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Variations on a Theme

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Every once in a while, I get up in the morning and wonder just how much trouble I’m willing to get myself into, and end up deciding that it’s a lot.  So, let’s take a look at Rousseau, and Hegel, and Nietzsche and all the rest of the philosophers Robert seems to think–I  may be getting this wrong–don’t actually fit into the Western tradition.

First, Robert says:

>>>As for Literature, a few months ago it was worth studying for its own sake–like dance and porcelain–and we were to study the best specimens of each type.>>>

To start with the obvious, I NEVER  said we should study literature “like dance and porcellain.”  

In fact, I said we SHOULDN’T.

The study of literature is not properly classified with the study of dance or porcellain or basket weaving–those things might fit into a coherent category with creative writing, but not with the study of literature.

The study of literature would fit best in a category with philosophy, history and chemistry, not “dance and porcellain.”

Which I’m misspelling.

As for studying it for its own sake–of course.  We study all the liberal arts, including physics and chemistry and biology,  for their own sake–that’s why they’re the liberal arts.  

But the fact that some things are worth studying for their own sake does not mean that we can’t take what we’ve learned and use it in our lives and our world.  Of course we do, all the time.  In fact, we use what we’ve learned in literature, philosophy and history much more often than we use what we’ve learned in, say, particle physics, and there are entire areas of the natural sciences that produce no pragmatically applicable knowledge at all.   It really does not matter if we know how fast the universe is expanding, and never will.

Then there’s this, also from Robert:

>>>Philosophy. I’m sorry, but if observing reality and drawing conclusions is all that’s required, I’ve been practicing philosophy without a license for years. But can that definition be stretched to include Plato, Rousseau, Hegel and Nietzche, none of whom are noted for actually checking their diktats against reality?

I don’t say philosophy can’t be stretched to include some interesting and useful writing, but Locke seems better placed with Hobbes, Parkinson’s EVOLUTION OF POLITICAL THOUGHT or even PJ O’Rourke–and wherever that is, it’s not the center of Philosophy, though it could be off in the hinterland.

First, the basis of philosophy is the quest to find answers to the most basic human questions–what is matter, what is the good, etc–by reason alone.  That is–without resort to the supernatural.  If you ponder life and death and try to figure them out without resorting to “well, God said…” you are doing philosophy, albeit at a rather minimal level. 

Plato, Rousseau, Hegel and Nietzsche all fit quite comfortably into that definition.  And I think that they did, in fact, make reference to the reality around them.  They were, however, forced–given the state of the natural sciences of their time–to take sides on an issue that could not be empirically decided at the time and that provides rather contradictory partial evidence in the everyday world.

That’s the question of nature and nuture–how much of what we are is a matter of what we’re born with, and how much is a matter of how we’re raised, educated, and socialized?

We’ve actually come a long way in the last thirty years or so in finding biological-neurological answers to this question, sort of, but it’s still nowhere near clear.  And if you’d lived in a society where genes had not yet been discovered, the empirical evidence around you would not be conclusive in either direction.

Or worse, it would seem to be conclusive in both directions.

Any mother can tell you that children are vastly and distinctly different from the day they’re born. Hell, practically from the minute they’re born.  I can still remember Matt, barely three hours old, reacting to his first kiss on the cheek (from his father) by rearing his head back and delivering a devastating glare.   He absolutely hated that tight little coccoon thing all newborns are supposed to love, and kicked it apart every time the nurse wrapped him in it.  Then he glared at her, too.  Greg, on the other hand, loved that coccoon, and he was always smiling at everybody and everything.

At the same time, any teacher can tell you that environment can make an enormous difference.  It won’t raise or lower your IQ or change your basic temperament, but it will determine lots of things like work and life habits, you overall fund of general knowledge (which can make you look smarter on those tests that determine so much, thereby giving you opportunities, which in turn…), and do all kinds of other things we take for granted are a matter of “how we’re raised.”

But it can have bigger consequences than that.  Consider envy, one of the most basic human emotions, one of the most destructive ones, and one of the most universally acknowledged in literature, philosophy, and history. 

For the purposes of this post, I’m conflating the definition of envy and jealousy–as bitterness at the fact that other people have more than you do.  Envy technically is the emotional state where you would rather have both you and the people around you be dirt poor, than have you all be richer if you in particular were less rich than the rest.  Jealousy is just wishing you had what somebody else does.

There’s certainly plenty of envy in this society, but it is one of the most striking things about our politics–and the reason why “class warfare” politics doesn’t work very well here–that the ordinary middle class American doesn’t seem to engage in it much.  He’d like to win the lottery, or get the kind of job that would pay twice what he has, but you know?  Bill Gates?  God bless him.   Isn’t it great he can do all that stuff!

I really enjoyed Thomas Franks’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but he really hit a wall on this one.  It drove him completely crazy that so many people just didn’t seem to care that other people had so much more than they did.  As ong as they felt they had enough, they were perfectly willing to let Bill Gates have his fifty thousand square foot house.  Besides, Gates looked like he’d earned it.

This is not a minor finding here.   The fact that you can reduce the total amount of envy in your society, even in the face of significant inequalities of material resources, by producing a general prosperty even at the lower levels of the scale, is nothing but good news.  

But it also gives rise to a question about what else might be malleable in the human condition.  And it’s a legitimate question.   We just don’t know, at this point, how far we can improve ourselves and our societies at that basic level of human nature.  What else, besides envy, might be manageable under the right cultural conditions?

Consider, for instance, something that we know is innate and inborn–the drive of adolescent males to risk taking and violence.  This is consistent across cultures and it doesn’t go away, and much of any society’s resources is taken up with trying to figure out how to handle it.  The vast majority of violent crime is committed by males between the ages of 15 and 35, and every prison warden knows that all except for a very small percentage of violent offenders become much easier to handle (and much less violent) when they hit their mid-forties.

We also know that some attempts to deal with this situation do not work very well–the forced feminization of much of our educational system, for instance, doesn’t work at all on the boys we need to be most worried about, and tends to make a lot of the others mutinous and recalcitrant, bringing down their grades and their prospects at the same time.

But some of our attempts to deal with this issue have worked very well indeed.  Any sane person would rather have the adolescent males in his community joining the football team than the local biker gang, or competing for who gets the highest score in World of Warcraft than who can rack up the most rapes on the week-end.

What’s more, even the more straightforward kind of nurture, teaching people that X is wrong and then expecting them to stop themselves from doing it, works at least sometimes.  We didn’t eliminate the problem of rape–which is probably perfectl natural, and yes, probably largely about sex–by teaching men it was wrong and that they shouldn’t do it, but we suppressed the vast majority of it, and that’s not a small thing.

It was therefore not stupid, or delusional, or lack of checkin into the evidence that made somebody like Plato think that the behavior of human beings was determined by their environment, and not by any innate tendencies delivered by the gods or human biology. 

And that is, after all, an enormously hopeful assumption.  If the way human beings behave is the result of the way we raise them, then it should be possible to raise them differently and get different results–to eliminate war, crime, even irresponsibility and hatred.

The problem, of course, is that when you actually try to do this, it turns out to be a lot harder in practice than it looks like in theory.  And I think Plato knew that, too–I think that the reason why The Republic is a blueprint for totalitarianism is precisely because Plato was rsponding to real evidence in the real world that the traits he was trying to eradicate were a lot less amenable to training than he had hoped they would be.

The Republic shares a lot–in fact, is the original source of–the philosophies not only of outwardly totalitarian states like the old USSR, but also of the kind of child development “expert” who thinks that if we can only control every aspect of a child’s environment, we can produce a perfect little regiment of good, successful, happy people who will never commit crimes, do drugs, or have children of their own at the age of twelve.

And that assumption is held, these days, by a lot of the right as well as by a lot of the left.  Your local  Christian academy is as involved in the attempt to totally control the environment of its children as your local public school.  It’s just that where the public school is carefully erasing any mention of junk food or good people (say,  FDR) who smoke cigarettes from its reading selections, the Christian academy is doing the same with the stories of gay people who are happy being gay and teen-agers who have sex without ruining their lives.

There was no lack of resort to empirical evidence for Plato.   He looked at the same evidence everybody else did, and interpreted it as best he could, and his conclusions were only really partly wrong.  But they were not willfully stupid, and they were not simply flights of fancy unconnected to a study of the real world or the evidence to be found in it.

Okay, ack, it’s late.  I haven’t gotten to half of this.  I’ll put off both Hegel and Will and Ariel Durant until tomorrow.

Also peace and justice.  I’ll get there.  I promise.

But one thing–I’d put Hobbes smack inthe middle of the Western philosophical tradition, and I think he’s got a ot more in common with Plato than with Locke. 

But that, yes, of course, is going to have to wait for another time.

Written by janeh

June 24th, 2009 at 8:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Variations on a Theme'

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  1. OK, actually there ARE writers I’d say had left the reservation as far as the Western tradition is concerned. If you say that the core values or beliefs of a culture are A, B and C, then people or movements that reject all three (or however many) aren’t part of that culture, though they may be descended from it.
    But as far as Philosophy goes, and Literature, I was just trying to point out that a university core curriculum is a game of “lifeboat.” You can study and learn all your life, but if you’ve got a system that says, in effect, “you won’t teach college English without learning this much hard science, history, mathematics and philosophy” you want to be very careful not to load the kid up too heavily.

    The problem is not whether I like or agree with a particular philosopher, but the limits of the approach. If, after more than 2,000 years, we can’t get agreement on what “justice” is, how a state ought to be governed, what its proper functions are, or our ethical obligations to family members, fellow citizens and foreigners, then I’m not sure reason will take us there, and am unwilling to impose much of a burden on the kids.

    And you did have dance in the curriculum, earlier. Adams had dance and porcelain. The question is not what does one study for its own sake–we might have very different lists–but what must one master in order to be a responsible citizen, or to be an educated person. The line between “this subject fascinates me” and “this is something everyone ought to know” is tricky, but important.

    But no, I don’t think anyone who believes he can design a society from scratch should be taken seriously–or at least not INTELLECTUALLY seriously. Seriously the way one regards an armed maniac perhaps. When Aristotle wants to consider how a polis might be best governed, he makes a study of how city-states ARE governed, and starts from there. That’s precisely the “grounding in reality” Plato and his intellectual descendants don’t practice, and I’d prefer never to hear another recite the clan motto “this time for sure!”


    24 Jun 09 at 5:00 pm

  2. Robert said “If, after more than 2,000 years, we can’t get agreement on what “justice” is, how a state ought to be governed, what its proper functions are, or our ethical obligations to family members, fellow citizens and foreigners, then I’m not sure reason will take us there, and am unwilling to impose much of a burden on the kids.”

    If you don’t teach these things explicitly, you will do them implicitly. You can’t live in a society without some understanding of how the legal system and government works – and the people are going to have an opinion on those things the very first time they get annoyed when they don’t agree with an action of a legal system or government. Any time you have a group of people studying or working together – in a school, in a workplace – you have them carrying out what they consider to be their obligations to family, fellow citizens and foreigners. The question isn’t whether these things will happen according to a certain cultural code; they will. The question – or one of them – is, what happens when someone is convinced that the law is cruel and unfair, the government is expensive and capricious, the relative is abusive or treacherous, the fellow citizen gets on your nerves or embroils you with the legal system, and the foreigner starts bombarding your ports or expressing disturbing ideas? (And that’s a lot longer question than I had in mind when I started typing it!) Are you going to address all these problems with some knowledge of how your society fits together and when and why some certainties came to be adopted? Or perhaps retreat into your traditional certainties (even though, in the nature of things, your neighbour’s traditional certainties vary somewhat from yours, but you do your best to do the right thing)? Knowing what your society claims are the best way to run a country and deal with family and friends, and having some idea why these ideas arose is absolutely essential to a citizen!


    24 Jun 09 at 6:52 pm

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