As I have argued elsewhere, the attraction of political narratives that posit vast unseen conspiracies derives in part from the general tendency in modern intellectual life reflexively to suppose that “nothing is at it seems,” that reality is radically different from or even contrary to what common sense supposes it to be. This is a misinterpretation and overgeneralization of certain cases in the history of modern science where common sense turned out to be wrong, and when applied to moral and social issues it yields variations on the “hermeneutics of suspicion” associated with thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx.
Readers of this blog may recognize in Feser discussion above what I refer to as the Galileo Trap: the tendency or perhaps pathology that rejects all common experiences to embrace complex, difficult explanations that contradict them. In Galileo’s case, it happens that all common experiences tell you the world is stationary. Sure does not look or feel like we are moving at all. That the planet “really” is spinning at 1,000 miles an hour and whipping through space even faster proves, somehow, that all those gullible rubes relying on their lying eyes are wrong! Similar situations arise with relativity and motion in general, where the accepted science does not square with simple understanding based on common experience.
Historically, science sometimes presents explanations that, by accurately accommodating more esoteric observations, make common observations much more complicated to understand. Galileo notably failed to explain how life on the surface of a spinning globe spiraling through space could appear so bucolic. By offering a more elegant explanation of the motion of other planets, he made understanding the apparent and easily observed immobility of this one something requiring a complex account. But Galileo proved to be (more or less) correct; over the course of the next couple centuries, theories were developed and accepted that accounted for the apparent discrepancies between common appearance and reality.
We see an arrow arch through the air, slow, and fall; we see a feather fall more slowly than a rock. Somehow, we think Aristotle was stupid for failing to discover and apply Newton’s laws. While they wonderfully explain the extraordinarily difficult to see motion of the planets, they also require the introduction of a number of other factors to explain a falling leaf you can see out the kitchen window.
Thus, because in few critical areas of hard science – or, as we say here, simply science – useful, elegant and more general explanations sometimes make common experiences harder to understand, it has become common to believe it is a feature of the universe that what’s *really* going on contradicts any simple understanding. Rather than the default position being ‘stick with the simple explanation unless forced by evidence to move off it,’ the general attitude seems to be the real explanation is always hidden and contradicts appearances. This boils down to the belief we cannot trust any common, simple, direct explanations. We cannot trust tradition or authority, which tend to formulate and pass on common sense explanations, even and especially in science!
Such pessimism, as Feser calls it, is bad enough in science. It is the disaster he describes in politics and culture. Simply, it matters if you expect hidden, subtle explanations and reject common experience. You become an easy mark for conspiracy theories.
I’ve commented here on how Hegel classifies the world into enlightened people who agree with him, and the ignorant, unwashed masses who don’t. He establishes, in other words, a cool kid’s club. Oh sure, some of the little people need logic and math and other such crutches, but the pure speculative philosophers epitomized by Hegel have transcended such weakness. Marx and Freud make effusive and near-exclusive use of this approach as well. Today’s ‘woke’ population is this same idea mass-produced for general consumption.
Since at least Luther in the West, the rhetorical tool of accusing your opponent of being unenlightened, evil or both in lieu of addressing the argument itself has come to dominate public discourse.
A clue to the real attraction of conspiracy theories, I would suggest, lies in the rhetoric of theorists themselves, which is filled with self-congratulatory descriptions of those who accept such theories as “willing to think,” “educated,” “independent-minded,” and so forth, and with invective against the “uninformed” and “unthinking” “sheeple” who “blindly follow authority.” The world of the conspiracy theorist is Manichean: either you are intelligent, well-informed, and honest, and therefore question all authority and received opinion; or you accept what popular opinion or an authority says and therefore must be stupid, dishonest, and ignorant. There is no third option.
Feser traces the roots:
Crude as this dichotomy is, anyone familiar with the intellectual and cultural history of the last several hundred years might hear in it at least an echo of the rhetoric of the Enlightenment, and of much of the philosophical and political thought that has followed in its wake. The core of the Enlightenment narrative – you might call it the “official story” – is that the Western world languished for centuries in a superstitious and authoritarian darkness, in thrall to a corrupt and power-hungry Church which stifled free inquiry. Then came Science, whose brave practitioners “spoke truth to power,” liberating us from the dead hand of ecclesiastical authority and exposing the falsity of its outmoded dogmas. Ever since, all has been progress, freedom, smiles and good cheer.
If being enlightened, having raised one’s consciousness or being woke meant anything positive, it would mean coming to grips with the appalling stupidity of the “official story”. It’s also amusing that science itself is under attack. It’s a social construct of the hegemony, used to oppress us, you see. Thus the snake eats its tail: this radical skepticism owes its appeal to the rare valid cases where science showed common experiences misleading, and yet now it attacks the science which is its only non-neurotic basis.
LECTURE II. Saturday, January 14, 1893. PROBLEMS PECULIAR TO AMERICAN EDUCATION. (found here. Lecture I review here.)
Harris begins his second lecture by describing what he means by ‘substantial education’:
There are two kinds of education. The first may be called substantial education, the education by means of the memory; the education which gives to the individual, methods and habits and the fundamentals of knowledge. It is this education which the child begins to receive from its birth. This sort of education is education by authority that is, the individual accepts the authority of the teacher for the truth of what he is told, and does not question it or seek to obtain insight into the reason for its being so.
At this point, I had to check whether Harris was married and had children. A quick perusal of the interwebs reveal that he married his childhood sweetheart, but if they had any children, the sources fail to mention it. Why this is relevant: the idea that children accept everything on authority could hardly be held by anyone who ever raised children. It’s a variation on tabla rasa, as if kids are waiting around for authority figures to lecture them, and accepting the lecture without criticism, and otherwise don’t learn anything. Anyone who has raised children can see that, starting from birth at the latest, the vast bulk of learning is done by the child on his own initiative. He absorbs the assumptions of the adults around him, to a large extent, without criticism, but any adult who has tried the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach will quickly see how much adult authority figures into what children accept without question.
It is this education by authority, the education of the past, that the modern or second kind of education seeks to supersede. This second kind may be called individual or scientific education; it is the education of insight as opposed to that of authority.
The man here using the word ‘scientific’ was heavily into phrenology and late 19th century psychology, among other things, so what he means by ‘scientific’ is clearly not ‘that which can be objectively verified through observation’ but rather more along the lines of ‘what my smart friends and I believe.’ This is relevant, since the advocates for progressive, modern, compulsory schools have long claimed their approach was scientific. That word they keep using – I don’t think it means what they think it means.
“The education of insight” is a very interesting phrase. Part of Hegel – a part most beloved by Marx – is the idea of speculative philosophy being a growing, progressing series of insights. Philosophy doesn’t advance through hashing things out via observations and logical deductions, but rather the Spirit/History reveals the next stage via revelation to the enlightened few. These revelations are called ‘insights’ and contradict the unenlightened stage of History currently prevailing, until both are subsumed and suspended in a new synthesis. The curious part: those lacking the insight cannot understand those who have it. Under Hegel, at least, the insight will slowly spread out from the chosen prophets until the consciousness of mankind is raised – or something. Marx is all about exterminating the unenlightened as the means by which enlightenment spreads.
Here Harris is talking about what normal people call understanding. Does a kid understand what he is taught (insight) or merely parroting what he’s heard (authority)? It would seem Harris is thinking schooling can impart insight in a non-authoritarian manner. Kids who in his view have become mindless automata via accepting everything they know on authority, will at some point, somehow be brought to the freedom of individuality (1) through – compulsory standardized schooling!
When this kind of education is acquired, it frees the individual from the authority of the other. Under the system of education by authority when told, for instance, that the sum of three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, this will be blindly believed only as long as authority sanctions this belief; but when an insight into the reason for this geometrical truth is obtained, no change of authority is able to make the individual doubt.
Really? Harris imagines a teacher, with grim authority, simply telling a kid that the sum of the angles in a triangle equals two right angles, and the kid just buying it, no questions asked. The kid, having been told this, simply does not or cannot try to understand it? I did not think math instruction had universally ‘advanced’ to this point as of the late 19th century. Nowadays, of courses, grade school teachers of math who understand or even just don’t loathe math are the exception.
I think, rather, that kids are curious, and try to understand things, at least until it is beaten out of them by a decade or two of schooling. It’s not a switch waiting for some enlightened adult to throw.
But there is this danger in the system of education by insight, if begun too early, that the individual tends to become so self-conceited with what he considers knowledge gotten by his own personal thought and research, that he drifts toward empty agnosticism with the casting overboard of all authority. It is, therefore, necessary that this excessive conceit of self which this modern scientific method of education fosters, be lessened by building on the safe foundations of what has been described as the education of authority. The problems of the reform movement centre, therefore, on the proper method of replacing this authoritative or passive method of education by education through self-activity.
This is the thing about education theorists such as Fichte, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Mann and here Harris: they frame the problem wrong. Harris really thinks that a kid who learns how to exercise his curiosity in a constructive way is going to be conceited and unmanageable? The result of this is “empty agnosticism with the casting overboard of all authority”? Again, did this man know any children? Somehow, a kid who sees Euclid’s proof that the sum of the angles in a triangle add up to two right angles is going to get conceited, if he sees it too early? Or might he not gain a respect for the genius of ancient Greek geometry, and an appreciation of rigorous reasoning?
We see here the outlines of a plan: Harris would have education by authority practiced from kindergarten (he was a big advocate of the kindergarten movement) without any contamination by ‘insight’. The little dears must learn to OBEY. Then, at some later date (Harris was also a huge factor in establishing compulsory high school) such well-trained automata will be ready to accept insights. But this form of education is a synthesis: both the automaton and the free individual exist in a creative tension, neither contradicting nor obviating the other.
So, how do you foster this creative tension, where students are both obedient to authority yet free to gain insights? Text books! No, really:
There is another problem that of the method of study. Germany advises us to teach by oral methods, by giving pieces of information and insight orally by word of mouth. But the American educators have blundered upon what may be defended as the correct method, namely, the text book method. It was merely the outcome of an unconscious trend. The method is of course liable to very serious abuse, but the good points greatly outweigh the bad. It has the advantage of making one independent of his teacher ; you can take your book wherever you please. You cannot do that with the great lecturer, neither can you question him as you can the book, nor can you select the time for hearing the great teacher talk as you can for reading the book. And it is true that nearly all the great teachers have embodied their ideas in books.
Germany, implementing Fichte, had as its educational goal to replace the father with the state, on Fichte’s theory that what a child desires more than anything is the approval of his father. It’s a simple matter, per Fichte, to remove the child from the family and replace the authority of the father with the state in the person of a state appointed and certified teacher. Thus trained, the child will be unable to think anything his teacher does not want him to think.
Textbooks, from a German perspective, might interfere with this instillation of blind loyalty to the state, as the kid might learn something without the explicit approval of the state/father. Thus, the student learns only what the teacher explicitly tells them.
While it seems Harris has here in mind more general books, as he explicitly mentions “nearly all the great teachers have embodied their ideas in books,” he was himself a producer of what we now call textbooks: books specifically produced for use by school children. It is unclear, at least at this point, what exactly Harris means here. Does he was students to read Euclid and Rousseau, say, on their own? Or does he mean text books to be mere extensions of the teacher’s authority, mere receptacles of approved ‘insight’?
The greatest danger of text-book education is verbatim, parrot-like recitation; but even then from the poorest text-book a great deal of knowledge can be gleaned. Then there is the alertness which in any large class will necessarily be engendered by an intelligent understanding and criticism of the results arrived at by different pupils in discussing a certain piece of work given in his own words. And then there is the advantage to be found in the fact that with the text-book the child can be busy by itself.
It remains unclear to me what Harris means by text books. Modern textbooks, with the possible exception of some more advanced math and science books, are characterized by predigestion: they have taken the subject and determined what correct thoughts about it are, as evidenced by the presence of questions at the ends of chapters, with the correct answers in the teacher’s edition. Nothing so open-ended as what Harris suggests – “intelligent understanding and criticism of the results arrived at by different pupils” – if he, indeed, intends to encourage free discussion.
Lastly, there is the problem of discipline. There should be very little corporal punishment ; the milder forms of restraint should be used. The child that is brought up accustomed to the rod loses his self respect, and may become the man who must have police surveillance. Silence, punctuality, regularity and industry are fundamental parts of a “substantial education” as much as the critical study of mathematics, literature, science and history is a part of the ” education of insight.” These two kinds of education, that of authority and that of self-activity, should be made complementary.
One can make the case that Harris is making simple common-sense observations, that kids need discipline enough to be quiet, show up regularly and work hard in order to learn anything, and that these must be inculcated prior to any particular subject matter. He calls this basis ‘substantial education’ and holds that it – discipline and enculturation – make one a mindless automaton. Yet, unless you achieve this level of discipline and conformity, you cannot hope for a liberal education, what Harris calls an “education of insight”.
I hear echoes of Pestalozzi here, where a child is to be lead step by step down a path designed by his teacher, not allowed to move on until a given step is mastered, as well as echoes of Fichte and the Blank Slate contingent. Harris’s prescriptions may sound good, but it flies in the face of experience with actual children. Kids learn different things in different orders at different speeds, and their native curiosity and intellectual capacities vary enormously. Their appreciation for and capacity to conform to behavioral norms, such as when be quiet, how hard and long to work on something, how to pay attention also vary, so that one 6 year old might sit quietly working for an hour with no trouble, while another can’t hold still for 5 minutes.
Self control and cultural norms are learned at home. Fichte saw this as a problem to be solved by the state. Don Bosco, working with boys who didn’t have a home, understood that he must supply some of what his boys lacked in order for them to succeed, but never imagined the home to be the source of all social ills. Rather, he saw the lack of a home as the problem.
Harris clearly seems to think school – and he was huge force in making compulsory, state-run K-12 schools the norm – is the place where civilization is learned, not home. He advocated for the forced removal of American Indian children from their homes, in order to inculcate in them a “lower form of civilization” suitable for their inclusion in society. For completely benevolent reasons, of course.
Turns out my man William Torrey Harris never wrote a book on his philosophy of education, but after the manner of Fichte, delivered himself of a lecture series on the subject. Given in 1893, they are a mercifully short series of mercifully short lectures. Harris gave 5 short lectures. I’ll take them one at a time.
LECTURE I. January 7th, 1893. THE LITERATURE OF EDUCATION
It’s tempting to quote the lecture entire, as it is so short. Instead, please go read it at the link provided, if you’re interested.
Harris begins with a brief description of how various cultures educated their children, with a variety of goals in mind:
The first and most important of all educational literature is that showing the ideals of a people the literature on which they are brought up generally the sacred books which reveal what the people regard as divine ; consequently what is the highest ideal to be realized. China, for example, has Confucius and Mencius, showing the family as the type of the social whole. These writings furnish the contents of the mind of the Chinese minute observances of etiquette ; how to behave towards one’s elders and superiors in rank ; towards one’s inferiors or juniors ; towards one’s equals. Chinese schools are almost exclusively devoted to filling the memory of the pupil with the ethical maxims of these sacred books, so that the mind shall be full of family etiquette. The aim of Chinese education was to teach the young how to behave ; that of the Persians, how to ride, shoot, and speak the truth a faculty not much thought of by the Hindus. The Persian differs from the Buddhist in that the latter wishes to get rid of the world, while the former attempts to conquer the real. The Phoenicians, again, furnish a contrast to Chinese education. Their object was to wean the child from the family ; whereas the Chinese endeavor to educate the young so that they will become submerged in the family. The Phoenicians aimed to create a love of adventure. Their children were educated in myths. The stories in Homer’s ” Odyssey ” must have been derived from the tales of the Phoenician sailors, which were calculated to engender a hunger and thirst for adventure, so that the young Phoenician would gladly get on board ship and go to the ends of the world in the interests of trade. The Greeks were imbued with the new world-principle of a spiritual and beautiful individuality. They thought more of the games which they practised in the evenings on the village green than of the tasks by which they earned their bread. They learned history and geography from the second book of Homer’s “Iliad.” They thought not of commercial education, like the Phoenicians, but of that heroic individual who furnished a beautiful ideal. Later on, Greek education became more scientific and more reflective. The Roman concentrated his whole mind on the will. He went beyond the circle of his city, and studied to cause even foreigners to live under the same laws with himself. Freedom meant more to him than to any of the Asiatic nations. It meant the power of the individual to hold, alienate, and devise property.
It’s tempting, and perhaps justified, to dismiss this as just more Hegelian claptrap. Instead, I’ll attempt to show how it is Hegelian claptrap. First, much of what he says is true. Different cultures do educate their children differently. Hegel-style is to start with truisms, to which any challenge will appear as nit-picking pedantry. But among the truisms, stick in some stuff that sounds like what you’ve already introduced but does not in fact stand on the same common-sense foundation. Thus, we can accept the notion that the Chinese build their culture on family, since it doesn’t contradict anything the typical educated Westerner knows about China. We then slip in stuff about Phoenician education, about which, to my knowledge, very little is known. I mean, I have read a good bit about Greek educational practices, and the documentary evidence before 500 B.C. is very sparse. Much more Greek writing survives than Phoenician. Therefore, it would be curious bordering on fantastic if there somehow existed substantial historical support for any theory of Phoenician educational practices.
Curious, I googled ‘Phoenician Education’ and the first thing that popped up was this:
Education Based upon their way of seeing the world (cosmogony), the Phoenicians focused on fulfilling their mission of being inventors and discoverers and spreading their knowledge all over the world.
Not that this proves anything, but this site at least isn’t pointing at any writings. Following the same approach as Harris, we back into what their educational goals were based on their ‘cosmology’ and what they did, which is presumed to result from that cosmology, then extrapolate way, way past the data to imagine they were motivated by a desire to fulfill a ‘mission’ of ‘being inventors and discoverers and spreading their knowledge all over the world.’
Here, again, we see the fell effect of Hegel and Marx: the atomic explanation is rejected out of hand in favor of the vast, irresistible movement of Spirit and History. The atomic explanation, built up from what the units of society – people, families – do without any reference to presumed inexorable historical forces, might be that successful trade lead to more successful trade, and that kids grew up in families and cities engaged in trade, leading to educated opinions about everything from ship building to accounting getting passed on and refined from generation to generation. Hegelians/Marxists refuse to admit such explanations, as History or Spirit are dogmatically assumed to exist as the cause of all things, people being mere double-predestined puppets.
And this is before we note that there’s nothing in the behavior of the actual Phoenicians we know about to make us imagine they were motivated by much of anything beyond an immediate desire to get and hang onto wealth and power, and show off their wealth and power. People being people, in other words.
We do know that the Phoenicians were great sailors and traders. We can, perhaps, use this fact to support the claim: Phoenicians were sailors and traders, therefore their educational practices may have been directed toward producing traders and sailors. Or, more likely and humbly, their educational practices did not prevent a good number of men becoming sailors and traders.
Harris then lays down a ‘must have’ : “The stories in Homer’s ” Odyssey ” must have been derived from the tales of the Phoenician sailors, which were calculated to engender a hunger and thirst for adventure, so that the young Phoenician would gladly get on board ship and go to the ends of the world in the interests of trade.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this form of statement reminds me of the Von Daniken books I read as a tween, wherein he’s always making statements about how this or that must have been caused by space aliens. Even back then, this triggered a ‘must it have?’ reaction on my part. Also note the word ‘calculated’ – Harris wants to imagine that the education of Phoenician youth was something somebody calculated, and that these calculations resulted in choosing adventurous myths as the curriculum. In other words, he anachronistically imposes what he is up to on people living millennia ago in very different cultures (Punic culture was not homogenous over time and space. No culture is.)
And so on. Dubious claims, some fairly outrageous, most often taking the form of generalizations easy to square with the idea that Spirit or History is *causing* people to do things, are tucked in between truisms and bland deductions. This also sets up a field rich in opportunities for Motte and Bailey defences: when you question something doubtful, your interlocutor can defend something obvious nearby. That’s for when they don’t just dismiss you as unenlightened, which is Hegelians and Marxists favorite argument.
This first lecture contains the infamous quotation, which in context doesn’t sound nearly as ominous on first pass:
Education is meant to give one an insight into the genesis of these things, so that he can detect an element of each in the threads of his civilization. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people in every civilized nation are automata, careful to walk in the prescribed paths, careful to follow prescribed custom. This is the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual under his species. The other educational principle is the emancipation from this subsumption. This is subordinate, and yet, in our time, we lay more stress upon it than the other. Look at the French Revolution. What a prodigious emancipation that was.
Harris is asserting ALL ‘substantial’ education reduces 99% of EVERYBODY to automata. What makes such education ‘substantial’ is the content – this is Hegel-speak – which, as he has shown above, varies from civilization to civilization. He then allows for one other, subordinate, educational principle: escape from this subsumption of the individual. More Hegel: contradictions are said to be suspended and subsumed in a synthesis, which syntathis become the thesis for the next movement of the dialectic. So: individuals have wants and needs (thesis); so does the society within which those wants and needs are best met (antithesis). The individual is subsumed as an automaton in the synthesis, which is a society to which he sacrifices (and yet does not sacrifice) his individuality for the sake of having existence and meaning. The next step, which is subordinate in that it stands upon the society (synthesis) created in the previous subsumption, is for the individual to understand and somehow be emancipated from his status as an unconscious automaton, while at the same time remaining suspended as automaton.
Harris sees this emancipation as the movement of the Spirit in our current phase of History. In a chilling bit of foreshadowing, he’s not very explicit or concerned about the millions of deaths that resulted from the French Revolution and the wars it gave birth to, but rather sees a ‘prodigious emancipation.’ Pay no attention to the Committee for Public Safety!
Conclusion: in context, this quotation remains terrifying, just not in the exact sense in which I have seen it used, and have used it myself.
Comenius taught the emancipation of the individual from the printed page. Spencer says that the modern school system is all wrong, and has a tendency to get away from science and cause students to waste time over the dead languages. Emancipation has now become the important side of the educational question. But the student of advanced education must first avail himself of the wisdom of the race, and learn how not to be limited by it. He cannot progress unless he is a free man, for he must not be so much subsumed that he cannot investigate scientifically, and with safety to himself, all problems that present themselves.
The goal for education Harris sets out in this first lecture is for a student to first learns his own culture, with all its rules, standards and aspirations, and then get free enough from them to investigate scientifically (i.e., as an Hegelian) all problems that present themselves.
Sounds nice. A decade after Harris gave these lectures, Woodrow Wilson addressed a graduating class from Princeton’s School of Education, explained how the schools need to fit the vast bulk of people for labor. The little people must forgo the luxury of a liberal education (which is at least plausibly what Harris has in mind) in order to be fitted to do their jobs. Wilson is clear that this whole emancipation thing is not for everybody – automata is the end-state for the masses.
Next up: Lecture II – Problems peculiar to American Education.
Since I have it on good authority that I should be made to live up to my own rules in order that the Glorious Worker’s Revolution can take place, I got some reading to do. If I have one rule about reading/research, it’s go to the source first. Then, once you’ve taken a respectable crack at understanding what writers have to say for themselves, read commentaries and summaries if necessary or desirable.
Thus, recognizing that I’ve never seriously read anything but summaries and excerpts from Gramsci and Alinsky, I cruised the ever-helpful if hegemonically managed internets, and downloaded some – stuff. Knuckle up.
Also skimmed some Gramsci online. Based on a few of his many journalistic articles I looked over, my enthusiasm for the task of working through his prose is well contained. Starting with Kant, who in his defense can be said to be merely an innocent victim of the lack of writing talent (maybe), subsequent philosophers have discovered the value in being as verbose and obscure as possible. This puts the writer in the position of always being able to accuse critics of not understanding him, and allows him to stand figuratively with Newton and Einstein – geniuses whose thoughts are legitimately hard for almost everyone to understand. Newton and Einstein are hard to understand, see, yet have proven foundational to scientific understanding – just like me and philosophy! Woohoo!
That it’s perfectly possible, in fact more likely, that hard to understand writing is the product of muddled thinking and bad ideas, is a notion not allowed standing. Nope, when I say stuff like “Dasein’s experiential-bodying-forth as being-in-the-world with-Others” I’m showing, not an inability to use English or, more fundamentally, to think my way out of wet paper bag, (1) but that I’m *deep*. Right.
Gramsci, based on the slight fairly random sample of his newspaper editorials I just read, can in fact form perfectly straight-forward sentences and even string a few together. (2) This is not nothing, far from it, and I am grateful. However, he will then turn around and write: \
Understanding and knowing how to accurately assess one’s enemy, means possessing a necessary condition for victory. Understanding and knowing how to assess one’s own forces, and their position on the battlefield, means possessing another very important condition for victory.
You mean, maybe, “To win, you must know your enemy and know yourself, and where you stand.” That whole “possessing necessary conditions” is the tag that says “I’ve read Marx! And Hegel!” but otherwise adds nothing, or, since I’ve read them, too, can be said to be empty of concrete reality. But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I am much more enlightened than Gramsci. He is so unenlightened that he fails to see his stage of enlightenment as merely a stagnant backwater, a stage long subsumed and suspended in a synthesis itself long subsumed. History, to continue to speak a language he would find familiar, has unfolded yet further stages of enlightenment far past his, until, finally, it unfolded me!
It’s how the rules of wokeness work: the less woke simply cannot understand the more woke. Until you get woke, the mechanics of which make the mysteries of human participation in redemptive grace seem trivial, you Just Don’t Get It. Therefore, my standing as a World Historic Individual (to continue to use language familiar to the tragically less woke) will simply be invisible and incomprehensible to poor Gramsci and his ilk. Just the way it is.
Moving along: as evidenced by the increase in blog post frequency, I’m feeling better these days. I’m now antsy to finish the shameful backlog of half-read books I’ve started and petered out on over the last, well, year or two? So a book-review-alanche may be in the offing.
The list includes, among many others:
School of Darkness, Bella Dodd
The Great Transformation, Polanyi (almost done, darn it!)
Parish Schools, Timothy Walsh (actually a reread of sorts. But I never really reviewed the book as a whole.)
That goofy book on r/K selection theory (actually finished, but did not review)
The Man Who Was Thursday (only have about 70 pages to go! Why did I stop?)
Philosophy of Spirit, Hegel (reread. Stalled out after the Preface 2 years ago. Sheesh.)
And so on and so forth.
And then I’ve got to find a job or otherwise figure out how to get to a financial place where we can retire. Suggested to the wife this morning that we simply move to Costa Rica. We could live like minor nobility down there! The picture look good, and they have internet! And we’d be a 1,000+ miles from all our friends and family!
Right. So look for a job it is. Plus – I’m not even brave enough to face this yet – there’s this small boatload of stories and 15,000 words of a novel and that book on the history of Catholic education I’m pretending to write by reading other books and creating mountains of notes… Soon, and very soon?
It dawns on me – I’m slow, sometimes – that I’ve used this expression a couple times without explanation, which may not be fair. If it’s clear, pardon my pedantry, if not: It’s a play on a possibly obscure boxing insult: “He couldn’t punch his way out of a wet paper bag.” I’ve loved this since I first heard it, because it captures the failure of a presumed expert to execute that upon which their expertise is predicated. A boxer who can’t punch even through damp paper isn’t even a boxer. Thus so-called intellectuals who can’t think their way out of a wet paper bag. Well, it amuses me.
Or maybe his translator. The translators of Hegel, for example, have been accused on occasion of reading more coherence into the text than is actually there. But I think not in this case.
The horse that won’t stay dead no matter how hard we beat it.
Here are some examples:
I think the preponderance of evidence strongly supports the idea that species arise over time as a result of differentiated survival rates among members of a population with different characteristics.
This is a scientific judgement.
I believe in evolution.
This is an act of faith.
Based on evidence from many sources, I think it very likely that the climate is changing, and has been changing for the hundreds of of million of years over which any evidence can be found.
Again, a scientific judgement.
I believe in climate change
Another act of faith.
These examples are of a point so basic, so simple and dazzlingly obvious, that it would seem no one who has reached intellectual adolescence should need to have it made to them more than once. One reaches a scientific conclusion based on evidence and reason (and, being based on evidence and reason, such conclusions are always conditional – but that’s up one small level from what we’re talking about now). But, alas! The evidence strongly supports one or the other or a combination of two factors making this basic point obscure to many: either few reach intellectual adolescence, or many do not care to see this distinction.
I love adolescence. Having had 4 of our kids pass from childhood to adulthood, and having one 14 year old now, I can say that one of my greatest joys as a dad has been witnessing the intellects of my own children awaken. (The most obvious step is when they start really getting jokes.) And this distinction, this idea that not every mental experience is a feeling, but that there are – yes, I’m going to say it – *higher* functions of the intellect, is a step into a larger world. A better, more interesting, world.
A step surprisingly few people take. As any perusal of the interwebs or conversations with just about anyone will quickly reveal, there are a lot of people who use faith language about what they conceive of as science. They believe in their bones that such acts of faith render them morally and *intellectually* superior to those who dispute their dogmas or even who refuse to mouth the shibboleths. (1)
(Man, gotta get back to blogging and writing. Just still not feeling well, and more than a little down about losing my job, And other things. Anyway – )
(Edit: just reread the first few sentences of this post, and – wow, I need to make sure the coffee is fully kicked in before posting. Seriously incoherent. Here’s what I think I was trying to say:) Woke up this morning musing about Hegel. I was getting angry. People take this guy seriously? His more direct followers – Marxists – cut to the chase and apply his ‘reasoning’ in such a way that its inherent nihilism, which Hegel dresses in the sheep’s clothing of the sweetness and light of Christian eschatology, gets exposed to anyone willing to see it. Just not so exposed that Marxists and all the little people who have absorbed their methods and assumptions while being somewhat unaware of the origins, can’t pretend otherwise. (whew! That’s better, I think.)
Hidden under Hegel’s haystacks of verbiage is essentially an angry narcissism, the soul reacting to the hopelessness evident in, for example, Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Sola – alone – is the rallying cry. Schola – together – is the largely unspoken enemy. Luther (and Calvin) puts it simply, Hegel buries it under of mountain of words: We are not actors in our own salvation, not even in the tiny yet cosmic Catholic sense that God’s great good gift to us is a sacred freedom, vouchsafed by God’s Will alone, which grants to each of us the mysterious and paradoxical ability to give our ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to That Will. Instead, we suffer alone. We cannot act.
Stripped of its religious trappings, predestination is determinism. The soul does not exist in any manner different from how a rock exists, inert and passive. The soul, as conceived by the Greeks, Christians and a myriad other cultures, does not exist. We, however we chose to conceive of ourselves, don’t matter.
The sanest reaction is to reject the premise. We all, from the most callow Pelagianist to the most hubris-ridden materialist, reject determinism whenever we do anything at all. We can then explain to ourselves how the whole cycle of intellection and choice is an illusion, but we are of course incapable of behaving as if it were true.
Once the religious sheep clothing is yanked off and Hegelianism’s superficial reliance on God/Spirit is bled out, we’re left with a ravening wolf. Even this wolf dresses down, in gutted Christian mysticism, promising us the pie-in-the-sky Worker’s Paradise, codename: Progress, for which all sacrifices (of others) are immediately justified beyond question.
(If you personally are called upon to sacrifice, that’s a sure sign you are not of the Elect, not of the Vanguard, and are probably a useful idiot. The absolute Calvinist-style sign that you are among the Revolutionary Chosen is that you have the power to make others do the sacrificing. See, for reference, HISTORY.)
Thus my fevered mind, stuffed full of Hegel and Marx and with a couple decades to stew on them, concludes. The issues Hegel presents to Reason, even apart from the religious context, even without any sort of Christian faith, should cause all men with any claim of being or desire to be rational and logical to reject his vile nonsense, especially as distilled by Marx, especially as clothed (see a trend here?) in academic robes. Critical Theory, which – you can look it up – is merely Marxism reformatted for dissemination through all available academic channels, must be denounced by any who claim to be rational and have any shred of integrity.
First: the rejection of the Law of Noncontradiction is not, as some imagine, a subtle criticism of the hubris of rigorous logic, a valid criticism in some deep philosophical sense even if nonsensical in all practical senses. No law of noncontradiction = no science and no law, for example. No – it is a rejection of even the possibility of communication between people. Without the Law of Noncontradiction, everything I say and everything you say can both mean and not mean whatever the words themselves might suggest. Any and no understanding of what you or I may mean or not mean is equally invalid, or valid. The Tower of Babel prevails.
Nihilism, again. Sola, again. Every man is an island, surrounded by unbreachable reefs of confusion.
Whenever we say Gender or Science or Class Consciousness is a social construct, we are simply putting a Che hat on the meaninglessness of nihilism. This is an intellectual ouroboros; this is turtles all the way down, except the existence of the turtles is simultaneously denied. It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is – and, by definition (which is of course simultaneously impossible) is means isn’t. Is means nothing.
The price of admission to the academic cool kids club is not pointing out the idiotic nakedness of these non-ideas. The price of secular intellectual salvation is to keep pointing it out, to never bow to it, to challenge it whenever presented. I am reminded of the words Robert Bolt puts in Thomas More’s mouth as he talks to his daughter: Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.
I’m well into the second half of Polanyi’s Great Transformation, and, while I’m getting a crash course in 18th & 19th English history through looking up all his references to events and people I’ve never heard of or that are just names to me, tedium is setting in. Late last night, while plowing through a few pages, I broke down and did something I almost never do and advise against doing until after you’ve read the book for yourself: looked at what other people say about this work. Read what the authors themselves say as much as possible, to avoid the inevitable biases and lacunas that predigested takes contain by their nature. In my frustration, curiosity about who, if anyone, takes Polanyi seriously got the better of me. Yes, I am weak.
Criticism fell into two distinct groups, with no one in the middle: Marxists critical theorists who love, love, love Great Transformation and consider it the seminal work on economics of the last 100 years, and non-Marxist economists – real economists, in other words – who would hurt themselves if they rolled their eyes any harder.
The criticisms I laid down in my preliminary comments here and here were echoed and reinforced by his negative critics. For example, one critice makes a point Chesterton also made a couple of times in other contexts: primitive peoples alive today are not our ancestors. Rather, they are as much modern people as we are, except that for whatever reasons they have not made much technological or cultural progress. While our actual European ancestors were inventing science and technology and cities and architecture and experimenting with complex social relationships, the Trobriand Islanders were cultivating yams and developing ritual trading designed to reinforce social relationships to keep the peace.
To point to tribal peoples living today as examples of man in nature is to ignore that our actual ancestors, who did develop what eventually became the modern world, were every bit as natural in the sense ‘natural’ is used here. Our actual ancestors, despite what Rousseau may think, were also natural men who did whatever they did by nature – they eventually developed the gold standard and international trade just as naturally as islanders grow yams and murder each other. A ‘primitive’ Italian like Marco Polo, for example, clearly did engage in international truck and barter – around the time the Trobriand Islanders first arrived in their little paradise and started building grass huts. Polo is an ancestor to the West. The islanders are not.
Enough. Returning to my reading, here is a paragraph from the second half of the book I find quite revealing of how Polanyi thinks:
Let us return to what we have called the double movement. It can be personified as the action of two organizing principles in society, each of them setting itself specific institutional aims, having the support of definite social forces and using its own distinctive methods. The one was the principle of economic liberalism, aiming at the establishment of a self-regulating market, relying on the support of the trading classes, and using largely laissez-faire and free trade as its methods; the other was the principle of social protection aiming at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization, relying on the varying support of those most immediately affected by the deleterious action of the market—primarily, but not exclusively, the working and the landed classes—and using protective legislation,
restrictive associations, and other instruments of intervention as its methods.
Notice anything odd? How about the odd use of the word ‘personified’? Polanyi is here saying that two competing ‘organizing principles’ are – persons?
It would be easy to explain this away, a little goof in the midst of a long book, something a good editors maybe should have caught, but clearly I don’t think so. I think that this personification of abstract forces is exactly what this book is about. The individual is nothing, the masses everything, after all. And the masses is a seething, suffering – abstraction.
To Polanyi, great lumbering forces, abstractions that manifest themselves in Capital, or the Gold Standard, or the Labor Market are the persons of History, while people are just at best the raw material History acts upon. These persons, these gods-who-are-not-gods, correspond to Hegel’s Spirit, in that History is not made from a cumulation of millions of little decisions by millions of little people, but rather History acts upon the little people, with their decisions merely reflecting the gradual expression of Historical forces.
History, then, is always inevitable, even if we can’t see it until our illusory choices have slipped into the past. Marx’s claim to see the future is a claim that History is as deterministic as a wind-up clock. In 3 hours it will be 5:45; in the fullness of time it will be the Worker’s Paradise.
Hidden here is the perennial bait and switch, or perhaps motte and bailey: our sympathies are engaged by the very real suffering (usually) of the Little People, but the analysis and proposed solutions are always about presumed inevitable forces. The Polanyis of the world flip from one to the other with greater or lesser skill: questions about the framework are answered by implied or, increasingly, shrill accusations that you don’t care about the little people; focus on practical steps directed at the little people, get reminded that it’s the system, man.
I’ll try to get this finished off and post a final review soon.