Sunday, August 14, 2011

Catching up, a bit

I have fallen behind in my posting. Overload is the only way to describe the past couple of months, not least because of health issues involving my husband. We persevere.

Another bit of overload was preparation for my talk at the New York Public Library, which actually went swimmingly. It took place at 1:30 of a Thursday afternoon, and there was a very large crowd. My aim was to demonstrate how current anxieties regarding speech have their origins in the 18th century. For instance, people worried back then not only about offending the feelings of what were considered the "disadvantaged," but there was also the tendency to categorize non-Europeans as large ethnic or racial groups, thus effacing the differences among individuals. This tendency, I would suggest, is part of the "universalizing" narrative of the Enlightenment, whereby we are all "humans," rather than individuals affected by history, tradition, custom, convention, etc. In fact, it is all those historical and traditional traces that one must jettison in order to be "enlightened."

Thus, even some of the most "advanced" thinkers of the Enlightenment, those men Jonathan Israel (a contributor to my book) has referred to as belonging to the "radical Enlightenment," had reservations about "public opinion." They argued for the freedom to publish and to voice their own opinions, of course, which they believed would lead to the discovery of what they called "truth." Truth, however, is not the standard of modern liberal societies, where the free flow of information and opinion drives material progress.

It is not their fault that they could not foresee the advent of a garrulous public square. Among the philosophes, I believe it was only Rousseau who saw this coming. He was very uncomfortable with dissent and disagreement. His solution was to suggest that we all give up our opinions to a "General Will," which we arrive at by avoiding the opinions of others and listening instead to "the voice of duty."

You can imagine that the subject of my talk could have been somewhat arcane for a non-academic crowd, but I livened it up with a remarkable visual presentation. The Mac has its own version of Power Point, which offers some really wonderful effects. I don't think a single person fell asleep.


Anonymous said...

I would love to have been there--and I admire your facility with the Mac technology. Certainly the photos here, as in newspapers, catch the eye and stimulate...Rousseau came up in reading today as an advocate of universal human "dignity." (I'm reading Leo Strauss's Preface to his 1930 book, written in German, on Spinoza.) Rousseau strongly influences the universalism of Kant who in turn had such an effect on German Idealism which, in turn, seems to originate to some extent in Spinoza's new concept of God. Strauss speaks in this Preface (1962) of the new "Church" consisting of artists and thinkers who of course, since Descartes-Bacon-Hobbes, no longer have much use for "positive" religion with its traditional doctrines, dogmas, laws, customs and things that are definitely not "universal" or "rational." Spinoza is THE philosophic founder of liberal democracy, I guess, in part, with his "critique of religion." Leo Strauss's complex thinking and writing reflects his embrace of the "authentic" aspects of Judaism by his lights, on the one hand, and yet on the other--an apparent distance from orthodoxy, which distance appears grounded in a "conversion to philosophy." His work literally boggles the mind. One thing is certain: his instincts about man are NOT Rousseauan. (Though he clearly likes the conservative sides of Rousseau.) Rather, he learns about human nature and its limits from the Bible and from the ancients (Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus and I would say Nietzsche...among other anti-liberals). For Strauss, "nature" is about Reason, not the passions. Yet classical Reason does build, as in Aristotle, upon the senses and thus keeps things in balance and moderation. The young Strauss was bowled over by Heidegger; the mature Strauss takes his stand against Heidegger's "radical historicism." I had no idea just how steeped Strauss was not only in the entire Jewish-related tradition of thought (Maimonides, Spinoza, Moses Mendelsohn, Jacobi, Herman Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Buber, Cassirer, Walter Benjamin, Husserl, etc) but in virtually every major thinker of our time, including Karl Schmitt, who helped Strauss get a job in pre-Hitler Germany. I learned SO MUCH from E. Sheppard's 2005 study of Strauss's lifelong experience of "exile." By the way, needless to say, the young Strauss was also heavily influenced by Goethe's "balanced" approach, if you will. Goethe's classicism or prudence, if I have that right!

Goethe Girl said...

Thanks for such engagement with my post! I think I may say something about it in my next posting.