recently as 1935, in his "Vienna Lecture": Philosophy
and the Crisis of European Humanity, Edmund Husserl clearly articulated a prospectus for revitalizing
"The West" as a vanguard for a universal transformation of the life of humanity, a renewal of every aspect of
each individual's personal life in society. He proposed a radically new form of life,
in which the "finitude" of all received forms of life (what I call: "ethnicities") would be transcended
toward a new self-reflective, self-accountable and ever-again self-reconstructing form of life devoted to
shaping itself through and as an "infinite task" of reason (build: cities, in an honorific sense). This project
would build upon the accumulated intellectual accomplishments of "The West",
from Thales and Socrates, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, to Husserl's own work and beyond....
Husserl gave his address shortly before the outbreak of World War II, which threatened to destroy
all traces of these progressive, emancipatory, rational and universalizing values, and which, in any case, largely put on hold
efforts toward realizing these ideals until such time as normal conditions
of secure daily life could be reestablished, thus once again
freeing up time and resources for the pursuit of higher aspirations.
|We are not talking here about scientific and technological
advance (aka "progress"), which have flourished since (and were even fostered by!) "The War" (WWII).
The progress of instrumental reason ("how to"/"can do") can coexist with
stagnation and even regression of life -- social and personal -- rationality ("what to"/"what for"), and this has largely been the case.
Stephen Toulmin argues, in Cosmopolis: The hidden agenda of modernity:
In the early modern period (ca. 1600), Western humanity faced a choice between (1) the partial rationality of
natural sciences which put to the test only our notions about objects (Galileo's kinematics) but left
the ambient form of social life ["political power", etc.] alone (Galileo's
and (2) the all-encompassing rationality of self-critical humanities (Rabelais, Erasmus et al.),
which put to the test everything, including
those powerful social institutions in which the investigators and
everyone else live and move and have their [in which we have our!] being. "We"
set off down the first path, and, by the mid-20th century, this trajectory
had led to deep and widespread loss of life meaning (e.g. alienation...),
as indicated by even the titles of books such as Robert Lynd's: Knowledge for what?|
|Even before the catastrophe of World War II, the efforts of persons such as
Husserl were largely to dis-occlude constructive potentialities in Western culture that remained unrealized
due to The West, "way back when" (ca. 1600), having taken and then proceeding down with blinders on, the Galilean path -- probing natural forces but obeying
social power, instead of the Rabelaisean/Erasmean alternative: probing both natural forces and social power.
[I argue that the outcome of going down the Rabelaisean/Erasmean... road-not-taken would
not have been to limit what science and technology can do in their own realm (which Ludditism, new Age spirituality, etc. try to do...),
but to situate scientific and technological endeavors in
a social world that would be increasingly rational in all its aspects (i.e., make good sense to each person as nurturing
all his or her abilities and aspirations...) -- political and economic, as well as kinematic.|
|he picture above
is the final scene from Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 film L'Avventura. Already, in the
first decades after the war, many persons whose prosperous comfort should have given them opportunity
collaboratively to work toward the goals of the Univeralizing
self-accountable Culture so eloquently described by Husserl, instead felt
alienated (anomic) and sought distractions from the boredom of their life.
This soul- and world-weariness even had cachet (e.g., "existentialism").
At the 1960(?) Cannes Film Festival, Antonioni's film took a back seat to Fellini's
La Dolce Vita, another film perhaps even more descriptive of this discouraged spirit of the
time, and which introduced the soon to become eponymous character: Paparazzo (ref.: Paparazzi)
|Read quote from
Antonioni why he uses rich, leisured persons in his films:
|Was early 20th century Western artists'
fascination with primitive art ultimately destructive not just of 'bourgeois' hypocrisy but also of genuinely humane values
of high culture?||The
ensuing several decades up to the
present have seen the "flowering" of forces provocatively inimical to
the all-consuming and all too often destructive "advance" of science and technology (partial, "Galilean" rationality).
In academe, some earn their paychecks by
advocating: "The Meta-Narrative of the Dead White European Males ['The Western Canon']"
is no better than non-"Western" ethnic
indeed, that the latter are "better" insofar as 'The Western Canon' [along with its cannons!] claims to be better
and adduces modern science and technology as powerful evidence for and -- worse -- enforcement of its claims.
At street level, persons seek their future in an imagined return to their "roots" -- in ethnic and religious
group identification. Neither the academics nor "the people" aspire or, a fortiori, endeavor to realize potentialities that could be dis-closed by
studying all cultural forms
(including each their ancestors', and, especially, each their [i.e., our] own!)
in a disciplined, comparative and critical way,
and then situating all this material creatively in relation to their
own social context [the community of researchers they thus would
become...], to learn from and make use of all of it to build for themselves (ourselves...)
a new form of life that "transcends" all the past -- both the traditional and the transitional [Galilean partial rationality],
taking from each tradition what is good and leaving (insofar as possible: recycling, repurposing...)
the rest (in a kind of "bricolage" radically unlike post-modernist deployment of that word!).
||In addition, are the forces which
do not just think, but also act in response to what they perceive (not necessarily entirely wrongly!)
as the threat of "modernity" ("The West", etc.) to their form of life. These include fundamentalist Islamist terrorists
who aim to destroy
"Western civilization" -- already with more than a little success (e.g.: "911").
||Dies Irae |
|Even if there were no
terrorists or academic detractors (deconstructionists, et al.), would the
sheer number of concurrently living persons -- now over 6,000,000,000 -- make the hoped for transformation
impossible? Cultural accomplishment is always individual and
lives in dialogical, face-to-face community. Culture cannot flourish by proxy, through alienated delegation,
e.g., in "representative democracy" (which is a democracy solely of the representatives even when
the representatives exert themselves for the benefit of the represented). In addition,
environmental pollution and resource depletion may increasingly erode
the settled conditions of safe daily life, upon which even individual study and
creation depend, whether or not these personally and intimately
satisfying endeavors can further have the good fortune to participate collegially in
the space of peer speech and action in which social life is governed.
|"See if there's anything good on...."|
|True liberal education is
free discussion about free discussion, which cultivates the free discussion it
| do not have a
firm sense of how things are going to proceed, but I am not optimistic -- especially
since so few seem to be even trying. To cite one problem, which I think is
foundational: We teach young persons "the liberal arts"
and "the humanities" in an illiberal and inhumane way: by testing and grading.
We can expect persons to appreciate the human[e] potential of these studies
only by fortunate accident, against what we are teaching them by example, e.g., that "The Good is
beyond Being" is a correct answer on a final exam about Plato, not
an appealing idea to explore experimentally by measuring all aspects of one's daily life against it -- including having
reasonable hope of being able to change the form of that life when the
experiment shows that it does not measure up, i.e., that something merely is and is not really good (those tests and grades,
for starters!). --Even many PhD graduates in "the humanities" lack any sense of
what a life devoted to authentic cultural self-formation would be like. How can
we expect persons to nurture and defend something they are profoundly unaware of?
most we can hope for is to be aware of the notions of good things we could have but won't, and to
share this realization in the good company of fellow searchers and seekers. Until
the end, we can, at least sometimes, discuss these things together and
comfort each other. Discussion itself, and to cultivate discussion
through discussion, is an aspect of our goal: not just a means
to other goals, but itself one of the most important of all goals and a source of comfort.
(The ending of Ingmar Bergmann's Film The Seventh Seal describes an end of
life which is consistent with the hope for life which I have described here, when all is lost:
Please click here and read.)
||The lights are going out all over Europe.|
We at least shall try to relight them."