Stanley Fish: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along

In 1996, Stanley Fish wrote an article for First Things called Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, a link to which was washed up on my beach via Twitter. This fairly dense and densely reasoned essay touches upon a subject of some interest here on this blog: how did our colleges and universities arrive at the disastrous state we’ve reached today? I’m going to have to pick a few of many worthy thoughts to comment on, since this is a blog post and I don’t have a week to research and write a reply. Please read the whole essay, as I am not going to be able to do justice to the full scope of his very interesting argument.  The reasoning here will not be as tight as the subject deserves, for which I apologize to Dr. Fish and my readers. The line of challenge and pursuit is I think important to get out there, however imperfectly.

First, Fish is a college professor, and thus, when he talks about how Americans think, he’s talking about how people in colleges and the penumbra of colleges think. When this battle was being fought back in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, less than 10% of the population attended college; as late as 1945, less than 30% graduated high school. As late as Harry Truman, America could elect as president someone who attended no college – and not feel particularly bad about it.

I mention this because Fish doesn’t concern himself with the downward push of these ideas from the university to the vast bulk of the citizens. That these ideas were cultivated among a small and very self-conscious elite and inflicted on their presumed inferiors is, I think, an important and telling aspect of the process, as is the fundamental difference in mindset between the children and grandchildren of Calvinist Puritans who founded Harvard and a typical American farmer. (Most Americans lived on farms until almost 1900, and most lived in close proximity to farms until maybe 1940.) Employing the sort of reasoning prefered by Fish, it could be said that certain unconscious assumptions made by a farmer and by a Harvard grad would be mutually unintelligible, and thus kill the possibility of free discussion a-birthing. I would add: minds are not that open; minds simply cannot be that open and remain rational. Thus, what is to be imposed is not rationality, but a belief system.

But Fish’s essay is not about how liberal open-mindedness got promulgated and eventually swept the field, but rather is about its dogmatic intolerance. He gets close to the heart of the matter when he notes that no reasoning can begin without premises, and that such premises cannot be the result of reasoning. Thus, he rejects the idea that articles of faith can be judged by their reasonableness, and calls no less a witness than Augustine.

Is this true? That I’m asking this question reveals my own premises, most important of which are that truth matters, is knowable and can be reached or at least approached by reason. Fish calls Augustine to the stand to defend the idea that articles of faith are by their nature unreasonable (or, perhaps, a-reasonable, after the immoral/amoral distinction) and thus sticks to the Platonic side of the pool. By omission of the arguments from the Aristotle/Thomist (deep) end of the pool, Plato stands as the type of the only line of reasoning to be considered.

Like Augustine, Thomas would reject the idea that one could reason his way to the Resurrection (to stick with Fish’s example), but he would consider it completely correct, required, even, to understand that the claim that Christ is Risen is not unreasonable.  One who holds to the Perennial Philosophy would expect all revealed truths to be confirmed by all other truths however arrived at. They would expect all Truth to be One.

A book or two would be required to spell out how, say, knowing the melting point of iron points to the Incarnation. For now, it is enough to insist that rational discussion is not possible if we admit the idea of multiple contradioctory truth into the arena. I contend that the fundamental premise that all truth is one, that no truth arrived at one way can stand unchallenged by a contradictory truth arrived at some other way, is not only tacitly assumed by people with any claim to being reasonable, but is required for any rational discourse whatsoever. Contradictions are not acceptable. Something’s afoot. We must look harder.

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Horse sense? 

Avram: (gestures at Perchik and Mordcha) He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.

Tevye: You know… you are also right.

My fundamental objection to Fish’s otherwise sympathetic analysis is his shying away from examining which premises support the activity of rational discourse, and which defeat it or, rather, preclude it. In this regard, I find it odd that Marx gets mentioned indirectly and in passing once, and Hegel not at all. Yet I think it indisputable that the premises of Hegel and Marx have replaced the Enlightenment premises as expressed by Jefferson and company as the foundation upon which the current ideas of open-minded discussion, so called, are built.

And I think Fish agrees, on some level. Discussing George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief , Fish says

The answer has many components, including the Jeffersonian project of softening sectarian aggressiveness and establishing a general religion of peace, reason, and morality, the identification of common sense philosophy with Christian morality within the assumption that each supported the other, the rise of the cult of the expert whose skills and authority were independent of his character or religious faith, and the substitution for the imperative of adhering to an already-revealed truth the imperative of continuing to search for a truth whose full emergence is located in an ever-receding future.

This last was particularly important because if truth was by definition larger and more inclusive than our present horizons declared it to be, obedience to traditional norms and values was no longer a virtue, but a fault, and a moral fault at that.

“The higher truth was an ever progressing ideal toward which the human community . . . always moved, yet never reached. Since truth was by definition always changing, the only thing ultimately sacred was the means of pursuing it. No religious or other dogmatic claim could be allowed to stand in its way.”

It is not the business of a university, declared Charles Eliot of Harvard, “to train men for those functions in which implicit obedience is of the first importance. On the contrary, it should train men for those occupations in which self-government, independence, and originating power are preeminently needed.” (Or, in Satan’s more succinct formulation, “self-begot, self-raised.”)

We see here Hegel’s idea of the Spirit unfolding itself through history, an idea that conquered Harvard in the early 19th century, and infused all top-down educational efforts from that point forward. This idea – that men are not given to know divine truths unless and until the Spirit comes to know them in concrete History – held great appeal to Protestant and recently Protestant minds. Rather than an indictment, they could reframe the radical fracturing of Protestantism over time and space as the necessarily messy workings of the Spirit, and the Church’s claim to being the repository and defender of unchanging Truth to be the height of ignorance and hubris.


Princeton’s Francis Patton declared that “the rationality or rather the reasonableness of a belief is the condition of its credibility.” That is, you believe it because reason ratifies it, a view Augustine would have heard with horror, one that John Webster, writing in 1654, rejects as obviously absurd. “But if man gave his assent unto, or believed the things of Christ . . . because they appear probable . . . to his reason, then would his faith be . . . upon the rotten basis of human authority.” By the end of the nineteenth century, human authority has been put in the place of revelation; or rather human authority, now identified with the progressive illumination afforded by reason, has become the vehicle of revelation and of a religion that can do very nicely without any strong conception of personal deity.

This realization was not instantaneous nor universal by any means. Up until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for various Protestant leaders (Francis Patton, for example) to cry anathema on other Protestants and Christian sects for the heresy of disagreeing with established dogmas. These firebrands still believed that there were revealed truths that *required* our assent if we were to be saved. Since then, and especially over the last 5 or 6 decades, it has become moot to wonder what an American Episcopalian or Lutheran, say, would have to do to be a heretic by the lights of the leaders of their own denominations. Still, among the sheep, there are those who believe that it is possible to be wrong – but, practically, among the leadership? I’ve seen no evidence.

Once Christianity fades entirely and Hegel’s Spirit is laughed off the stage, Marx substitutes his strangely efficacious History into the Spirit’s slot (it fits once Hegel is flipped on his head). Marx renounces Hegel’s considered modesty: we, in the person of Marx, no longer need to wait for Spirit/History to unfold itself, it has unfolded itself to the end! We know where we’re going – and the only foolishness is to be on the wrong side.

Hegel considers what he calls ‘propositional reason,’ which is what Fish is calling simply reason in this essay, to be useful to the little people such as scientists and mathematicians, but of no use to real philosophers doing the hard thinking of real philosophy. For such lofty person pursuing their high and lonely destinies, the law of noncontradiction does not apply, neither do they attempt to work from true premises using valid logic to new states of knowledge. No, like Freud attacking his critics from within his theory (they only disagree because they are repressed, you see), reason is based on some form of unassailable enlightenment. It doesn’t have to be consistent; it doesn’t have to make sense. In any case, it is beyond the reach of mere logical discussion.

The attentive reader will note that such premises are not only as dogmatic and more than anything claimed by Calvin or Luther, but that they serve at least as well the purpose of ending discourse, or hope of discourse. You either get it, or you don’t.

It’s not like people didn’t notice, even at the time:

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Yale’s Noah Porter scoffed at the supposed neutrality and evenhandedness of secular educational theory, which, he pointed out, was its theology: “The question is not whether the college shall or shall not teach theology, but what theology it shall teach”theology according to . . . Moses and Paul or according to Buckle and Draper.” By the beginning of this century it was all too evident which of these directions had been taken by American education. In tones recently echoed by conservative polemicists, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine complained in 1909 that

In hundreds of classrooms it is being taught daily that the decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils . . . that the change of one religion to another is like getting a new hat; that moral precepts are passing shibboleths; that conceptions of right and wrong are as unstable as styles of dress.

“The neutrality we have,” thundered William Jennings Bryan in 1923, “is often but a sham; it carefully excludes the Christian religion but permits the use of the schoolroom for the destruction of faith and for the teaching of materialistic doctrines.” From a quite different perspective, Walter Lippmann agreed: “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.” What this means, as Marsden points out, is that “two irreconcilable views of truth and education were at issue”; but of course the issue was never really joined, because the liberal establishment thought of itself as already reconciled to everything and anything and therefore was unable to see how exclusionary its policy of radical in clusion really was: “Groups that were excluded, such as Marxists and fundamentalists, often raised the point that they were being excluded by liberal dogmatism, but they were seldom heard.”

That they were not heard is hardly surprising, since what they were saying was that a state of “warfare” existed, and warfare ”deep conflict over basic and nonnegotiable issues” was precisely what liberalism was invented to deny; and it manages that denial by excluding from the tolerance it preaches anyone who will not pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.

The point being missed: an Hegelian or Marxist will very easily “pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.” They have already done it. They’ve been doing it for a century. They are doing it now, most notably at Berkeley. War is Peace. Speech is Aggression. Beatings and Intimidation are Freedom. Gramsci and Alinsky would nod approvingly.

On an intellectual level, we must challenge the premises that preclude rational discussion. While on a strictly logical basis, Fish is correct that premises cannot be chosen rationally – you have to have premises to reason in the first place. But the logical outcomes of our premises can be examined, and contradictions can invalidate certain combinations of premises as being incompatible. Thus, I cannot defend open-minded discussion without some sort of assumption that truth matters, that truth is knowable at least to some degree, and that words carry meanings that can be communicated between interlocutors.

It is not merely a question of this or that indifferent premise being enforced because we like it better for pre-rational reasons, so to speak. Some premises support conversation and some defeat it. Any society worth defending supports the free expression of ideas. To do so, it must hold up to scorn and refuse to enshrine in law or custom any premises that defeat communication  by their nature.

Things have only gotten worse since Dr. Fish wrote this essay. When we allow thugs to shut down speech, when we are ‘tolerant’ of views that defeat the very idea of tolerance, when we cede the field to those who claim the very idea of  logical consistency is irrational, we are not furthering this grand experiment. We are less, not more, free.

Books: Today’s Haul & Writing Update

(Working on that How Airlines Finance Their Planes essay, but, in the meantime…)

Yes, I know I’ve got piles of books still to read cluttering up my desk, my Kindle and the floor near my bed. Yes, I have even more books that I’d really like to reread.  But how could one pass these beauties up?


From right to left: The Forest of Time had been in my Amazon cart for a while, couldn’t put it off any longer; speaking of Mike Flynn, he quoted from and recommended R. A. Lafferty’s Fall of Rome here, and it sounded so good I had to; and finally, I don’t remember who recommended the Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, but most likely it was that Flynn guy again. It, too, had been sitting in the cart for ages. Once you order one book, the next ones get much easier…

Meanwhile, I am so close to finishing this short story I started about a month ago! For the last week or so, I’ve tried the whenever-you-get-bogged-skip-ahead-and-keep-writing approach, and it has proved very helpful. Last night, couldn’t sleep, so sat up until I’d written the ending. Massive relief – I now know where everything is heading, and so, filling in the spots I’ve skipped and doing one and only one quick revision is proving much easier so far (woke up early and put another hour into it).

I’m going to put it aside for a few days once finished, give it another once over, then inflict it on my poor family. Hey, anybody want to read a story and give me feedback? It’s only maybe 6,000 words, not too big a deal…

Also, found the latest partial draft of a story I started a couple decades ago, which I liked enough to write it twice so far, each time deciding I didn’t like the draft, start a third time, and – it’s been there for a couple years now. Sheesh. But I really like the story, so, as soon as this one is done, I’m going to finish that other one. The good news is that I know exactly where it goes, lack of which knowledge has been the source of my petrification on many, many occasions.

THEN it’s back to the Novel That Shall Not Be Named, which – you’ll be shocked to hear – I don’t know exactly where it’s going, and so have become frozen in place. AND I’ve got to get back to Hegel and all that education reading I started.

Sure hope I live, and keep my eyesight and mind (such as it is), to at least 80 – because I’m booked (ha!) through then at least.

What Your Kids’ Teachers are Learning in Education Schools

Picking up my dolorous education reading cross from its long-occupied place on the floor (1), began again to read Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.(2) The Wikipedia entry   states:

Since the publication of the English edition in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been widely adopted in America’s teacher-training programs. A 2003 study by David Steiner and Susan Rozen determined that Pedagogy of the Oppressed was frequently assigned at top education schools.

So, if your child is being educated by one of the graduates of a “top education school” or any of the myriad of education schools which ape the top education schools (hint: almost all of them), there’s a very good chance that the education of such a teacher included this piece of unabashed Marxist – I gave up potty talk for Lent.

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Freire did sport a righteous beard, I’ll give ‘im that. He must not have gotten the memo about smoking being a act of violence against the oppressed.

Imagine a young person, bright eyed, optimistic, and yet insecure, ignorant (which is how they justify going to college, right?)  and desperate to fit in and get good grades. When an education professor gets out the trowel and starts laying this stuff on, how likely is a student to protest? Argue back? Call out manifest errors? How likely are they to even see any problems? They have been trained for years to please, not to think. Thus, our K-12 schools are full of teachers who think feel this sort of nonsense is simple common wisdom. Our children marinate in those assumptions – for 12+ years.

Thinking I should do a detailed chapter by chapter review, pointing out what Freire means in practice. He alternates, roughly, between typical Hegelian gibberish and nice sounding passages about freedom and even love. One who is ignorant, gullible or both – as is nearly always the case with the products of our schools (hey, they’re kids – I was ignorant and gullible back then, too) –  might find his words sympathetic – Christian, even. Yet one must remember that examples from history – what actually happens, not the “concrete historical reality” of Marx and Hegel, which consists of cherry-picked items hammered beyond recognition into the mangled shapes of theoretically acceptable outcomes – tend strongly to contradict everything Hegel, Marx, and Freire say. Half-truths are the coin of this realm. They ape truth enough to fool the inattentive, which is always how the better class of liars work.

Here are some samples from early in the book (I’m into the second chapter so far; don’t know how much of this I can stomach):

Opening paragraph:

While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. (1) Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.

Clear? If so, let me muck it up for you. Imagine you’re a conventionally-educated young person, with a fresh diploma from any of the thousands of institutions governed by the sort of people who inflict the above on more or less innocent young people: have you ever been required to parse out anything this obtuse? Do the terms  – humanization, axiological, ontological, historical reality, concrete, objective,  context, uncompleted, conscious  (Hegelian, Marxist, even a bit of Freud eventually) – mean anything to you? Would you even suspect that they don’t mean what common English might lead you to think they mean?

Of course, these are all rhetorical questions. There is approximately zero chance any 20-something in America who attends an education school has any substantial understanding of any of these things. In fact, K-12 training (it will hardly do to call it education) conditions children to regurgitate what the teacher or test expect.

If they did, they might know, for example (3):

“Humanization” – this term has a history. Hegel views the world as always Becoming, never Being – being is dead, only becoming is real. Therefore, we cannot talk about a duty to recognize the humanity in another person – that would be to talk about Being: being human. If we go down that road, we might expect to be called to treat all people as human beings (not human becomings!)  and imagine that justice would require all of us to have, for example, unaliable rights and duties to each other.

No,  much better from Freire’s and Marx’s perspective if we think of human beings as incomplete, in their rights, freedoms, and duties. Then, we can talk about how to violate some people’s rights in order to get other people their rights without ever using those terms – which might, just barely, cause a twitch of conscience.

“Historical reality” – much beloved concept by Hegelians and Marxists. One might imagine it means “what is evident looking at history”. What it really means is “how history looks once it has been tortured into a shape determined by Hegelian or Marxist theories.” Those theories, in turn, do not base their truth claims on anything observable in history, but rather on special insights gained by getting sprinkled with the right magic fairy dust – something like that. Just know that Hegelians and Marxists reject out of hand that one should be able to arrive at their conclusions by rigorous and logical examination of the facts on the ground – nope, as in all religions, they claim “I believe, so that I might understand”.

“Conscious” – this is a measure of how much you agree with Freire, Marx or Hegel. If you totally disagree, you consciousness is ‘false’; if you totally agree, your consciousness if high or complete. If you are (mercifully) unaware of the discussion, you are unconscious. Thus, whenever these folks speak of raising consciousness, they mean getting people to agree with them, generally the unconscious. It seems the kids these days use the term ‘woke’ in the same manner. In such a world, anyone who claims to thoroughly understand Marxist premises and nonetheless completely dismisses them – me, for example – becomes irredeemably evil – I don’t even *want* to have my consciousness raised! (My consciousness is already raised way higher than theirs, as I explain here.) 

More important even than never having heard these Marxist notions explicitly laid out, our education victims have never heard them vigorously attacked. They assume such notions represent the universal educated view – and their teachers will never do anything to disabuse them.

With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the product of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.

Here we pull a neat trick, one very popular in modern Marxist thinking: Everything you, the designated oppressor does, is an act of violence; nothing I, the designated oppressed or victim, do can be violence by definition. Thus, a white person doing *anything* other than complete self-immolation on the altar of institutional racism is committing an act of violent oppression. Thus, personally being kind and accepting with no regard for a person’s race is – ready? – violent racist oppression. And inciting people to shoot and murder white policemen with no regard for the policemen’s personal behavior, or committing the actual murders themselves are – not violence, and cannot be. By definition.

Under Marxist and, indeed, Hegelian analysis, the Law of Noncontradiction (4)  does not apply: something *can* both be and not be at the same time in the same way. The obvious violence involved in murder is not violence – because we say so. Oh, sure, in some *technical* petty way, blowing somebody’s brains out (or starving 20 million Ukrainian peasants, or taking a power drill to the heads of Cambodian children, or forcing Venezuelans to eat their pets, or refusing asylum to Cuban refugees) might be called violence by the small minded and those not yet woke, or otherwise laboring under false consciousness, but in the big picture, any means to achieving the glorious end is licit and commendable – and, per Freire, not violence.(5)

Thus, when thugs – excuse me, fully conscious individuals acting out of true fraternal love – threaten and beat people, burn cars, and destroy shops in order to prevent other people, people clearly laboring under false consciousness, from hearing wrong thoughts – well, only oppressors would call that the violent suppression of free speech! Orwell rolls his eyes.

In the same way, obvious kindness involved in acts of true generosity are not only not kindness, but are acts of violence and oppression UNLESS they further the cause of the revolution:

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life’, to extend their trembling hands. Real generosity lies in striving so that those hands – whether of individuals or entire peoples – need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human -hands which work and, by working, transform the world.

I believe Freire here means to evoke the image of, say, English landholder in Ireland who, by law, had to feed their starving Irish serfs – or, if it turned out to be cheaper, pay their passage to Canada or the US. There is no charity in such an arrangement, just business. And the goal clearly was to do whatever was cheapest to maintain the English as lords and owners, and the Irish as powerless serfs. History (again, what actually happens, not Marxist hamburger) does indeed present us with a nearly limitless supply of such cases. Brazil, where Freire spent years of his life, would not lack for examples.

We are intended to see cases of true oppression by means of violence and the threat of violence at the hands of invading conquerors as the type of false charity. But: if you were to ask Freire (or any Marxist): what about the charity of, say, nuns starting a school in the wild, feeding and clothing the children of the poor as well as teaching them? That happens a lot, too. He’d say, on principle, that those nuns are acting violently to perpetuate the oppressor’s dominance UNLESS they are PRIMARILY concerned with raising the consciousness of those children, to make them into Marxist revolutionaries. So, feed them, cloth them, teach them to read if you must, so long as those are steps on the way to making them little Comrades who are willing to commit any act of violence-that-is-not-violence to free the oppressed.

But, boy, it sounds so cool with no context, striving so that hands need less and less to be extended in supplication. Sounds like a free market guy, even. But helping people help themselves is not exactly what he means.

A full review would be another book. Sigh. We’ll see what we can do, if the interest is there.

  1. Not looking for pity, here – just read Mike Flynn’s excellent Captive Dream and his latest in Analog, so I’ve gotten a good solid fun read fix. I’ve willingly accepted the grim responsibility that motivates reading this other stuff. As those addicted to outrage evince, getting worked up does have its meager, transient and probably not good for you rewards.
  2. An amusing tidbit: in the translation I’ve downloaded onto my Kindle, the translator uses traditional Marxist jargon – man, New Man, mankind – and, when referring to ‘the worker’ or the ‘new man,’ uses the generic pronouns he, him, his. The translation linked above is more recent, and so refers to New Person, humankind, and uses ‘he or she’ etc. Seems that even Freire himself, or at least his translator, was trapped within an oppressor construct, and his apparent good-will and generosity were self-serving delusions, merely tools of oppression designed to maintain the oppressor/oppressed dynamic. In other words, he ain’t woke. But: a still more recent translation, if such exists, would of course use ‘zur’ or whatever the heck made up pronouns the kids these days are using, revealing even the newer (2000) translation as socially constructed to maintain the current oppressor paradigm. I’m sure even now in a classroom somewhere, Freire is being held up as an oppressor in sheep’s clothing for the delectation of wide-eyed 19 year olds. And then the next translation…
  3. Please note that this is a way high-level analysis. I know it’s not complete. What I’m trying to do is give a flavor of the sort of thing that will likely never get discussed, because neither the student or the teacher have much of an idea of what’s going on in the text.
  4. The contradiction is suspended in the dialectical synthesis (murder of oppressors isn’t violence) of thesis (murder is violence) and antithesis (but I really want to!)  – suspended, but not contradicted or resolved in any way accessible to a rational person using logic as understood by anybody who is not a Hegelian. Because Marx says so.
  5. Dewey, an earlier education theory god, from his perch high in the education pantheon, likewise excused Soviet atrocities as simply necessary pragmatic steps – the only meaningful way one could say murder, even murders rising to the level of statistics, was ‘wrong’ is if it failed to achieve its end. (Note to the note: yes, I am aware of the dispute around whether Stalin actually said that line, but given his actions, misattributing it to him seems a fairly tame error.)

Quick Reading Update

A. Just got back from a industry conference and a pilgrimage – more on that later – which provided a bit of sitting-on-a-plane and stuck-in-a-hotel-room reading time. When reading Brian Niemeier’s books – Nethereal and Souldancer – it is *essential* that one be wide awake and paying attention. Reading either in bed as sleep stalks and takes you – not going to work. Far too much going on. BUT: reading them on the plane home, after getting 9 hours of sleep (unheard of for me) and a brief nap on the plane – well, MUCH better, much more engaging and followable. In a way, this is unfortunate, since I tend to use my small, uncertain and therefore valuable wide-awake reading time for stuff like Fichte and Hegel and education history, while fiction, mythology and short stuff like Chesterton essays get the 30-60 minutes it typically takes me to fall asleep.

B. I’ve mentioned Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club a few times on this blog, generally very favorably.He writes elegant and pithy prose that is a joy to read. His knack for telling details and ability to draw fascinating connections that others might miss are wonderful, and led me to rethink some stuff with which I was already familiar and explore other issues of which I was not yet aware: for example, the role of Puritan Calvinists in the founding of Harvard and thereby in the fabric of American higher education; the (mis)use of statistics at the very foundations of American science; the ubiquity of Pragmatism in American thinking; and, less felicitous and perhaps not entirely intended by Menand, the prevalence and ultimate dogmatic orthodoxy of bone-headed irrationality masquerading as intellectual enlightenment. Examples of this abound. Most strikingly, those following Charles Sanders Pierce, as Menand’s examples amply illustrate, took his Pragmatic Maxims as meaning ‘the ends justify the means’ pure and simple, despite their protestations otherwise. Dewey’s defence of Trotsky (not discussed in the book, although Dewey himself gets plenty of ink) states emphatically that any appeal to conscience or ideals in determining what is ethical is delusional, that all that matters is the outcome of the actions – bring the Worker’s Paradise closer, and your actions are ethical in any meaningful sense.  Continue reading “Quick Reading Update”

When Philosophy Makes a Difference (hint: Always)

Following links around (the ‘who is this who pointed somebody to my blog?’ links), I came across this:

Because of his great reverence for books and intellectuals, Hitler amassed a large personal library during the 1920s. Especially once royalties began to arrive from sales of his 1925 Mein Kampf, he was able to indulge in serious collecting. When he came to political power in the 1930s, visiting foreign dignitaries knew of his passion and presented him with gifts of books, including a set of volumes on Johann Gottlieb Fichte.

And Hitler read them — the Fichte volumes contain “a veritable blizzard of underlines, question marks, exclamation points, and marginal strikes that sweeps across a hundred printed pages of dense theological prose,” according to historian Timothy W. Ryback, author of Hitler’s Private Library, writing in The Atlantic.

(Read more:

Ah, Fichte! Ever since I first read him, I’ve pointed out that he was a proto-Nazi, that his ideas carried through logically would call for the establishment of Germany as the ruler of the world. Via von Humboldt’s patronage and role in reshaping the German schools, Fichte’s ideas had become part of the intellectual background of Prussians and all Germans. But here, we find the direct link: Hitler himself was a fanboy!

Who would have thunk it?

I also like the reference to ‘theological prose’ – the Fichte I’ve read seriously is his Addresses to the German People, which is a collection of popular lectures (I have yet to gird up my intellectual loins for the journey through his more scholarly stuff – may I live that long! (I’d be really old…)). In them, God is treated as more an historical force manifesting itself through the self-realization and evolution of the (German, natch) people, rather than as the personal God of Jews and Christians. Fichte was dogged by accusations of atheism during his career, which he denied and which were hard to pin on him, given the ability of a creative mind to frame almost any sufficiently vague concept of God as acceptable within a Lutheran/Protestant framework. (1)

The formula of a divinely blessed supreme state as the means to crush evil and establish Heaven on earth is shared, under a variety of guises, by just about all of our post-post-modern revolutionaries. That capital ‘H’ history as described by Hegel is that History on the wrong side of which no right-thinking person will willingly be found.  Therefore, being told that one is on the wrong side of History is an unintentional honor and might well be worn as a badge of sanity.

Too bad saying someone is like Hitler has become nothing more than a meaningless ritualized insult. Because a lot of people now days are, in their hearts and thoughts, a lot like Hitler.

  1. Hegel himself was known to be a conventually devout practicing Lutheran, which seemed to spare him from the charge of Atheism leveled at both Kant and especially Fichte, even though the God of Hegel’s works is nothing like the personal, almighty Father of Scripture and tradition. The idea of a Spirit that comes to know itself over time and through History (always a capital ‘H’ with Hegel…)  cannot, logically speaking, refer to the Supreme Being. Hegel might call it the Supreme Becoming.


Reason #2,836 That I Should Never Look at Facebook

It’s not just the near impossibility of civil discourse. Here’s the ‘thought’ the Brahmins of Facebook suggest sharing today:

E. C. Stanton

OK, before we get to the meat of this, how does the phrase “the history of the past” get let loose onto a page? What other kind of history are we meant to distinguish the history of the past from? So, can we start by observing that we have reason to be concerned about the coherence of the thinker?

Next, “is but one long struggle upwards to equality” could only be believed by a lite Hegelian, after the usage established with ‘lite beer’. Looking at actual history, you know, the accounts of what has happened in the world, one does not come away  with the impression that struggles for equality make up the general thrust of events. The Mongol hordes were not seeking equality when they enslaved thousands of Slavs and sold them to the Egyptians; the various Chinese dynasties were not concerned with making rice farmers their equals; the Aztecs were only rarely equal-opportunity human sacrificers. There’s no indication that the slaves revolting under Spartacus objected to slavery per se – they just didn’t themselves want to be slaves. Islam, in its 1400 years of conquest, has not improved the lot of the less equal in the places they overran.

And so on. No, one must, in the Hegelian fashion, start with one’s conclusion and retrofit like hell to get any sort of general thrust toward equality to appear in the ‘history of the past’. (1)  More fundamentally, in what sense does Stanton mean ‘equality’? We in America used to think that meant ‘before the law’, allowing that there wasn’t any sort of equality evident anywhere else. We’re a stubbornly and often spectacularly unequal lot, we humans. Mostly, we seem to like it that way: Hooray for Thai food, power forwards and jockeys, men and women… These differences were considered – are still so considered by many of us – to be what made life interesting and fun. We wanted them ignored only if and when we get dragged before the Law. Otherwise, viva la difference!

But then, we lost our minds. Ms Stanton is right there in the thick of it. The weird blend of Calvinism, Enlightenment philosophy, hard-headed practicality and evangelical zeal that characterized our Founding Fathers and the American population at large resulted in this new thing under the sun: an actual government built on the idea that Law provides the fundamental framework within which individual rights can be exercised – in fact, government exists in its essence for this purpose.

This should sound familiar, right? Isn’t this what we all believe? What’s missing is a society, a culture: no man exercises rights in a vacuum, nor does any government spring Athena-like fully formed from the mind of Zeus. We inherited traditions – and laws – that recognized and protected families and culture, and built our ideas of individual rights on top of them. Then, along comes Stanton and her besties, and they read the Declaration of Independence, and use it to attack those familial and cultural foundations upon which the very concept of individual rights are built. Ouroboros. (2)

And it all sounds so good! Just like the idea that drunkenness is not a problem best addressed by family and culture but one that should be OUTLAWED by CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT! Yea, that ought to work. Thus, the intellectual and often physical descendants of the Calvinists who fled England to escape religious liberty and set up their own theocracy exercise their righteous zeal to fix the rest of us.

Stanton was a great feminist leader, and seemed at least suspicious of any differences. She is another ideological offspring of the Calvinists (she was raised a Calvinist Presbyterian) she seemed to believe she could fix the world if only she had enough power. Thus, she became an Abolitionist and Temperance leader and, ultimately, a Fabian Socialist. The common thread: the Law and the Government exists to fix EVERYTHING! Slavery, drunkenness and all economic inequality must be solved through law. The power of the Law – ultimately, the power of those who wield the Law – is infinite (3). Divine, even.

So, no, Facebook, I will not be sharing the fine thoughts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton this day. In fact, you’ve given me yet another reason to never open your app again.

  1. Surfing Wikipedia, came across this gem in reference to Stanton’s  The Woman’s Bible: “Lucy Stone determined for herself that the male-dominant interpretations of the Bible must be faulty—she worked to learn Greek and Hebrew and thereby gain insight into the earlier Bible translations which she believed would contain wording more favorable to women’s equality.” So, if the Bible doesn’t say what you want it to, it’s only a matter of getting down to the root to find that, no, it *does* say what you want it to! Start with the conclusion you want, and retrofit. Hegel and Marx would be so proud.
  2. The idea that voting for external political ends isn’t the most important thing in life is totally lost these days. Depriving someone of a family or destroying their culture in a thousand little ways: perfectly OK and enshrined in the law (divorce, farcical government interests trumping free association); Denying anyone the vote: horror of horrors greater than which little can be conceived!
  3. Stanton’s dad was a famous lawyer, judge and politician. As Oliver W. Holmes, Jr., an atheist who never married and another scion of those Puritan Calvinists, said in so many words: the law is whatever the judges say it is.

Immediate Book Meme from Darwin Catholic

Over at Darwin Catholic, Mrs. Darwin posts:

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let’s focus on something more revealing: the books you’re actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let’s call it The Immediate Book Meme.

Sounds like fun. Here’s my answers to the stated questions:

1. What book are you reading now?

Somewither, by John C. Wright. Read this over a period of a couple months, rereading it now as I feel haven’t really given it its due. It’s a weird combination of goofy and profound, high-brow slapstick and baroque language and imagery. But that, or most of that, can be said of most of his works.

Still rereading A History of Education in Antiquity. It’s fun. Unlike reading about American and specifically American Catholic education history, it doesn’t make my blood boil or head spin. It’s also just great to see how different people view education, their goals and methods. Reinforces how ahistorical and bizarre current methods are – assuming education in any coherent sense is what you’re trying to do.

2. What book did you just finish?

Mission: Tomorrow, a compilation by a pantheon of modern SciFi writers on the theme: now that NASA is all but dead and private interests are getting into space, what now? Mike Flynn, who contributed a good story to this collection, actually has a series of novels beginning with Firestar that expand on this very theme. In both the novels and the short story, he makes use of the social arrangements and sensibilities of the Age of Sail, cowboys, frontiersmen, as well as geeks and business people and more traditional space jockeys, in giving verisimilitude to his cast of characters. It’s both amusing and convincing. Why wouldn’t the barkeep be like a saloon keeper in an old Western, or the investigator like Phillip Marlowe?

Anyway, I’ll do a detailed review in next few days. It’s a good collection, well worth the read.

The Iron Chamber of Memory, John C. Wright. Man, I still have a foot or more of shelf space tied up by Mike Flynn and John C. Wright novels I have yet to read. But at least I got to this one! A very odd story that, at first, frankly, left me feeling like I was just being jerked around by all the unrequited love and confusion despite all the clues that All Is Not As It Seems. In the last half, though, we start peeling through the onion only to find it’s not an onion at all its – nope, not that either, until we come to discover… Well, better stop there. The ending is oddly tear-jerking, even though it satisfies everything that was set up – except that the world is now so different, it seems like tragic loss, which it is….

Very well and beautifully written. I’ll give it a full review – you know the drill.

God, Robot, another compilation, on the idea of Theological Robots – what happens if the Three Laws are replaced by, instead, the Two Great Commandments? What, indeed. Well, a bunch of good to great writer, the latter set including John C. Wright (natch), L. Jagi Lamplighter (John’s wife) and the much maligned Vox Day, took it on. I don’t think I’d read any of Lamplighter’s or Day’s fiction before – both are very talented writers. Lamplighter, who got the closing story (I don’t know how the editor, Anthony Marchetta, arranged this – did he assign parts?) was remarkable, taking a weirdly grim premise and making something weirdly luminous out of it.

Anyway, yada yada.

3. What do you plan to read next?

Souldancer, by Brian Niemeier. More SciFi. This is the sequel to Nethereal, a bizarre and mind-bending space opera about pirates and Hell. Dante meets a more troubled and moral Jack Sparrow. Something like that. This book promises to expand on What the Hell Was That All About? Introduced in the first book. Ya know?

If I’ve not sated my thirst to get away from education and Hegel reading after Souldancer, I’ll read some more Flynn, Wright or Gene Wolfe – or hit some more classic SciFi. Then back to the salt mines (typo-ed ‘salt minds’ – Freud might be beaming from wherever in Hell I imagine he’s roasting in my less charitable moments) of education History and Phenomenology of Spirit.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Phenomenology of Spirit. Grim duty time. Although sometimes Hegel is almost a guilty pleasure, with the right attitude. Almost. I’m weird.

War and Peace – got about 500 pages into it about 30 years ago, and – I’m a fraud! I admit it! How can anybody NOT have read W&P? Exposed, I am! Does having read a bunch of Hegel, Kant and Fichte, not to mention Cervantes and Dante, get me any slack? I imagine not. And my knowledge of Shakespeare is woefully inadequate… There are too few hours in the day…

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

There’s this pile, see…. About 2’ of shelf space is tied up with education history, studies and biographies, not to mention stuff on my Kindle. So there’s that.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Right now, I’m taking a break from Hegel and Education to read some SciFi. That should tie me up through the end of the year, at least.

Then, the plan over the next couple years is to reread a bunch of Aristotle, Plato and Thomas, a bunch of mythology (that’s another growing pile) and more general history – I particularly want to know more about Al Smith’s campaign, and the anti-Catholic backlash his crushing defeat had in the Democratic Party – FDR had NO high-profile Catholics in his administration, which was probably the price of getting elected, which he gladly paid, by all accounts.

But I need to investigate.