Sunday, December 22, 2013

65th anniversary for Rootless Cosmopolitans!

Today was one of my two candidates for the establishment of a Rootless Cosmopolitans Day. "Rootless Cosmopolitans" was a Stalinist code word for Jews, marking a deadly turn in the nasty anti-Semitic history of almost the entire life span of the Soviet Union. The USSR, already gripped by Stalinist paranoia in the purges of the 1930s, took an even more paranoiac ultra-nationalist, xenophobic turn following its victory over the Nazis, mimicking their bigotry, scapegoating, and destructive cultural policies (the era of Zhdanov).  This ultranationalist, anti-western campaign against "unpatriotic" "cosmopolitan" elements began in 1946 (August 14, in Pravda), and on December 22, 1948, it was specifically tied to Jews, in this speech:

A. Fadeev: "O nekotorykh prichinakh otstavanie sovetskoi dramaturgii" [On Several Reasons for the Lag in Soviet Dramaturgy], Literaturnaya gazeta (Moscow), 22 December 1948, p. 1.

And from there, it only got worse, leading to a murderous campaign against Soviet Jews terminated only by Stalin's death.

Aside from the fact that the anti-Semitic campaign is today eligible for Social Security, it remains relevant. Eastern Europe is a worse anti-Semitic sewer today than it was under Soviet rule, reverting to its prior glorious heritage. But it is also not a dead issue in the USA, for countless Americans are locked in rigid racial/religious categories and simply cannot understand, even when they are not overtly hostile, those sneaky, slippery, chameleon Jews, especially the secular ones, that elude fixed categorization. They don't understand the firmly religious/ethnic ones very well, either.

So rootless cosmopolitans, stand proud, say it loud, and fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!

My other choice for Rootless Cosmopolitans Day is July 27, on which day in 1656 Baruch Spinoza, blessed be he, was expelled from the Jewish community, thus becoming history's first rootless cosmopolitan in theory and in practice.


"From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism" by Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov in Journal of Cold War Studies, 4:1, Winter 2002, pp. 66–80.

"About one anti-patriotic group of theatre critics," Pravda, 28 January, 1949, p. 3.

Rootless cosmopolitan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Samuel R. Delany & the uses & limits of myth

In his early science fiction of the 1960s, Samuel R. Delany incorporated myth into his quest scenarios, in a highly unconventional manner, even with his first novel written in his teenage years, The Jewels of Aptor.

But already in The Einstein Intersection, Delany posits the limits of myth in providing models for the human condition. Delany's art attained a new level of maturity in the 1970s, always pushing the limits and posing the fundamental questions.

The limits of myth can also be seen in Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979) and Neveryóna, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities (1983).

I am hardly doing justice to the conceptual richness of Delany's fiction. I am broaching Delany's work on this blog in conjunction with my project on the limits of myth, however retooled and reinterpreted to create a perspective different from traditionally authorized meanings. Read this post in conjunction with my preceding posts on the Eden and Cain/Abel myths and Erich Fromm.

See also my capsule description of Delany's work published in the letters column of the Washington City Paper:

Bonny Delany: on science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany

From Adam & Eve to Cain & Abel

In line with an ongoing project, I finally put together a working though obviously non-comprehensive bibliography on unusual treatments of the Eden and Cain/Abel myths, actually two bibliographies, one in English and one in Esperanto (consisting of original and translated works in the respective languages), which do not completely overlap, as there is much that is found in only one of these languages:
Suggestions for additions are welcome.

Not everything gets translated, for example, Johannes Linnankoski's play in Finnish, Ikuinen taistelu (1903, ‘The eternal struggle’). See:

Johannes Linnankoski (Pseudonym of Johannes Vihtori Peltonen, 1869-1913): Literature in English & Esperanto

Ever since reading Byron's Cain in 1979, in conjunction with Blake's The Ghost of Abel, I have been interested in the reversal of the orthodox meanings of myths canonized in sacred texts. One sees an autonomous reconfiguration of myth in British Romanticism, in Blake, Byron, and Shelley. I have recently returned to this subject in engagement with literary uses and unorthodox interpretations of the Edenic and Cain/Abel myths, for example, with Imre Madách's classic verse drama The Tragedy of Man and with Erich Fromm's psychoanalytic and humanist interpretation of the Old Testament. I am interested in how far the meanings of these mythical constructs can be stretched in literary interpretations before their deployment bumps up again insuperable limitations. I am also interested in the fundamental flaws and intellectual duplicity of liberal religion. (See my previous post on Erich Fromm.)

Erich Fromm on religion (3): In the Garden of Eden

I probably first read Erich Fromm's distinctive analysis of the Biblical myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in his most important book, Escape from Freedom, which as a teenager I read several times. Over the next few years I read most of Fromm's books in English.  But as with several of my youthful interests, I moved on and only took him up again decades later.

I was always intrigued by his interpretation of the Eden myth, which makes a good deal of symbolic sense, i.e. that what Christians call the Fall really represents man's rupture with his unity with nature, with his unselfconscious animal state, whereupon he gains knowledge of his mortality and becomes embarrassed by his nakedness. I believe he is correct in this, but I cannot accept this as a complete interpretation. Several myths (my interest is primarily in the Edenic and Cain/Abel myths) have been reinterpreted, transformed, even turned upside down. But I think that, at the end of the day, there's an inherent limitation in myth, and I think the Edenic myth is a case in point.

Fromm includes variations of his analysis is various of his works. It seems to me that there is an unresolved contradiction in his perspective. His thesis on the Old Testament is that Judaism begins as an authoritarian religion and ends up as a humanistic one. I think that his approach is fundamentally flawed, but at the moment I would like to point out Fromm's admission that the Edenic myth shows evidence of its development in ancient times and the survival of repressed elements (see my previous post) and that God's judgment on Adam and Eve is a manifestation of authoritarianism. So, if the Edenic myth is interpretable both as anthropomorphically authoritarian and as symbolic of the rupture with the unity of nature, there is an unresolved discrepancy here. I think both assertions are true, but this is precisely why myth is inherently limited and liberal religion inherently ideologically suspect.

Here is my list of significant references.

Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941. In Britain: The Fear of Freedom, 1942; see pp. 27-28.

__________. Psychoanalysis and Religion [1950] (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), pp. 41-42.

__________. The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales, and Myths (New York: Grove Press, 1957 [1951]), pp. 234-235.

__________. Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1961), Chapter 6, Marx's Concept of Socialism.

__________. You Shall Be as Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Traditions. New York: Fawcett Premier / Ballantine, 1966. See pp. 21-23, 57-58, 96-98.
Summary: Naomi Sherer reviews... You Shall Be As Gods by Eric Fromm.
__________. “On Disobedience” [excerpt] (1984).

Erich Fromm on religion (2)

The Biblical myth begins where the Babylonian myth has ended. The supremacy of a male god is established and hardly any trace of a previous matriarchal stage is left. Marduk’s “test” has become the main theme of the Biblical story of Creation. God creates the world by his word; the woman and her creative powers are no longer necessary. Even the natural course of events, that women give birth to men, is reversed. Eve is born from Adam’s rib (like Athene from Zeus's head). The elimination of every memory of matriarchal supremacy is, though, not entirely complete. In the figure of Eve we see the woman who is superior to the male. She takes the initiative in eating the forbidden fruit; she does not consult with Adam, she simply gives him the fruit to eat and he, when discovered, is rather clumsy and inept in his excuses. It is only after the Fall that his domination is established. God says to Eve: “And thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.” Quite obviously this establishment of male domination points to a previous situation in which he did not rule. Only from this and from the complete negation of the productive role of the woman can we recognize the traces of an underlying theme of the dominant role of the mother, which is still part of the manifest text in the Babylonian myth.

This myth offers a good illustration of the mechanism of distortion and censorship that plays such a prominent role in Freud's interpretation of dreams and myths. Memories of older social and religious principles are still contained in the Biblical myth. But at the time of its composition as we know it now, these older principles were so much in contrast to the prevailing thought that they could not be made explicit. And now we recognize traces of the former system only in small details, over-reactions, inconsistencies, and the connection of the later myth with older variations of the same theme.

SOURCE: Fromm, Eric. The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales, and Myths (New York: Grove Press, 1957 [1951]), pp. 234-235.

Erich Fromm on religion (1)

The following was written August 11, 2012:

Fromm was one of my teenage heroes, beginning with Escape From Freedom, which I read and marked up several times. I don't remember how I reacted to Fromm's writings on religion, but I approach this book again with a much sharper and more critical eye as to the weaknesses of Fromm's methodology, weaknesses shared with liberal religion:

Psychoanalysis and Religion - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This is not a very good Wikipedia entry, but it's one entry point into Fromm's Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950). I know I read this book at least twice before, because my copy is full of marginal scribbling, beginning with "completed for the second time 7/19/73".

I read and liked much of Fromm's work in English. The only one that did nothing for me was his best-seller The Art of Loving. My criticism of him 35 years ago, when I last seriously engaged him, was that he was overly idealistic. I thought him rather uncritical and gullible in his selection of heroes; he even included Pope John XXIII somewhere, which I thought was unacceptably shallow on his part. And I think he was entirely too gullible about D.T. Suzuki's propaganda for Zen. But then I left Fromm alone until I re-engaged the Frankfurt School serious in the '90s.

This is an apt summary of the first 41 pages of the book:

Religious Experience Resources - Reviews

You may discern even from this bare abstract the conceptual beefs I will have with Fromm. Left out of account here is Fromm's advocacy of Freud as humanist and critique of Jung as reactionary authoritarian. Fromm was right about Jung.

The nature of this web site notwithstanding, this quote from Fromm nicely captures the existential dilemma of human existence which is one cornerstone of Fromm's work:

MY BIOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE: --Excerpt from: Erich Fromm " Psychoanalysis and Religion"

Fromm is interested, as religion and philosophy once were, in investigating the "soul", a word he uses to indicate something not captured in the purview of experimental psychology. Psychoanalysis and religion both have an interest here.
     I want to show that to set up alternatives of either irreconcilable opposition or identity of interest is fallacious; a thorough and dispassionate discussion can demonstrate that the relation between religion and psychoanalysis is too complex to be forced into either on of these simple and convenient attitudes.

. . . it is not true that we have to give up the concern for the soul if we do not accept the tenets of religion . . . . He [the pyschoanalyst] finds that the question is not whether man returns to religion and believes in God but whether he lives love and thinks truth. If he does so the symbol systems he uses are of secondary importance. If he does not they are of no importance. [p. 9]
Relegating the the symbol systems and belief to secondary status I think is quite wrong and indicative of Fromm's idealist abstractions. As we shall see later on, he was unduly influenced by the Talmud.

My memories of Fromm's other writings on religion are vague and scattered. I know at one time I read these relevant books:

The Forgotten Language; an introduction to the understanding of dreams, fairy tales, and myths (1951)
Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (1960)
The Dogma of Christ and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology and Culture (1963)
You Shall Be as Gods: a radical interpretation of the Old Testament and its tradition (1966)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Soviet atheism revisited in jest

This is of course a huge topic, but I recently stumbled across a mock-nostalgia page on the Soviet Union, with particular mock-nostalgia for the Stalin era:

"A realm where no kulak goes un-liquidated, no five-year-plan goes un-overfulfilled, and no Great Leader and Teacher goes un-venerated."

Contents of this site can be found here:

Charter of the Cyber-USSR

So, from the period of stagnation:

Moscow University, 1977-1978: Courses on atheism

And from the period of "militant atheism" in the 1920s:

Some anti-religious cartoons and articles in the journal Bezbozhnik (1924, 1927).

There are several links on this page to sample materials in Russian, including covers of this periodical directed against Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. (What, no Hinduism?)

"Militant atheism" in the USSR was crude, and in the Stalin period, became even cruder, with a sledgehammer ideological and instrumentalist approach accompanying "socialist construction". This crudity, accompanying the virtual deification of Stalin, is what a peasant society undergoing crash modernization gives you, a monstrosity the likes of which were not to be seen again until Mao's Cultural Revolution.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Ludwig Feuerbach 13: Nina Power on Feuerbach on religion

Here is a 4-minute video by philosopher and social theorist Nina Power:

Radical thinkers: Ludwig Feuerbach on religion - video

This is on the occasion of Verso Books' re-publication of the anthology The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings by Ludwig Feuerbach, translated by Zawar Hanfi.

This is a collection of Feuerbach's shorter philosophical writings. We are fortunate that it is now back in print. For the contents and other writings by and about Feuerbach in English see my bibliography of Ludwig Feuerbach.

Feuerbach is most known for his views on religion, in particular his epoch-making book The Essence of Christianity (1841). Power references this work in her video. While I can't recall the items I've read, I know I have read some very intelligent pieces by her. I have no real complaints about this brief introduction to Feuerbach, but I would contrast Feuerbach with the so-called "new atheists" in a different way. It is not a question of belligerence vs sympathy for believers, but one of methodology, depth, and insight. There is more to be mined in Feuerbach than has been mobilized to date. Feuerbach is incomparably richer in insight than Dawkins' drivel about memes, religion as virus, and similar ideologically driven pseudo-explanations, and that goes for the others on the bandwagon of the journalistically dubbed new atheism. For me the watchword is a later Feuerbach work:

Lectures on the Essence of Religion (1851), translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. (See Lectures I & XXX offsite, Lecture 1 (Part II), Lecture 2 and more on my site.)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hubert Harrison's 130th birthday

I can't believe that, with the exception of a passing mention, I haven't blogged about the great autodidact, freethinker, radical, polymath Hubert Harrison (April 27, 1883 - December 17, 1927), the 'father of Harlem radicalism'.

Many years ago, in 1993 I believe, I was introduced to the Harrison scholar Jeff Perry by my late friend and colleague Jim Murray. I had long been interested in Harrison as a neglected figure but important to me because of his atheism and autodidacticism. As librarian/archivist of the C.L.R. James Institute, I created a web presence for Harrison and Jeff's work:

The Hubert Harrison Center

We hosted Jeff and Harrison's granddaughter for a book talk when A Hubert Harrison Reader appeared:

The C.L.R. James Institute Presents: Researching Hubert Harrison: An Evening with Jeff Perry

Since then, Jeff has developed his own web site: Jeffrey B. Perry. The first volume of his Harrison autobiography has been published:

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

Recently, Jeff gave a talk in Washington, DC on Harrison and Theodore W. Allen's On "The Invention of the 'White' Race". It was a masterful presentation and not dumbed down as the general culture has become. It is important to know that Allen was a serious autodidactic scholar whose research into the origins of racial slavery is different from the silly stuff that goes under the rubric of "Whiteness Studies" today, and the notion of "white skin privilege" as a means of ruling class social control could not be more different from today's self-serving cant about "white male privilege."

But today let us toast to the 130th birthday of Hubert Harrison. Here's to the resurrection of historical memory!

See also, on my web site:

Black / African-American / African Atheism

African American / Black autodidacticism, intellectual life, education: bibliography

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Confucian 'humanism' revisited

Revisiting this post on the The New Humanism Blog:

Confucian Humanism

This is an unintentional reminder of the corruption and exploitation that is the "People's Republic" of China. Note my comment, posted on June 16, 2010:
The resurgence of Confucianism as a cynical ideological deflection of corruption and social inequality is nauseating in itself, but it also raises the question of the vague deployment of the term “humanism”. Confucius has often been mislabeled a humanist because this philosophy is this-worldly, rather than other-worldly, but in this one instance the Maoists were right. Confucianism and secular humanism are completely incompatible. “Humanism”, while anathema to the Christian right, sounds warm and cuddly to others, hence the promulgation of obscurantist humanisms among intellectuals from various cultures, e.g. “African humanism”, also a spurious ideological construct.
Note also the follow-up comment by Jim Farmelant.

Monday, April 15, 2013

John Horgan on scientific materialism / scientific debate on "nothing"

Is Scientific Materialism “Almost Certainly False”? By John Horgan. Scientific American blogs: Cross-Check; January 30, 2013.

I have decidedly contrary feelings about this article. Towards the beginning, Horgan states:
. . . science’s limits have never been more glaringly apparent. In their desperation for a “theory of everything”—which unifies quantum mechanics and relativity and explains the origin and structure of our cosmos—physicists have embraced pseudo-scientific speculation such as multi-universe theories and the anthropic principle (which says that the universe must be as we observe it to be because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it). Fields such as neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and complexity have fallen far short of their hype.
I begin sympathetically. Horgan then cites Thomas Nagel's objections to evolutionary theory (the origin of life itself) and evolutionary psychology, which Horgan shares. Horgan becomes rather confused in his assertions and arguments, thus vitiating his thesis. He should have been more specific in targeting the ideological dimension of science popularization. His discrediting of "scientific materialism" tout court as if it equates with positivism and reductionism discredits his argument.

Horgan concludes:
These qualms asides, I recommend Nagel’s book, which serves as a much-needed counterweight to the smug, know-it-all stance of many modern scientists. Hawking and Krauss both claim that science has rendered philosophy obsolete. Actually, now more than ever we need philosophers, especially skeptics like Socrates, Descartes, Thomas Kuhn and Nagel, who seek to prevent us from becoming trapped in the cave of our beliefs.
Horgan is on the right track regarding the philosophical popularizing of Hawking and Krauss, but otherwise he messes up.

I am now reminded that I need to finish and publish my essay "Can science render philosophy obsolete?". Here is a passage:
Only in the case where our intuitions are completely defeated by scientific knowledge, as in the case of quantum mechanics, could scientific knowledge be viewed as uninterpreted mathematically organized experimentally organized data sets. And yet the notorious history of popularization and mystical appropriations of physics over the past century reveal that no one in practice appropriates physics—the alleged master science—purely as uninterpreted mathematically organized data sets, though that is one ideology of science among others. And in the apprenticeship of physics, students surely create or appropriate some intuitions that allow their models to be graspable, however elusive they may be or inexpressible in ordinary language.
My larger argument is that philosophy has not been rendered obsolete, and such an assertion betrays the naivete of even the greatest of scientists who blithely promulgate such ideological piffle. Horgan, unfortunately, wastes his opportunity to make a meaningful correction. Readers' comments are also uninspiring.

A revealing case study of the issue can be found in a forum moderated by Neil de Grasse Tyson:

2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: The Existence of Nothing (March 20, 2013)

Here is the YouTube video itself:

Here is some of my running commentary in real time:
Physical, not philosophical question? Understand something, then absence . . . Let's see what develops. Space & time --> create universes? Problem with words indeed. (Krauss)

Objection: vacuum isn't nothing. Krauss perturbed. How, not why? Our universe didn't exist -- gravity with zero energy. Even laws don't have to exist. Multiverse: laws of universe come into existence with universe. Some universes without quantum mechanics? Eve Silverstein: space-time is emergent . . . . dimensions.

8:35 pm: argument over philosophical issues: in history of physics, e.g. Mach on reality of atoms; Einstein vs quantum mechanics . . . . Jim Holt isn't buying the pro-nothing position. Krauss has an interesting spiel, but I'm with Holt so far.

Holt: nothing is not a fruitful philosophical notion.

8:52pm: J. Richard Gott: nothing not even there. Tyson: after death, like before birth: your consciousness does not exist.

8:54pm: Krauss: universe came from nothing. Empty space, no time, no laws: everything came from nothing. Photons come from nothing. (Tyson: wrong.) Universe like zero energy photon. Our universe came from nothing. What if all possible laws exist? ME: incoherent.

8:57pm: Eve Silverstein: nothing ground state of ---- quantum system.

9:00pm: Tyson: nothing behind head of universes .....?? evolution of what's there not there with advance of scientific knowledge. Empty space . . . . now space not empty either . . . . now thinking outside our universe . . . . nothing? "Nothing" elusive . . . . just an illusion? There's always something behind it, even laws . . . . maybe no resolution. Nothing just null set in the final analysis?

9:01pm: Q-A begins.

9:03 pm: Charles Seife: infinity and nothing interdependent concepts.

9:07 pm: Eva: Experimental evidence of nothing? There's evidence of inflationary theory.

9:22 pm Krauss: Why always means how. ME: This I agree with.
Jim Holt and Lawrence Krauss are in vigorous opposition. Holt finds Krauss's assertions about nothing incoherent, as do I. Note for example the oddity of asserting that the laws of physics exist prior to any actual universe: this sounds like Platonism. My fragmentary commentary above doesn't really cover what's going on here; you will have to watch the video. But note how difficult it is to translate physico-mathematical theories into ordinary language. Tyson himself grapples with this difficulty in querying Krauss. He is not vociferous as Holt is, but he seems to find the same difficulties as we laypersons do in making sense of the concept of "nothing" as applied to cosmology. I conclude that those who trumpet that philosophy is obsolete ought instead to refrain from popularization altogether, especially when combined with (anti-)philosophical propaganda.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Science, Scientism, & Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism

Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism
by Susan Haack,
Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 21.6, November / December 1997.

I once attended a lecture by Susan Haack on logic, in 1980. I subsequently read her book Philosophy of Logics (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978). Since then, she's written on broader issues.

Here she decries the corruption of standards in academia, particularly in philosophy. She sees it being corrupted by business imperatives, careerism, and the interdependent dynamic of scientism and anti-scientism. An example of the former is the lucrative area of cognitive science, eclipsing epistemology. As for anti-science, she roundly condemns, as she should, feminist philosophy, which she regards as a sham.

A key quote on the interdependence of scientism and anti-science:

"Now one begins to see why the revolutionary scientism encountered in contemporary philosophy often manifests a peculiar affinity with the anti-scientific attitudes which, as I conjecture, are prompted by resentment, as scientism is prompted by envy, of the sciences. Both parties have become disillusioned with the very idea of honest inquiry, of truth-seeking."

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sidney Hook Recanonized (1)

I'd have to think twice about wasting a dollar on Sidney Hook, so I got a friend to buy Sidney Hook Reconsidered (edited by Matthew J. Cotter, afterword by Richard Rorty; Prometheus Books, 2004) for me for $6.98. It is a deeply reactionary book, with the final section devoted to reminiscences, the worst puff pieces of the book. The sticking point with Hook is of course Hook's redbaiting and his move ever farther to the right as the decades wore on. By and large this is acknowledged but with outright endorsement or nuanced defense.

For example, in "Politics and Dogmas: Hook's Basic Ideals," Robert B. Talisse emphasizes distinctions in Hook's position on purging Communist Party members from teaching and other positions, but defending the warranted assertability of Hook's assumption that the Communist Party was intent on overthrowing American democracy and that members by signing on to it could be presumed to be following Moscow's alleged marching orders (p. 124)

Much of the book is obnoxious. Paul Kurtz, instrumental in making a hero of Sidney Hook, is vacuous as ever. Rorty is as bad or worse than usual.  This whole book reminds me of the backwardness of the American secularist movement. What has changed is that what remains of that generation is dying off, and hence its preoccupations.

Informative at least is David Sidorsky's "Introduction: Charting the Intellectual Career of Sidney Hook: Five Major Steps." The five steps are pragmatism, Marxism, anticommunism, neoconservativism, and Enlightenment naturalism. Sidorsky gives an account of Hook's epistemological perspective of his 1927 The Metaphysics of Pragmatism, but one must go to the work itself to get whatever genuine substance there is. Some account of Hook's Marxist phase is given, and his transformation at the end of the 1930s facing the twin evils of Hitler and Stalin.

I see almost no value to Hook after his Marxist period was over, with the exception of defending secularism ("The New Failure of Nerve," etc.) under attack by the religious revival of the early 1940s and the feudal nostalgia of Mortimer Adler and company and the attempt to turn the clock back at the University of Chicago. I see no reason as yet to revise this assessment. Just from reading the barebones account here, I gather that Hook found himself at the dead end at the end of the '30s as so many leftists found themselves a decade later, when the practical choices apparently foisted on them were Washington and Moscow. Hook's dissatisfaction not merely with Stalinism but also with Trotskyism apparently left him little room to maneuver. His defense of free inquiry and democracy, the supposed basis of his subsequent development, proceeded on a very thin basis. The platitudes of pragmatism don't seem to have gotten him very far.

One interesting fact: Hook split with James Burnham not over their shared anticommunism, but on the issue of McCarthy's hijacking of the anticommunist cause (46). I guess this makes Hook look better, as Sidorsky ends up justifying Hook's anticommunist crusade. Hook did remain an advocate of democratic socialism, or more accurately, social democracy (welfare state liberalism).

Hook's neoconservatism was political, not economic or religious, in reaction to the New Left of the 1960s, especially in the universities. By 1975 he abandoned his residual loyalty to the ideas of Marx, and became concerned with the alleged excesses of egalitarianism in the academy. Sidorsky's account of multiculturalism as forced group consensus, thus justifying Hook's position, is rather dubious and the wrong basis on which to attack the tacit ideological basis of multiculturalism. The ideal of free inquiry notwithstanding, in practice how many academics are free of prevailing intellectual trends in their institutions whatever their philosophical or political loyalties?

Whatever else changed, Hook remained steadfast in his advocacy of Enlightenment naturalism.

Sidorsky ends by recounting an exchange of letters with Hook, who accepted a criticism, days before his death. He recounts a couple of other examples of Hook's teaching.  Hook's life of being perpetually "out of step" with prevailing trends is vindicated.

Thus the tone is set for the insipid boosterism that follows.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

James Schmidt on Max Horkheimer & Dialectic of Enlightenment

Originally having read the first two articles in January 2007, I blogged about them on my Studies in a Dying Culture blog a couple months later, but only briefly. Since then, the URLs changed, and I now offer some additional observations. I subsequently address the third and to me the most exciting of the articles on the context in which Dialectic of Enlightenment and Eclipse of Reason were generated.

Schmidt, James. "Language, Mythology, and Enlightenment: Historical Notes on Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment," Social Research, Vol. 65, Issue 4, Winter 1998. Preprint.

James Schmidt reviews the genesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment as Philosophical Fragments, Marcuse’s incomprehension, the authors’ views of the debasement of language (exemplified in Hitler's radio addresses), the parallels with Hegel’s phenomenology, and the logic of what became the title essay. Schmidt finds D of E unique in comparison with Counter-Enlightenment literature.

50 years on one cannot properly assess D of E without reconstructing the process and context in which it was composed, including how the initial collection of fragments became more of a real book, and the excision of explicit references to Marxism by Adorno. In this and other essays Schmidt takes pains to distinguish Horkheimer's view from other attacks on the Enlightenment and reversion to Counter-Enlightenment ideologies in the 1940s. Horkheimer opposed the reinstitution of banckward-looking philosophies such as Neo-Thomism which were gaining momentum in the USA. A key point of D of E is a complementarity often overlooked: not only does Enlightenment become myth, but myth, already from ancient times, becomes Enlightenment. First, there is magic, then myth, then Enlightenment, and with the ultimate stripping of all intrinsic meaning, we are back to myth and magic. (Horkheimer attempted to keep in touch with one academic discipline in this period -- anthropology -- in line with his interest in magic and myth.) However, the goal of Dialectic of Enlightenment was to rescue the Enlightenment from the dead end to which it had allegedly attained. The planned sequel to this work, a positive theory of dialectics, was never written.

Schmidt, James. "The Eclipse of Reason and the End of the Frankfurt School in America," New German Critique, no. 100, Winter 2007, pp. 47-76.

The Eclipse of Reason is often treated as a footnote to Dialectic of Enlightenment. It was initially greeted with enthusiasm by Leo Lowenthal, but Horkheimer grew to harbor serious doubts about it. The troubled relationship between the Institute for Social Research and Columbia University's Sociology Dept. and a concern over the popularity of Franz Neumann also figure in. The Eclipse of Reason has its origin in a lecture series Horkheimer delivered at Columbia in 1944, after Lowenthal sifted through the proposed topics. The differences between the book and the lectures are detailed. Horkheimer also had difficulties grappling with the philosophy of Dewey, not to mention processing his ideas in English for an American audience. Horkheimer's anxiety about the book's reception proved to be founded. It received an enthusiastic review from then-prominent American philosopher Arthur E. Murphy. On the other hand, Glenn Negley gave the book a blistering review. John R. Everett was not so nasty, but still gave a thumbs down to the book, particularly criticizing Horkheimer's take on American naturalism. The book ended up in a Gimbel's sale in 1952 for 59 cents, having failed to make an impact.

Schmidt, James. The “New Failure of Nerve,” The Eclipse of Reason, and the Critique of Enlightenment in New York and Los Angeles, 1940-1947. Munich, Center for Advanced Studies, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, May 2011.

Here we find an instance in which intellectual traditions usually examined separately come together.  One aspect of the relevant intellectual history is the surge of irrationalism and the revolt against modernity and Enlightenment reason that became fashionable in the USA in the 1940s. (The popularity of Kierkegaard is part of this story, though not treated here. See George Cotkin's Existential America.  I also need to write a screed about how Richard Wright's use of Kierkegaard was entirely opposite to the trend.) Other intellectual histories focus on the conservative project of Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago, which involved also the creation of the Great Books enterprise, a grandiose and successful marketing phenomenon though maybe not so successful in the goal of turning the clock back. It is also well documented that a coalition of left and liberal intellectuals were united in opposing this Counter-Enlightenment trend. Sidney Hook, known to historians of American philosophy and secular humanists, dubbed this disturbing retreat "the new failure of nerve".

There are also histories of the Partisan Review cohort and the "New York intellectuals".  Dwight Mcdonald was part of this history, as one of these intellectuals, a prominent anti-Stalinist of the left, and a critic of mass culture.

And then there is the Frankfurt School, in this period in exile in the USA.  All of these histories come together in this essay.

Adorno reported to Horkheimer of a meeting with Macdonald, who waxed enthusiastic about the Frankfurters' work, at the moment in which he was embroiled in a struggle with the editors of Partisan Review. Horkheimer followed the 1943 "New Failure of Nerve" dispute and even planned an intervention that was never completed, but this fed into his work on the Enlightenment. Adler scapegoated contemporary positivists and secular liberals as the intellectuals responsible for Nazism, opposed to the American way of life. Jacques Maritain and Carlton J. H. Hayes echoed this line. And this was part of a whole trend linking Enlightenment rationalism to nihilism and Germany's fascist fate.

Given the extreme statements made in Dialectic of Enlightenment, it is easy to marshal this work into the service of reactionary thought, however the book work is transhistorical in scope and not much about the actual historical period known as the Enlightenment.

What tends to be most memorable about Dialectic of Enlightenment are those pithy formulations (most infamously, the three words: “Enlightenment is totalitarian”) that would appear to confirm what readers are ready to assume: that the foundations of the Nazi terror were laid by the Enlightenment. It is all too easy to miss the fact that Horkheimer and Adorno never draw the conclusion to which the perversity thesis typically leads: the admonition that, since efforts at enlightenment yield produce perverse results, the project should be abandoned. In intent, if not always in execution, Dialectic of Enlightenment pursues an argument of a rather different sort.  As Adorno argued in Minima Moralia, “Not least among the tasks now confronting thought is that of placing all the reactionary arguments against Western culture in the service of progressive enlightenment.” Such a strategy is not without its risks and, in their attempt to thwart the perverse effects of an enlightenment gone awry, Horkheimer and Adorno produced a book that yielded a perverse effect of its own: a legion of readers who assume that the book constitutes a rejection of “the Enlightenment project” root and branch, rather than an attempt to understand how enlightenment might be rescued from what it threatened to become.
In Horkheimer's correspondence with Hutchins, one sees a bemoaning of a decline since the Renaissance, which sounds familiar to those familiar with the argument that Enlightenment breeds nihilism. But:
On the one hand, their point was that enlightenment falls back into myth:  all of the substantive principles that generations of enlighteners had sought to oppose to mythology turn out to be no less mythical than the traditional prejudices that they sought to dismantle.  Yet, on the other hand, myth is already enlightenment: it already represents an effort to understand nature, rather than simply mimic it and, hence, already represents a contribution to the process of enlightenment.
Horkheimer had earlier published his essay “The End of Reason,” according to which the decline of individuality is mirrored in the history of philosophy, wherein its anti-metaphysical thrust ultimately vaporizes reason itself. Horkheimer and Adorno were also engaged with Freud and the study of myth.  But if myth is the genesis of enlightenment, then what did myth replace?  The answer is: magic. Hence Horkheimer and Adorno engaged the concept of mimesis, which was treated in Walter Benjamin's work. Horkheimer also studied sociologist Marcel Mauss’ work on magic, and absorbed a swath of sociological and anthropological literature.
Some of the difficulties of this maddeningly dense [first] chapter begin to dissipate once it is recognized that the fulcrum around which it turns has less to do with the opposition between myth and enlightenment — an opposition that had been a standard trope among conservative cultural critics in the 1920s — than with a wildly speculative philosophical anthropology that sketches an account of the development of human relationships with nature in which magical/mimetic interactions are replaced by those efforts at conceptualization and categorization that are fundamental both to mythological forms of thought and to modern, scientific approaches to nature. Drawing on Benjamin’s discussion of the weakening of the “mimetic faculty,” Mauss’ account of magical practices, and Caillois’ discussion of mimetic forms of adaptation in the insect world, Dialectic of Enlightenment repeatedly invokes what Horkheimer characterized in one of the notes appended to the book as a “hidden history” in which mute, bodily reactions to the overwhelming force of nature were gradually channeled into magical practices that controlled and ritualized these spontaneous forms mimetic adaptation.
The process of enlightenment from mimesis to myth to demythologization is driven by fear, so the argument goes. Note that this argument precludes any return to a premodern past.

Meanwhile, Sidney Hook, John Dewey, and Ernest Nagel were busy defending naturalism from the accusations of the philosophical right wing. Hook led the charge, with a mighty powerful argument. Norbert Guterman, a Polish emigre, defended Kierkegaard. He 'suggested that those “modern ‘existentialist’ philosophers” who claimed to be Kierkegaard’s heirs had, in fact, far more in common with the “rationalists” they claimed to denounce'. The arguments of other debaters are summarized.

Macdonald was already antagonistic to Hook and company, accusing Hook of failing to understand the why of the “rising tide of obscurantism”.  Macdonald saw the draining of meaning as a result of historical and social forces, contrasting the ideological struggle of World War II with that of the Napoleonic wars. As Schmidt puts it: 'While the armies of revolutionary France sought to “politicize the struggle,” the forces engaged in the battle against Hitler’s armies made every effort to play down the ideological stakes'. I think this aspect of war propaganda is worth looking into. Macdonald drew a distinction between the affirmative values of the rising bourgeoisie and the draining of meaning and value by the contemporary bourgeoisie, intent on preserving capitalism sans the assertive progressive values of the early bourgeoisie. And here one finds Macdonald's sour view of mass culture. Not surprising that Adorno, author of the landmark essay on the culture industry, would enthuse over Macdonald.

We see from citations from Horkheimer's letters in 1943 and 1944 that Horkheimer intended to enter the "new failure of nerve" debate, while immersed in the Dialectic of Enlightenment project, which nevertheness did not expand in scope from 1944 to its formal publication in 1947. Some of what Horkheimer was writing found its way into Eclipse of Reason.  Horkheimer labeled Hook, Dewey, and Nagel as positivists, and seems to have been more sympathetic to their opponents, though he did recognize that they were fighting a rearguard action. Horkheimer argued that the neopositivists could be hoisted by the same petard as the neo-Thomists. Horkheimer's schema, which you will find in Eclipse of Reason, involves the question of "objective reason", which has disappeared by the exclusive modern focus on "subjective reason". Schmidt continues:

If science is to serve as a bulwark against obscurantism — a stance that Horkheimer sees as fundamental to “the great tradition of humanism and the Enlightenment” — it is incumbent on it to provide a principle that can serve as “the criterion for the true nature of science.”  But instead, all that is offered is a set of “empirical procedures” whose claim to truth rests on nothing more than the “dogmatic criteria of scientific success.” In its “preference for uncomplicated words and sentences that can be grouped at a glance,” positivism falls prey to the “anti-intellectual, anti-humanistic tendencies apparent in the development of modern language, as well as cultural life in general.”  Its failure to offer any resistance to these tendencies suggests that it, too, suffers from a “failure of nerve.”
As Horkheimer himself admitted, his own project was incomplete and subject to similar criticism, and he was projecting a follow-up “positive theory of dialectics,” which never came to fruition.

Ruth Nanda Anshen's praise for Eclipse of Reason drew a rejoinder from Horkheimer, emphasizing that he does not advocate a pseudo-religion or a return to myth. ("Objective reason" in this argument is equated with a return to outmoded metaphysical views.) Here is a quote directly from Horkheimer:
She leans heavily on pseudo-religious prestige values and boldly proclaims her belief in some of the most commonplace, universally accepted ideas.  My intentions are precisely the opposite. In spite of my critique of “subjective reason” and its relapse into a second mythology – a critique bearing only a superficial resemblance to certain antipathies nourished by Dr. Anshen – I have never advocated a return to an even more mythological “objective reason” borrowed from history.  … I have attacked enlightenment in the spirit of enlightenment, not of obscurantism.
But Horkheimer's protest was in vain. For the intent of Dialectic of Enlightenment is too often and too easily misunderstood.

Schmidt's essays are invaluable in interpreting the full meaning of this landmark work of Horkheimer and Adorno, which was quite novel in its time. All things considered, though, I still maintain that the thesis of this work is false, and that only the seminal chapter on the culture industry is worth salvaging.

See also:

Jeffrey Herf on Reactionary Modernism & Dialectic of Enlightenment

R. Dumain's Critique of Dialectic of Enlightenment

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gender & race wars in the secular movement (1)

As a peripheral observer of the atheist/ humanist/ skeptics/ secularist movement, who only intermittently keeps up with goings-on in the movement and hardly ever reads the relevant blogs, I find my sense of reality challenged by the controversies raging within it, mostly over women's issues but also over racial issues, and of course the two combined. I have always found this movement (in the USA at least) so shallow that I cannot take seriously the terms of these debates, as the very people dissenting from the prevailing order of this movement are interested in claiming an identity in it, and this identity is something I don't believe in in the first place.

To claim oneself as a feminist skeptic or a black skeptic, for instance, to me means in the first place that however one redefines the issues, one has already accepted not only the labels but the tacit conceptual basis for these labels. While I do take seriously the issue of harassment and character defamation of women in the secular movement, I do not take so seriously the framing of the ideological issues within it. Its fundamental premises are bourgeois. This may not be so obvious because the dissenters represent or claim to represent progressive causes. However, the ideological basis of these causes and their relation to the context in which they operate changes over time.

It is difficult to see this because Americans have to confront two historical breaks which have instituted our historical amnesia: McCarthyism and Reaganism.  I gave the briefest outline of how this affects the tacit ideological underpinnings of the explicit ideological assertions of the humanist movement, in my previous post, John Shook & the banality of humanism's dead liberalism. I will quote just one paragraph, in which I distinguish the left liberals/soft socialists of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto from today's "liberals":
 All of these people were products of a different era from the generations that produced the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s. In addition to class-based agitation, this period foregrounded the new social movements--black civil rights & black power (along with other mushrooming ethnic movements), feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, etc.  What survives of all this, however, is predicated on the destruction of the old social liberalism that was undergirded by the labor movement.  Hence what passes for liberalism now is not class-based social equality, but the equal right of members of marginalized groups to participate at all levels of class exploitation. Our black president is the logical outcome of this historical trend.
You can read the rest yourself. What I need to add is that the movements of the 1960's and '70s cannot simply be isolated as black, women's, gay, etc. movements. There existed an entire spectrum of political positions associated with each of these movements. And social class was alive as an issue in a different way than it is today, as the old social liberalism (welfare state capitalism cum industrial trade unionism) is dead as a political force. Hence the notion of what it means to be progressive today hinges on fighting the right-wing assault based on their "cultural issues": defending women's rights, black voting rights, the status of Latinos, etc. Of course there is also a battle on defending public service unions and the social safety net. Nevertheless, the framing of the battles on behalf of marginalized and discriminated-against groups is shaped by the overall political context of today.

What remains of the consideration of class is encompassed in the left bourgeois notion of intersectionality and the childish deployment of the concept of privilege. Study of the intersections of race and class and gender and class goes back a long way, but the framing of these issues is a result of the combination of progress and regress since the end of the 1970s: increased consciousness of the issues raised by the new social movements combined with the eclipse of class politics. As for privilege, this notion grew out of the radical '60s in the context of left-wing organizing confronting the labor movement. The concept is now reduced to privileged middle class professionals baiting ostensibly more privileged middle class professionals.

As for the actual marginalization of various groups within secularist etc organizations, others will have to testify. However, the situation is complicated not only by the gatekeeping practices of organizations, conference organizers, etc., and by explicit positions taken by public figures, but by the atmosphere of the blogosphere, social networking, and cyberspace generally. As for the debaters who are recognized public figures, to what extent are the debates artifacts of competing self-promoters as superficial in their pronouncements as their opponents? How much of the alleged "war on women" actually concerns the recognizable organized secularist etc. movement and how much the free-for-all of commenters on blogs and social networks and YouTube wars? The fact that harassment and character assassination should exist at all and must be endured or fought is itself depressing.  Why not just attack someone's half-baked ideas when the occasion arises, if that is what is really at stake, and leave it at that?

The freethought community, on matters of social/political thinking, is as shallow as the rest of American society. Social issues should certainly not be silenced or discouraged, but that doesn't mean everyone who brings them up is a genius. We live in a media-saturated environment in which everyone reacts to everything. but unfortunately superficiality dominates all discussions. It is typical of argument in America: he said-she said. Who wants to participate in such discussions ad nauseam?

Friday, January 25, 2013

John Shook & the banality of humanism's dead liberalism

“Humanism at its core, at the heart of its ethical project, is the statement of a difficult problem, and not an elitist ideology offering simple platitudes.”

— John Shook, “With Liberty & Justice for All,” Humanist, January / February 2013

But actually, humanism in the USA intellectually really is little more than a collection of platitudes, and John Shook's essay demonstrates this.

When the first Humanist Manifesto was issued in 1933, capitalism was awash in its worst crisis, fascism menaced the world, Stalinism was the major alternative as a global political force, and Roosevelt's New Deal was about to be born to rescue American capitalism from the other two alternatives. In this context, the left-liberal and soft socialist declarations of humanism in the USA meant something, even without a political force to back it up. The 14th principle reads:
The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.
The actual political force bringing about whatever possibilities of this being realized in the USA came from the burgeoning American industrial labor movement, with the major participation of its Communist and other left contingents. Social liberalism in the USA, more or less corresponding to what is known as social democracy in more civilized countries, became a reality for the first time.

Some of the leading humanist intellectuals were players in various reform movements. Philosophically, the works of such people as Corliss Lamont are not terribly sophisticated or interesting, though Lamont himself was active in peace and justice movements. John Dewey is the closest thing American humanists have as a philosophical patron saint. Nevertheless, one has to pursue his philosophical works beyond A Common Faith and beyond the literature proper to the humanist movement itself. The second most (undeservedly) honored philosophical personage in American humanism is Sidney Hook, but the anti-communist Hook, not the Hook who was one of the foremost among the few Marxist philosophers in the English-speaking world in the 1930s. The principle author of the draft of the 1933 Manifesto was Roy Wood Sellars, my favorite among the classic (pre-World War II) American philosophers and a man of the left, but his philosophical works are not really counted in the literature of American humanism.

All of these people were products of a different era from the generations that produced the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s. In addition to class-based agitation, this period foregrounded the new social movements--black civil rights & black power (along with other mushrooming ethnic movements), feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, etc.  What survives of all this, however, is predicated on the destruction of the old social liberalism that was undergirded by the labor movement.  Hence what passes for liberalism now is not class-based social equality, but the equal right of members of marginalized groups to participate at all levels of class exploitation. Our black president is the logical outcome of this historical trend.

Of course, many people attached to this new liberalism in a neoliberal (i.e. the new era of unregulated capitalism) era also have an interest in class-based justice, but generational turnover combined with historical amnesia have obscured how far to the right the political order, including the empty liberal gesturing of the Democratic Party, has been pulled.

This is the social environment in which the "new atheism" and the surge of activity overall in the atheist/humanist/skeptics is functioning. What do the ideologues of "humanism," who promise to offer more than mere "atheism," have to offer to explain world developments over the past 60 years or so and what concepts do they put forward to point the way out of the current political impasse, if impasse they even see?

John Shook's vacuous essay gives us a demonstration of the overall ideological backwardness of the atheist/humanist/skeptics movements. Shook enunciates the principles of the now-dead social liberalism:
As an ethical stance, humanism focuses on the individual and at the same time concerns itself with society; both commitments must remain bonded in mutual support, otherwise humanism makes no sense. History attests to the dangers of pursuing one to the detriment of the other, producing anti-humanist results. Societies that prioritize private liberty to excess, that let individuals accumulate all the powers they can, find that vast inequalities emerge. Those inequalities congeal into hierarchical social classes and rigid castes and severely restrict freedom of opportunity for all but the privileged and wealthy. On the other hand, societies that prioritize social justice too heavily, trying to equalize everyone’s wealth and status, find that vital initiative gets crushed beyond consolation. Where bureaucracy dictates investment and commerce, creativity goes unrewarded and opportunity is wasted.
Had Shook been more forthcoming, he would have stated this as a contest between capitalism and socialism. However, characterizing the problem with self-proclaimed socialist countries as those who "prioritize social justice too heavily" is not saying much about the provenance, history, and organization of such societies and to what extent the intent of their leaders is anymore geared toward social equality than ours is to democracy and the dignity of the individual. A simple balancing act between the abstractions of liberty and equality tells us nothing about the actual basis on which the class structure of any society is based. Bourgeois liberals and conservatives alike justify their positions on the basis of the same abstractions.  And in this fake balancing act, the actual mechanisms of capitalist exploitation are safely hidden.

Furthermore, there is no accounting for the extent to which any balance towards social justice was actually achieved and why it is being taken away now. Social liberalism has been politically dead in the USA for three decades at least. Not only does Shook regurgitate platitudes, but platitudes that are utterly useless given the irreversible shift to the right of the entire American political system.

Let us continue:
Balancing liberty and justice in healthy proportions is wiser than naively supposing that both can be maximized simultaneously. Human potential is too fragile and precious to abandon it to the caprice of private liberty or to entrust it to the rules of social justice. The individual needs freedoms within a supportive society, while society needs individuals to support the whole.
The first sentence is drivel. The principled enunciated in the rest of the passage were those of the Marxist humanists of the Yugoslav Praxis School with whom Paul Kurtz once dialogued and from whom he learned nothing. And while that school went down with Yugoslavia, Shook has nothing to say to compare to what these philosophers strove for.

Shook enunciates three general principles of the interdependency of individuality and sociality and then launches into a precis of the evolution of moral habits and responsibilities from primitive tribal organization on and the emergence of humanism within various civilizations. However, the master concepts of "culture" and "ethics" do not constitute a remotely usable basis for social theory.

Shook continues:
The only reasonable humanism trying to gradually improve people’s lives is one that starts with actual people as they really are, culture and all. Humanism opposes tribalism in any form, but it can’t stand aloof from culture itself, especially because many cultures are helpful repositories of humanistic wisdom with proven practical value.
This is worse than useless as social analysis. And not the word "gradually." An utterly useless liberalism that has no teeth in confronting the world in which we actually live. A reincarnated Dewey a century on is worthless, whereas the original Dewey performed at least some function for a burgeoning progressive liberalism. With Shook the keyword is "reform" repeated over and over against utopian schemes, i.e. a code word for "revolution" or "radicalism" or "socialism," which are in essence ruled out of court as anti-humanist. Shook wants to be a good liberal, but he has nothing to offer in the fashion of the good liberals of yesteryear.

The intellectual basis of humanism was always fairly thin, but as a strategic rallying point around a complex of issues it served a purpose. It still does as long as the participants in such a movement understand that it represents an alliance rather than a unity of social principles and that such a skeletal set of principles cannot serve as the basis for a complete social philosophy or world view.  Bourgeois liberals pride themselves on being the very embodiment of reason, but they are no such a thing. They are intellectually and ideologically underdeveloped, and thus the identity they claim in the end is just one more ideology to be overcome.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Life of Pi (film)

Saw the movie (spoiler alert:) Life of Pi yesterday afternoon. It was visually stunning. The acting was superb. The two-hour narrative was compelling, though I grew impatient with the long sojourn in the Pacific Ocean, which took up at least half the movie. As a film, it is definitely worth seeing. I have not read the novel.

However, thematically I have a big problem with it. For its major theme is belief vs reason, and while it gives reason some props, and preserves ambiguity, belief ends up having the upper hand.

The film is enacted mostly in flashbacks. Pi's story is supposed to convince a skeptical journalist of the existence of God. Pi himself as a young man develops a belief system in which he is a combination, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. (Later in life, as a scholar, he develops an interest in Judaism.) His brothers mock him for adopting several religions at once; his father, however, is a rationalist and skeptic, warning Pi not to be fooled by the pageantry of religious ceremonies as they distract from the darkness underlying all religion. Pi, raised in a zoo, develops an early empathy with animals, and even tries to develop a rapport with a tiger named Richard Parker, who eventually becomes the second most important character in the tale.  But Pi's father warns him not to project his own human emotions onto the tiger, giving him a graphic demonstration of what tigers as predators are really like.

Later on (spoiler alert) Pi spends half the movie trapped on a lifeboat with the tiger Richard Parker. This goes on a bit too long, and though not boring, could tax the patience of a viewer who rejects the basic premise of the narrative, which involves a paradoxical symbiosis between man and tiger.

The story Pi tells about this sojourn on the Pacific is so incredible that the question arises at the end whether, without corroborating evidence, it can be believed, or for that matter, an alternative story that Pi makes up.  And this is related to belief in God.

Pi does in the end give credit to his rationalist father for teaching him the survival skills necessary to deal with the tiger.  So in the spirit of eclectic liberal tolerance, rationalism too occupies a place of honor, even if in the end a subordinate one, in the pantheon of religious pluralism.

The emphasis on the believability and desirability of one possible narrative among others on the basis of congeniality alone strikes me as decidedly postmodern and consonant with the liberal religiosity congenial to the upper middle class, with an inherent appeal to a middle class middlebrow or art film audience. These people are suckers for Pi's eclectic spirituality. I do not like this.

Given the foregrounding of Pi's relationship with animals, particularly the tiger, I thought at first that the spirit of the film was essentially pantheistic, but the violence of nature is not soft-pedaled. Pi constantly invokes God, which inevitably points to theism, despite the misguided, unrealistic empathy with the tiger, who has to be tamed anyway.

I also have a problem I have with the essentially individualistic character of spirituality, common among religious people irrespective of education and class, but obnoxious in a special way in bourgeois spirituality. It doesn't matter how many people suffer as long as one person is miraculously spared. The faith of the lone survivor is always vindicated in this world view. But the universe is not your friend, and even if by chance it seems to act that way upon occasion, it surely ain't everybody's friend.

The unbelievable fantasy dimension of the narrative (the ocean odyssey) is irritating even though clever, and its framing in the context of belief in the existence of God is really a waste of the imagination deployed in concocting this tale. And the beautiful visual imagery, reflecting the exquisitely developed technology now at the filmmaker's disposal, reflects the disparity between our advanced technological capability and the constriction of our ideological universe.

I wrote most of the above review upon arriving home yesterday, before I discovered this article:

Life of Pi author Martel hears from Obama, Winnipeg Free Press, 04/8/2010

According to the article, the author received a letter of praise from President Obama. Read attentively what Obama wrote, and tell me this does not confirm my analysis to a 'T'. It's fitting to contemplate this amidst all the fakery of today's presidential inauguration:
"My daughter and I just finished reading Life of Pi together. Both of us agreed we prefer the story with animals. It is a lovely book -- an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling. Thank you." 
I can't think of a more fitting basis on which to condemn this story.

Globalization of obscurantism (2)

I have alternated posts on this topic on this blog and on my Studies in a Dying Culture blog.  The latest post on the latter blog is:

Globalization of obscurantist philosophy

There I lay out the underlying logic of this trend, with specific current examples.

Two other principle general entry points into this topic are:

Ethnoepistemology (Studies in a Dying Culture)

Globalization of obscurantism (this blog)

The most generic keywords on which to search this topic are ‘globalization’, ‘ethnophilosophy’, ‘postmodernism’, and ‘liberalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’. But any post on non-western philosophy is likely to be relevant, the most numerous being ‘Asian philosophy’ or ‘Chinese philosophy’, but also any philosophy related to India, but see also ‘American philosophy’ and ‘Native American philosophy’. Also 'Eurocentrism' and 'pluralism' are relevant keywords.

Norm Allen on humanism, politics, Malcolm X

"On Conceptions of Humanism, Freethought, Atheism, Rationalism, Skepticism, etc."
By Norm R. Allen Jr., December 21, 2012

Although Norm's argument that there is no necessary correlation between nontheism & political positions is correct, there are further implications, in that "humanism" too is almost politically meaningless though it promises more, in a strictly definitional sense, than "atheism". This is true for "secular humanism", all of its manifestos and affirmations notwithstanding, and a fortiori for religious humanism, which stretches the meaning to unlimited flexibility and hence virtual meaninglessness.

Norm recognizes the entire political spectrum that nontheists occupy. Among black atheists, he singles out the group of nationalist bigots (my designation) Black Atheists of Atlanta.  He did not mention other black nontheists who do not only advocate a tie to social justice issues but demagogically presume they represent black atheism as a whole in contraposition to white atheism. But black atheists, however the percentages may be skewed, also span the spectrum of political philosophies.

Back to Norm: Groups that couple a primary interest in atheism (or any of its synonyms) with a specific political philosophy should label themselves clearly reflecting their position. But also, there are nontheists who engage their social justice issues in other organizations and don't wish to narrow the common agenda of nontheists & secularists by tying down that movement to a specific political orientation.

The term "humanism' brings with it a source of confusion not found in the other terms:
Many humanists focus primarily on atheism, freethought, and rationalism. However, politically, they rend to be liberal or progressive. This causes much consternation among conservatives, libertarians and others that attend humanist gatherings. Yet unlike most of the other terms that non-theists use to describe themselves, humanism means a belief in humanity, and implies caring and concern for human beings, which usually translates into support for progressive social, political and economic programs. Conservatives, libertarians, and others might want to exercise caution when considering becoming involved with a humanist organization.
Perhaps a statistically oriented survey will bear out this generalization. However, many nontheists are not very discriminating about the labels or organizations they affiliate with or consider themselves humanists no matter how reactionary their politics. And the good liberals are not necessarily so discriminating either when choosing their heroes.

The problem is that the intellectual basis of the humanist movement is basically identical to that of any of the other labels used, and is so threadbare that it can't nail down anything more specific than general abstract principles, or platitudes. As a rule, humanism articulates certain general principles of liberal democracy, which are compatible with a range of political positions from capitalist libertarianism to Marxist humanism. (And this is not to take into account hypocrisy whatever the position taken.) This flexibility allows "humanism" to be a strategic focal point for organization and agitation in a variety of contexts, and for strategic alliances. But this does not make "humanism" a complete philosophy or world view. Not to see this is to fail to recognize that "humanism" essentially functions ideologically in the pejorative sense, that its proponents do not understand the deep structure of their own ideas.  For historical amplification, consult my podcast Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology (11/17/12).

So whatever your conviction is as to what constitutes a true humanism, whether it be Barry Seidman's anarchosyndalism, which is as analytically vacuous and platitudinous as humanist liberalism, or something else, your efforts at hijacking the concept of humanism in general will be futile.

The threadbare intellectual character of the humanist movement in the USA can be seen in another essay:

MALCOLM X FROM A BLACK HUMANIST VIEW By Norm R. Allen Jr., September 10, 2011

. . . which contains this preposterous assertion: "As far as Black leaders of national renown go, Malcolm seems to have been the leading critical thinker."

This is not only nonsense with respect to the entire history of black American political thought, but also with respect to Malcolm's contemporaries. I am reminded of a remark C.L.R. James once made when questioned about Malcolm X, responding that the person who really matters is Paul Robeson.  This remark implies a whole lot more than it says, for it points to a larger historical perspective lacking among Americans, black Americans included, as James asserted in another speech.

Malcolm X emerged in a political vacuum created by the silencing of the infinitely more sophisticated black left in the McCarthy era. Malcolm trashed mainstream American liberalism not from the left but from the right. One can focus on the more intelligent components of his speeches, but his defamation of the civil rights movement coupled with his alternative separatist fantasy bespeaks a decidedly inferior politics. A disciple of Elijah Muhammed's fascist religious cult, Malcolm could only be considered a critical thinker in a limited sense. Malcolm's world view could only be considered compatible with humanism in the last year of Malcolm's life when he renounced the Nation of Islam and refused to make authoritarianism and racialism the basis of his political world view (though he became an orthodox Muslim).

Norm to be sure is no blind hero-worshipper. Yet a critical evaluation of Malcolm demands more than a criticism of his sexism, the blandest, easiest, and most politically correct criticism to make. As for critical thinking, I've argued elsewhere that there is only critical thinking in particular, not critical thinking in general, and that "critical thinking" is selective and content-driven. See my bibliography Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: A Guide.

Philosophically, "humanism" has always been quite feeble though its platitudes are salutary. Here we have further confirmation of this philosophical anemia.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

3 takes on critical thinking

As I have noted before, I have a problem with the theory and practice of critical thinking. From my web guide and links you will be able to see why:

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: A Guide

Now here are some recently encountered examples of the problem:

(1) For a Better Society, Teach Philosophy in High Schools by Michael Shammas, The Huffington Post, 12/26/2012

This piece of airheaded fluff disproves the author's thesis. It's typical of a spineless formal liberalism that in fact commits itself to nothing other than the image of its own niceness. It is the clueless bourgeois ideology of an "open-mindedness" that means nothing, and an especially stupid specimen of it.

But since we are on the subject, you should know there is a whole literature on teaching philosophy in the classroom from early childhood on up. See the section on Philosophy for Children in my 'Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional: A Bibliography in Progress'.

(2) Five Critical Thinkers on Television by Breanne Harris, Critical Thinkers, July 26, 2010

Aside from this post being fluff, this web site is a representative of an entrepreneurial/consulting outfit, and the spin as well as the limits of the application of 'critical thinking' in an entrepreneurial setting should be evident. Bourgeois professionals are not prone to turning critical thinking on themselves except in that pseudo-detached fashion outlined in the first example. The exception I suppose is that small corner of left-liberal academia preoccupied by reflexivity, which translates into the politics of guilt.

(3) Educational Objective: Critical Thinking Skills, Ruthless Criticism

This little article is in a whole different category, as is this far left web site. The problem with several articles on this site is that there is no mediating analysis between the abstract concepts under review and the particulars of a political/social configuration in a way that would give us more than generalities.

If you read this article carefully, you should see that its critique applies to the tacit ideologies of the first two examples, especially the first. I do not find this to be an adequate critique, but it contains essential elements of a critique of 'critical thinking' that dovetails with my own.

The first point in this criticism relates to the educational emphasis on the critical subject, i.e. self-criticism. While the student is urged to be self-critical, where does one find the discussion of the objects that one can or should or cannot or should not be critical of? The sense of neutrality, of even-handedness and the avoidance of partisanship, is mocked, as it deserves.

The second admonition of the educational ideology of critical thinking, is skepticism. Again, there is an implicit critique of the formalism by which one can subjectively approach any topic with a skeptical point of view without actually knowing anything one way or the other. Note the criticism of the indifference to content.

Third, there is a criticism of relativization, that is, of the posture of modesty, which I presume to be an aspect of the posture of even-handedness and impartiality which is presumed to be ethically superior to 'ideology', extremism, partisanship.

Fourthly, there is a criticism of the presumption that there is a general critical capacity that needs only be awakened. This criticism and article ends most aptly, pooh-poohing "the possibility of criticizing something specific is supposed to exist in abstraction from each specific criticism, namely in the individual and not in what he has to criticize."

Such critiques of critical thinking seem to be very rare, at least in this part of the world. All these points are good ones, but the argument is far too adumbrated: without further exposition, the reader is likely to fail to grasp these points and to fill in the missing pieces of the argument as well as its necessary correlative overall structure.  This does nevertheless add something to my critique of the formalist, approach endemic to the critical thinking industry, without degenerating to postmodernist irrationalism.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Karel Kosík on the relation between past & present in cultural development

"The historical stages in the development of humanity are not empty forms from which life has evaporated because humanity has reached higher forms of development, but rather, through man's creative activity—praxis—are constantly being integrated into the present. The part concentrated in the present (in the dialectical sense, "superseded") creates human nature, that "substance" which includes both objectivity and subjectivity, both material relations and objectivized forces and the ability to "see" the world and explain it through various modes of subjectivity, that is, scientifically, artistically, philosophically, politically, etc."

— Karel Kosík, Dialectics of the Concrete

Still trying to fathom the implications of this statement.

Unresolved duality in Richard Hofstadter's historical method

Written April 2, 2011 at 7:52 pm 

Here's a telling clue:
Since Julius W. Pratt published his Expansionists of 1898 in 1936, it has been obvious that any interpretation of America's entry upon the paths of imperialism in the nineties in terms of rational economic motives would not fit the facts, and that a historian who approached the event with preconceptions no more supple than those, say, of Lenin's Imperialism would be helpless. This is not to say that markets and investments have no bearing; they do, but there are features of the situation that they do not explain at all. Insofar as the economic factor was important, it can be better studied by looking at the relation between the depression, the public mood, and the political system.

SOURCE: Hofstadter, Richard. “Cuba, the Philippines, and Manifest Destiny,” in: The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays; foreword by Sean Wilentz (New York: Vintage Books, 2008; 1st ed.: New York: Knopf, 1965), p. 183.

Lenin understood imperialism much better than Hofstadter, who, in the second paragraph, on the causes of the Spanish-American War, states: "The most striking thing about that war was that it originated not in imperialist ambition but in popular humanitarianism." (p. 145)  This follows upon an even more naive first paragraph, to the effect of: how could Americans do such a thing as engage in foreign conquest? This is quite revealing of an inherent flaw in American liberal and progressive historiography. As Hofstadter rebelled against the economism of Charles Beard and co. that prevailed in his youth, he was left with a curious dualism (or should I say, pluralism?) of material and ideal causes. Obviously, he learned nothing from the Marxism of the 1930s, but thanks to the economism of the dominant Soviet Marxism, it too suffered from a comparable flaw of suppressing theoretical comprehension of the ideological and even irrational subjective dimension of experience which itself is rooted in the objectivity of social relations. So, akin to the banality in John Dewey's view of society, Hofstadter leaves us with a multiplicity of factors rather than an integrated conception of structure. It's a shame, because the empirical depth in which Hofstadter engages in American political history is quite instructive concerning the configuration of America's entire pathological history.

Civil Rights Movement Concert at the White House (2010)

Written February 11, 2010 at 9:14 pm 

Just watched the White House musical tribute to the Civil Rights movement. The musical performances were quite uneven, and here I'm referring not to musical technique, but to emotional authenticity. The absolute worst offender was Yolanda Adams, who was consistently and absolutely emotionally fraudulent. Natalie Cole also messed up with lack of emotional backing for the song she sang. And this was true of some of Jennifer Hudson's singing. Just as bad was much of the musical accompaniment. I can't stand smooth jazz, or airy electric piano, or lightweight contrived panty music. If you're going to sing about civil rights, or anything with substance, sing it and play like you're actually feeling the message of the song. Or shut the fuck up.


Here's the whole awful event, courtesy of PBS:

In Performance at The White House A Celebration of Music From the Civil Rights Movement

Freethinker: a question of definition & taxonomy

Written September 23, 2010 at 2:31 am
A discussion is now in progress [Were Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes Freethinkers?: You be the judge] as to who is to be classified as a "freethinker". There are standard dictionary definitions, but the implications are hardly unambiguous. Here are some links that delve further into the implications of this term.

"Freethought Revival" / Susan Jacoby

Is "Freethinker" Synonymous with Nontheist?
Jeffery Jay Lowder

Rationalism  - It's Meaning and Implications
By Aparthib Zaman

Different Drummers: Nonconforming Thinkers in History.
Teacher Resource Section: Freethought and Religious Liberty:A Primer for Teachers

I am not satisfied with any of these approaches. My inclination is to tailor my taxonomy historically rather than to apply a single taxonomy to all times & places. By this I mean I see freethought as a historical cone, that takes in a wider spectrum in the past and excludes more and more unacceptable positions as we approach the present. But I have doubts that I can apply this principle authoritatively.

[See also:] Freethought by Amnon H Eden