, in Jane Austen's lovely phrase, universally acknowledged, has now infected even its standard bearers and political heroes. Sarah Palin flatly rejects the theory of evolution, but when she was pregnant with Trig [let us not even go there!], she underwent the procedure known as amniocentesis, despite the fact that evolution is the theory on which the procedure is grounded. Rick Perry, when asked about evolution, responded off-handedly, "It is a theory that is out there," but bedeviled by painful back trouble, he underwent a rather controversial experimental stem cell procedure, blithely unaware, I guess, that stem cell research, whether on adult stem cells or embryonic stem cells, presupposes the truth of the theory of evolution. The same is of course true of the annual flu shots that people in my age category get each year. Two years ago, on the occasion of Charles Darwin's two hundredth birthday, a poll revealed that only 39% of adult Americans believe the theory of evolution, so I think we can confidently conclude that there are scores of millions of Americans whose doubts about evolution do not stop them from getting flu shots.

Much the same can be said about Young Earthers -- those who, again including Sarah Palin, think the earth is roughly ten thousand years old or less, and claim that humans walked next to dinosaurs. How many of them, when diagnosed with cancer, piously decline radiation therapy on the grounds that the theory on which it is based conflicts with their beliefs about the age of the earth?

The point of all this is that the Republican Party's rejection of knowledge and reason is a political statement, an expression of ressentiment, not really a cognitively substantive declaration that has any implications for daily life. We live in a world in which it is cost-free to use the latest technology while denying the theory on which it is based.

The Bible implies that the sun goes around the earth [otherwise, God, instead of stopping the sun in the sky to give Joshua time to slaughter the inhabitants of Gibeon, would have had to stop the rotation of the earth -- See the Book of Joshua 10:12-14], but I do not hear any devout Evangelicals denying that the earth orbits the sun. These determined know-nothings are not the real danger to our safety and sanity. The real danger is posed by the Paul Wolfewitz's and John Bolton's, who know exactly where Afghanistan is and can name the President of Uzbekistan straight off, and are now plotting openly to take the United States into war with Iran.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.


High Arka said...

Those stupid Republicans! It's amazing that they don't realize how clueless they are.

(Happy thanksgiving!)

Michael said...

Not that I enjoyed this any less because of it, but Garry Trudeau had a similar thought a while ago:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

So Gary Trudeau does in eight panels what I take a thousand words to say less well. That strikes me as about right. :)

Don Schneier said...

A friend was taking courses from Harvey Mansfield back in the mid-70s, so I began hearing about the Leo Strauss Kool-Aid as early as then. In terms of intellectual integrity, I would place Strauss just ahead of Ayn Rand, and just behind L. Ron Hubbard. But of greater significance--that the political philosophies of Plato and Locke were, and still are, almost exclusively in the hands of those not fully capable of systematic thinking, emphasizes that Political Philosophy should be taught in a Philosophy department, not only in a Political Science one. For example--Plato's Political Philosophy is incomprehensible without a full understanding of his Theory of Forms, and Locke's Tabula Rasa has both Political and Epistemological significance (i. e. the latter counters both the purported 'divine right of kings' and the existence of a priori knowledge).

Aaron Baker said...

It's credo quia absurdUM, but otherwise an entertaining post.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Of course. My apologies.

Charles Richard Booher II said...

This is lovely, and no one has yet pointed out that this might mean that you are entitled to a share of Bellow's prophets from Ravelstein, since you put the idea for his novel in print long before he authored it!

LFC said...

Re Don Schneier:

It is wrong to suggest that the teaching of Plato and Locke etc. is "almost exclusively" in the hands of Straussians, and to imply that only philosophers, as opposed to political scientists, are "capable of systematic thought" is both libelous and ridiculous.

Don Schneier said...

If there is a department in which The Republic is taught in conjunction with the Theaetetus, or one in which Locke's Essays and Treatise are studied in tandem, then I stand corrected. If there is such a place, is any consideration given there to, for example, the political significance of Berkeley's critique of Locke's epistemological theories? To the influence of Phenomenalism on Strauss?

LFC said...

To clarify:
You're probably right that 'political' and 'philosophical' writings should not be put in separate academic compartments. Offhand I don't know the answers to your questions about which works are taught together. Others would be much better placed to answer that than I am.

I read your earlier comment as suggesting that 80 or 90 percent of those teaching the history of political thought in (Anglophone) political science departments are Straussians. Just from glancing at the political theory articles published in APSR and elsewhere, I'm pretty sure that's not true. Quentin Skinner's work, for example, has had considerable influence and goes, or such is my impression, in a very different direction. This was really the only point I wanted to make. (I'm not a political theorist or a philosopher myself.)

Charles Pigden said...

To Don Schneier;
Is it really that unusual to teach the the Essay and the Treatises together? I teach a course on Moral and Political Philosophy in which I give a lecture on each, though admittedly in a once-over-lighly sort of way (the bulk of the course being devoted to Hobbes and Hume). It has never occurred to me that I was doing anything out of the ordinary. If it IS unusual to teach the two together this may be because they seem to contradict each other. In the Essay Locke argues against innate practical principles (indeed it is this section that we discuss in class) but in the Second Treatise he seems to presuppose them. It could be that professors, not knowing what to make of this apparent contradiction, prefer not to puzzle their students by discussing the two texts in the same course. Myself, I just point out the apparent contradiction and leave it at that.

For what it's worth I also offer an essay option on Berkeley's moral and political philosophy as represented by his essay 'Passive Obedience' though Berkeley generally gets squeezed out of the lectures in favor of the more interesting Mandeville.

Charles Pigden, University of Otago, New Zealand

Don Schneier said...

Prof. Pigden--Academia in NZ may be very different from that in the US, in which the following topic--'Berkeley's Privatization of Locke, Strauss's Heideggerian Esotericism, and Bush's Anti-Intellectualism'--for example, has no departmental home, even if it might be relevant to current events, and, as such, therefore, contributes to them.

Charles Pigden said...

Well Don, it would be hard to settle the issue between us without a detailed analysis of a large sample of course syllabuses from US departments of philosophy, politics and perhaps classics. Nonetheless I am inclined to suspect that that you are mistaken with respect to your larger claim that there aren't that many courses on famous moral and political thinkers which take their logical, epistemic and metaphysical opinions into account. Here's my reason. Lots of the more or less introductory books that one would naturally use in such courses, either as set texts or as recommended readings, contain substantial sections setting the moral and political views of the philosophers in question in the context of their larger philosophical thought. I'm thinking here of books that are specifically aimed at the Anglo-American market (since there aren't that many introductory texts on moral and political philosophy that are targeted specifically at New Zealand!). Now professors, especially young professors teaching non-AOS topics, are heavily reliant on such texts. Thus they will tend to pass on their contents to their students. Furthermore it is pretty obvious to any one with half a brain that you can't teach Plato's Republic without saying something about the Forms or Hobbes' Leviathan without saying something about his materialism. Thus reasonably competent and conscientious teachers are likely to say something about these topics when teaching Plato or Hobbes. (Indeed, I am inclined to think that many texts OVERemphasize the importance of Hobbes' materialism which is not as relevant to his political thought as many writers seem to suppose.) I can put the point like this. Teaching tends to follow the teaching texts. The teaching texts are not unduly compartmentalized. So probably the teaching is not unduly compartmentalized either.
There are lots of bad things in the world to worry about and lament. But the problem of excessively compartmentalized courses on moral & political philosophy in US universities is probably not one of them.

Don Schneier said...

Charles--to whatever extent the compartmentalization of American Academia facilitated the rise to power of the neo-Conservatives, and of Bush-Cheney, in particular, I would have to disagree with your final statement. Note that the project of evaluating whether or not that facilitation in fact occurred has no obvious departmental home in American Academia.