YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 22, 2014

Healthy Skepticism

noimageThis blog is about healthy skepticism versus the sort of philosophical skepticism that is blatantly nihilistic and/or reactionary. In writing this piece, I am immersed in rereading my favorite passages in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Like most of his other works, the theme of the book is protest against the rule of the moderate man of the Enlightenment. Even another “Captain Ahab” makes an early, but brief appearance as a wooden-legged scoffer at the masquerades of the multiform confidence men who dot the book. These con artists are shape shifters, and include “Black Guinea, the herb doctor, the cosmopolitan, and more. The theme is “No Trust.”

What we are to distrust (says Melville) is the moderate Enlightenment theme of cosmic benevolence, and the very idea of progress from pre-industrial to market societies, where everyone wears a mask (role-playing) and bamboozles his or her victims. I remember the art critic Harold Rosenberg lauding this particular Melville text in the late 1940s, perhaps as his sour response to the weakly resisted Holocaust, the latter surely an example of an absent deity and the depraved indifference of humanity writ large. He read the text with understanding of its allover trajectory of nihilism and abandonment in an empty universe. Such are the ways of nihilism, a popular artistic theme in the immediate period following WW2. What do I think of this trend, still extant today? davidhume To a large extent, we are all prisoners of our particular families, personal and world histories. I will give “the new historicists” that. What is the engaged citizen supposed to do, given the imprisonment in specific contexts? Should we all turn ourselves into the figure of Pierrot, the spectator, who comments, but with blood on his hands because of his passivity? (For a picture of Picasso’s immobilized seated Pierrot of 1918, and a collage linking antisemitism and misogyny see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/.) Melville went back and forth on this question: sometimes roaring as the unmasker of frauds, sometimes soothing himself with reveries that returned him to the perfectly happy family.

[David Hume on moderation, History of England, Vol.8, pp 310-311, jousting with Locke:] “The Whig party, for a course of near seventy years, has, almost without interruption, enjoyed the whole authority of government; and no honors or offices could be obtained but by their countenance and protection. But this event, which in some particulars has been advantageous to the state, has proved destructive to the truth of history, and has established many gross falsehoods, which it is unaccountable how any civilized nation could have embraced with regard to its domestic occurrences. Compositions the most despicable, both for style and matter, have been extolled, and propagated, and read; as if they had equaled the most celebrated remains of antiquity. And forgetting that a regard to liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinated to a reverence for established government, the prevailing faction has celebrated only the partisans of the former, who pursued as their object the perfection of civil society, and has extolled them at the expense of their antagonists, who maintained those maxims that are essential to its very existence. But extremes of all kinds are to be avoided; and though no one will ever please either faction by moderate opinions, it is there we are most likely to meet with truth and certainty.”

And why not embrace the manipulative moderates, rejecting Locke and empiricism as Hume did, to his everlasting glory in the political ruling class? Few of us have the inner strength and indomitable will to escape the prisons of our contexts, to strip ourselves and our institutions of pretense. And so we fail. Back in the days when I was friends with leftists, I remember reading that it was the task of each generation to determine what was possible, given the times, to accomplish something that would advance human liberation.  I still think that is a noble aspiration, and grown-up too, for only chiliasts and other apocalyptic thinkers and actors would imagine immediate utopian outcomes to our efforts at understanding the world with a modicum of accuracy. The point of this blog: to be skeptical of pretenses to expert knowledge, but, after much investigation, to make a stand for empiricism and  self-discovery, for human mental and physical health, even though present pressures and future developments could render our decisions flawed and ignorant. But not to succumb to utter nihilism, as Melville did during a difficult period in his own life, lived in a transition from a pre-industrial world to a new world that seemingly rewarded only frauds and phonies.

[From Moby-Dick:] “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.  Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks.  Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

     Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?  For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life.  God keep thee!  Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”(Northwestern-Newberry edition, 363-364). Has Ahab seized the narration, or is it the survivor/spectator Ishmael who warns against knowledge of the self that could estrange him from the family of origin? Or is the narrator saying that to discover that we don’t know ourselves is an unbearable horror?

Pierrot can and should bend the bars of his prison to escape, at least for the moment. We should know when we bite our tongues, and forgive ourselves for not always speaking or writing what we most deeply feel and think. I feel an Ishmael writing here.

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

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5 Comments »

  1. I think where I would disagree with you, Clare, is in the rejection of moderation.
    I read the passage of Hume as applying Aristotelian logic to 18th Century politics. That neither extreme was desirable except in so much as acting as a guide to finding the best path between the extremes.
    Empiricism is only one guide and not, as its modern-day worshippers would have it, an infallible guide to reason for evidence is compromised by viewing and indeed by later discovery.
    So, a proper respect for tradition is important to avoid perverting reason into a caricature of itself.

    Comment by wien1938 — February 22, 2016 @ 10:42 am | Reply

    • I reject moderation only insofar as “moderation” is a tool of psychological warfare. Not all controversies can find common ground, and many uses of “moderation” are used to support “the neutral state.” The state is an entity with its own interests (Michael Mann). Hume was an anti-Lockean Tory. Not my guy.

      Comment by clarelspark — February 22, 2016 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

      • The state is also a contested ground. Burke wrote admirably in defence of tradition in the face of the millenarian ferver of the French Revolution. Tradition contains much wisdom not readily apparent to reason. We would be wise to be cautious about change but sceptical of tradition.

        Comment by wien1938 — February 22, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

      • Not a Burke fan. He was opposed to the French Revolution even before its Jacobin phase. I am more sympathetic to the radical Whigs who founded the USA.

        Comment by clarelspark — February 22, 2016 @ 5:41 pm

  2. […] [Read this along with https://clarespark.com/2009/12/09/strategic-regression-in-the-greatest-generation/.%5D  I have been reading Roy R. Grinker Sr.’s memoir Fifty Years in Psychiatry: a Living History (1979), and was not surprised to discover his resignation as he contemplated his life path: Grinker, a leader in the field, sighed (?) that psychiatrists and other mental health workers should not expect to “cure” their patients, but to aim for “stability.”  “Psychiatry,” he wrote, “no longer entertains the notion of cure, reconstruction of personality, or ‘adjustment.’ On the contrary, we help people in trouble to regain a stability that has been lost temporarily for a number of reasons, or we help them to attain a degree of adjustment which they never had–in other words, to reestablish the continuity of development that has been interrupted at some time for a variety of reasons (145).”  But then he, the harmony-seeking progressive echoing Edmund Burke, seemingly reverses himself, advocating a general systems theory approach: “…instead of referring to dichotomies and conflict, we may refer to two processes inextricably linked: Stability and change. …’Unity in diversity and continuity in change,’ or unified thinking characteristic of a systems approach. This is contrasted with dualistic thinking oriented only toward stability and permanence based on the illusion by objective science that some parts or variables and especially our terrestrial background can be viewed as steady.” Grinker continues, hopefully: “Unitary  thinking, on the other hand, considers that both parts and whole, both focus and background, are constantly changing, but regulated by some form of organization that prevents de-differentiation, focal cancerous overgrowth, internal psychological confusion, social chaos, and anarchy. Our problem is to identify the ways by which the organizational principle operates (160).” Grinker’s obscure and abstract theorizing echoes the structural functionalism promoted by Harvard sociologists, and before that Malinowski, the cultural anthropologist. In other words, legitimate mental health professionals aim to keep their patients or clients from making trouble–for a multiplicity of families and for the State. If you doubt this leap of mine, read these Grinker tocsins: “Currently, we are experiencing a shift from materialistic to moral values, which is creating a precarious balance at all ages, particularly adolescence. In the United States, a group has ‘dropped out’ of the mainstream of the life of technology into a drug society, which frequently results in irreparable damage. Another group fights against our current establishment, hoping to change it prior to their necessary and ultimate commitment. Another group completely avoids affectionate involvement with any other human being and ends with the stable instability of the borderline (159).”  In an earlier book, Grinker as usual, attacked objective science: “…science is not free of religon….It is constantly involved in faith that the ultimate truth will be uncovered….Attempts at complete objectivity are never successful….” (Psychiatry in Broad Perspective, 1975, p.12). This is precisely the view of “interdisciplinary” studies of the history of science, as derived from functionalists at war with the skeptical masses. (On “healthy skepticism” see https://clarespark.com/2014/02/22/healthy-skepticism/.) […]

    Pingback by A brooding meditation on intimacy and distance | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 26, 2014 @ 1:28 am | Reply


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