Monday, September 25, 2006

Bloom, Nietzsche, Rorty.

I read Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind as a polemic against the American university with two prongs:

(1) An easy description of American university students as ungrounded, shallow and "nice", and

(2) A technical argument about the influence of German philosophy on contemporary American society.

Despite the fact that the book was published in 1987, it remains bold and trenchant 20 years later. Bloom makes a number of assertions in prong (1) that I believe that he would hold to today were he alive, nearly all of which I disagree with. Here are three of the boldest:

-All American college students are thoroughgoing relativists.
-European students are vastly superior to Americans in their education, ability to discuss books, and civic engagement.
-Liberal education is dead.

Prong (2), which I don't quite follow and need to rereread, has to do with the fact that we've imported anti-Democratic German philosophers like Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and Heidegger as well as their vocabularies and are in danger of becoming useless relativists because of it. What strikes me as massively ironic is the fact that Bloom is so critical of the masses in American being allowed to make decisions through voting, even as he clucks at the fact that we pretend that there is no danger in our cherrypicking of the parts of Nietzsche we like. Bloom worships Plato and thinks that the un-Republic-ed life is not worth living--his elitism leaps from every page through a series of anecdotes about him pithily refuting everyone he encounters and knocking American university students down like tenpins. Richard Rorty, a classmate of Bloom's at the University of Chicago, describes the university at the time as having been enveloped in a "neo-Aristotelian mystique," and Bloom never escaped it.

For me, Bloom's first critique is interesting and illuminating but misguided, and his second is (despite my lack of complete understanding) nearly certainly wrong. One of the parts of pragmatism I've kept in my journey away from Rorty is a lack of faith in someone's assenting to believe something as a prediction of how they will necessarily act.

Any thoughts? J. Morgan, I'm particularly interested in your take on our appropriation of the German vocabulary.


At 11:40 AM, Blogger Hans-Georg Gadamer said...

Interesting to see your journey away from Rorty coinciding with my journey towards Heidegger, although I think the second is so far superior to the first that no inappropriate comment on "His Blobiness" is necessary. Whoops.

Democratic thinking, who wants that?

At 12:04 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

That's small 'd' democratic thinking, not the group of social band-aids caricatured by Fox News as the Democratic Party platform. (The Democratic Party has no platform. So there!)

Rorty views Heidegger's writings as poetry. I've never gotten much out of them--what have you found?

At 1:37 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

So, I started reading this book with Charles and gave up quickly. From what I read, I didn’t like it at all. Still, I have to say that I think the first prong is spot on and the second, while I think the blame is misplaced, is probably pretty true also.

I’m not sure I could articulate succinctly my take on both of those prongs, but I do want to address the appropriation of German vocabulary and the Rortian claim about a person’s assent and action.

So, based on my fairly strong agreement with prong 1, I am skeptical that anyone is “cherrypicking… parts of Nietzsche,” mostly because I don’t think anybody reads Nietzsche or cares about the content if reading becomes unavoidable. No, rather, I think that a “cultural logic” that is very clearly articulated in the Germans is also very clearly articulated in People magazine, Death Cab for Cutie songs, Pepsi ads, Evangelical sermons, the existence of the Internet, politcal discourse, etc. I would doubt that you could write a convincing geneology tracing the language of “useless reletivists” directly to the anti-democratic Germans. If you could, I think it would be mediated by the elites who have had exposure to ADG’s and make ADG ideology manifest in more diffuse media. Now, I am curious why he thinks this vocabulary is anti-democratic.

Secondly, I agree that someone's assenting to believe something is not a prediction of how they will necessarily act. That said, it does at least point the horizons of possible action, right? It also points to how that same persons might interpret or understand their action, even when it isn’t the expected outcome of the beliefs to which they give assent, right? So, a change in vocabulary is still significant, even if it isn’t determinate, right? I agree that the relationship between belief and action is endlessly complicated, but it is a relationship nonetheless.

At 4:00 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I think prong 1 is on point, but I can't substantiate my agreement. I've attended two real institutions, the first which contradicts prong 1 (by the fact that these students are discussing this on this blog) and the second which doesn't. However, I think if we were to take the caliber of students at the second institution and match them up with their European counterparts, you'd find those same Europeans rioting at football matches, instead of sitting around discussing "the influence of German philosophy on American society".

So, I think the average American college student is somewhere between these two, and attends college as a means to an end- not as some journey into the heart of truth and knowledge, making prong 1 accurate. However, I don't know what European college students do, so I can't draw any conclusions...


Post a Comment

<< Home