YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 6, 2016


Damian Gordon slideshow image

Damian Gordon slideshow image

(Update 1-8-16: This is NOT an anti-religion blog. My point is that secular, pluralistic societies are notorious for undermining the claims of particular religions.)

The agitated response to the claim by N. Korea that it had tested an H-Bomb reminded me of Eisenhower’s seminal 1961 farewell speech warning of a [godless] “military-industrial complex.” The heart of progressivism lies in this warning: that the Bomb unleashed powers that heretofore were reserved for the deity. The (moderate conservative) remedy is love in the service of international understanding, i.e., multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and the prophetic vision of Woodrow Wilson that eventuated in the United Nations (preceded by the League of Nations).

That is the overarching message of Carroll W. Pursell Jr.’s Readings in Technology and American Life (Oxford UP paperback, 1969).  The running theme in this solely “progressive” roundup of source readings was prefigured by historian Friedrich Meinecke’s explanation for the rise of Hitler: technology, unharnessed by the moderating power of religion, would raise a race of monster technicians from the lower orders, unimpressed by elite leadership. (The German historian’s analysis is found here: https://clarespark.com/2010/04/12/multiculturalismethnopluralism-in-the-mid-20th-century/.)

Make no mistake: Pursell is a devoted progressive, hence not hostile to the rule of experts (a salutary effect of professionalization in the applied sciences): experts who would be motivated by such dodgy and indefinite notions as a knowable “public interest,” the planning state, and “service” (a.k.a. “duty”). What Pursell is pitching is Conservative Enlightenment in the service of Big Government. (Radical Enlightenment leads to free market economics, not bureaucratic collectivism. See https://clarespark.com/2015/12/29/milton-friedmans-capitalism-and-freedom-1962/.)

Where would godless technology lead in a secularizing society? To the rule of robots with selected human features? If we feel ourselves turning into mindless machines, perhaps we should look to the apparent benefits of conformity to rules handed down by “experts,” not to advances in our particular understanding of the material world we inhabit.



January 2, 2013

Culture warriors and the Enlightenment

enlightenment[My most comprehensive treatment of this vexed subject is here: https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.]

Bill O’Reilly, the most popular history writer in America today and the dominant draw in cable news, has announced to his millions of viewers that he will accelerate his assault on “secular-progressives” and implied that he expects to win the culture wars for “traditionalists” like himself. He has started his campaign because he believes that the breakdown in family structure (i.e. the absent father in minority and other poor families) is the primary cause of dependency on the redistributionist welfare state.

What O’Reilly fails to see is that many, if not all, of his secular progressive enemies are as much committed to the organic society as is he, for they are often moderate men given to “compromise,”  and thus healers of every conceivable rift in the “body politic.”

As I have demonstrated on this website and in my book on the Melville Revival, there was not only one Enlightenment, but two streams of thought contributing to what O’Reilly calls “secular progressivism.” One stream watered the New Deal, while the other fed the notions of free market capitalism as explicated by Hayek and the Friedmans, to name a few.

Take Peter Gay (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Gay) , whose volumes on the Enlightenment energized the fields of cultural history, social history, and the history of medicine, sub-fields of history that lean toward the organic society (the class collaboration furthered by the New Deal and other conservative reformers), though that is not generally seen, as these academics are a tightly knit group that fends off “mechanical materialist” intruders, who deny, say, the notion of Zeitgeist as formulated by such counter-Enlightenment figures as Herder and other German Romantics. And yet in his Freud For Historians (Oxford UP, 1985), Gay distances himself from such mystical formulations as Zeitgeist.

Here is what Peter Gay wrote in the second volume of his massive tome The Enlightenment: An Interpretation Vol.II: The Science of Freedom (Knopf, 1969):

“There was nothing new in the philosophes’ perception that society is a fabric with interdependent, interacting parts:* what they did that was new was to take this perception as a justification for their own importance. After all, if progress is infectious, then to teach truth, expose error, and inculcate confidence—and all this, of course, the philosophes were sure they were doing—was to spread reason and shed light over large areas, even in unsuspected places. Thus the philosophes enlisted the enlightened atmosphere of their day in the service of their movement.” (p.25, “The Spirit of the Age, ” my emph.)

I quote Peter Gay because I want to distinguish between what I call the Conservative Enlightenment and the (materialist) Radical Enlightenment. The former type is covertly Burkean, emphasizing continuities with the past through “interdependence” and (implied) deference to Platonic Guardians, while the latter was a rupture with the past. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/.)  The American Constitution was one such rupture, especially as its original favoritism toward white males was rectified by the antislavery and voting rights for women amendments.

What is at stake in these competing notions of Enlightenment is the conception of the autonomous individual, capable of standing apart from passions, from families, from tribal associations, to read the world (reality) and hence to make decisions as an independent citizen. Such a one can throw off the conception of “national character” or group mind that [collectivist] Peter Gay supports through his rhetoric and his reverence for “the secular social conscience” (p.39), Kant and other German thinkers. The notion of Zeitgeist is imaginary, like the widely used term “cultural climate,” or, to use Peter Gay’s scientistic language “enlightened atmosphere.”

Today, the cultural climate that alarms Bill O’Reilly (e.g. the “culture of violence”) has taken on the agency once attributed to the individual. But such culturalist formulations go well with the corporatist liberal/communist notion of “social engineering.” Fix the “cultural climate,” bring back the moderate, healing good father (Lincoln, JFK, O’Reilly), and such events as the Newtown massacre will end, and we shall indeed live to see the best of all possible worlds.


*Compare Gay’s formulation to that of Joyce Appleby, Margaret Jacob, and Lynn Hunt: “Historians cannot comprehend all the variables bombarding a single event. Human beings participate in a dense circuitry of interacting systems, from those that regulate their bodily functions to the ones that undergird their intellectual curiosity and emotional responses. A full explanation of an event would have to take into consideration the full range of systematic reactions. Not ever doing that, history-writing implicitly begins by concentrating on those aspects of an event deemed most relevant to the inquiry.” (From Telling the Truth in History, Norton, 1994, p.253)

January 15, 2012

Prometheus Bound, but good

Rubens's Prometheus BoundThis blog responds to a heated interchange this last week over whether Republicans or Democrats were more “anti-science.” I complained bitterly about the foolish framing of the question, but since few non-scientists may understand my own indignation, I thought I had better explain.

There is no such thing as a “science” that encompasses all the worldly, materialist efforts to grasp the facts of life and death, thence to intervene to enhance life and forestall death. What the electorate is debating is the power of ultraconservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics to roll back the achievements (or, in their views, atrocities) of the modern world, a modernity that is held responsible for decadence and mass death, owing to the mistaken notions of progress and “enlightenment;” a secular wasteland that is gleefully responsible for “the death of God,” or, failing that, banishing Christian symbols from public space. Such a dive into the muck betrays “life” itself.  In other words, the question regarding “anti-science” serves culture warriors in both political parties and is intrinsic to the current polarization.

Scientism versus science.   In my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, I made a distinction between the Radical and Conservative Enlightenments. The Radical Enlightenment (a 16th century development that educated and raised the morale of “the lower orders”) was co-opted by anxious elites fearing the leveling tendencies of science and its alleged worship of the Goddess of Reason. These “moderate conservative” elites formed the progressive movement, and used “scientific management” to forestall servile revolts, arguing that free markets, left unregulated, would generate mobs who would abolish private property tout court. Similarly, social psychology was harnessed to the New Deal, using statistics and other scientistic (i.e., pretending to scientific method) strategies to get a consensus behind the ever more powerful federal government and the authority of the presidency.  I call this co-opting of “science” the Conservative Enlightenment. The social bonds it advocates are based on mystical bonds between leaders and the led, not upon the convergence of real interests within groups. Such are the methods espoused by the troops of the allegedly “pro-science” Democratic Party.

Science versus Magic. Scientific method, i.e., relying on material evidence and following facts wherever they lead, does not come naturally to a growing child. As an infant and toddler, and even into adolescence, magical thinking will dominate the psyche. Seeing “things as they are” may be fraught with fear, pain, and conflict. In my own examination of Herman Melville’s writing, I have seen the anguish with which the idealizations of childhood are relinquished. His kaleidoscopic imagination, that constantly reconfigures the world we think we see, so apparent to readers who have gone that route themselves, is generally suppressed in the scholarship, or dismissed as “incoherence,” or as a pre-Freudianism that is easily dismissed as bogus, carnal, and hence “Jewish.” Melville himself never resolved his inner war between science and religion, at times demonizing his “dark” Promethean characters, including “Margoth” an apostate secular Jew, who bears comparison with Twain’s Yankee.

Dialectical materialism versus materialism. Realism and naturalism in the arts have gotten a bad rap because of their association with the marxiste notion of dialectical materialism. The latter is a form of Hegelianism that banishes the real world in favor of an unalterable march toward communism/the reign of Spirit, a march supposedly led by the politically-conscious working class, but in practice, guided by intellectuals. These same intellectuals decry (undialectical) “materialism” as atomization and hyper-individualism of the most hateful “bourgeois” variety. I have been called that atomic bomb by more than one Leninist. As culture critics, they purportedly espouse “realism,” which for them consists of unveiling the mystifications of the bourgeoisie, pulling back the curtain to expose exploited masses and wily magicians in the urbanized land of Oz. Where these mystical anti-mystics go wrong is in their condemnation of the Promethean bourgeoisie, a class that relies on science and technology to improve the world and the life chances of its inhabitants.

Science is not dogma, and is constantly self-correcting in the collective criticism of the community of scientists (unless they are bought off by patronage). But that is not the view of those relativists who now study the history of science in order to discredit is as “essentially, a swindle.” (See https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/ or https://clarespark.com/2010/01/03/this-witch-is-not-for-burning-science-as-magic/.)

In the world of true science, quacks are driven out, and commonly held beliefs subject to alteration in the face of new evidence. Would that our political culture were as discriminating in extruding frauds.


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