[lbo-talk] Overrated writers

Chuck Grimes c123grimes at att.net
Mon Apr 25 16:57:00 PDT 2011

Gosh, is the history of the right that much of a secret?



Some long musings... The point is the history of the right is an eternal theme

No it's not secret, but it's hard to tease out in retrospect. It's not just the specific works, but when and how they became influencial. Hayek, Popper, and Gombrich were all in different fields, and tailored their underlying philosophies into different `applications' in the humanities and social sciences. Gombrich was a very influencial art historian in London and much of his works were essays which became incorporated into US post-war academic art history. A similar sort of out look was turned into theories of literary criticism in the US under Lionel Trilling and other critics. These views became part of the standard education in literature and art. They were all anti-communist to the core and carried it back into political philosophy and philosophy of science going through Marx and back to Hegel to root this evil out. This was true of Popper and Gombrich. I couldn't stand Hayek, so I gave up on him about page fifty. The central concepts were built around `freedom of the individual' and reworked in a template like fit against the social science influence of Marx. When you consider Strauss in the mix you see him reaching back to the early enlightenment, then middle ages, and finally Plato and Aristotle to do his dirty work at Uni Chicago. So there was a whole wing of conservative thought far above most of Kristal and some of the US based NYC intellectuals of the late forties who had originally been influenced by various progressive works of the left liberal social sciences. The reason the Germans and Austrians had such an influence was the in-depth nature of their university systems. They started reading Latin and Greek classics in high school, translating selections from original texts. They also studied the history of ideas which Hegel wrote on in his collected lectures on history of philosophy. These lectures are worth digging out on specific philosophers, if you want to get a general idea about how they are positioned. (I did this for Jacobi.) But every period goes over the same list with new additions, so you follow the shifting view of the history of philosophy by comparative study.

Getting back to US post-war.... The period to consider was the late forties, and their NYC-London reactions to Stalin and the cold war hysteria. Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism was good on the Germans and not very good on the Russians. Most of the section on Russia was forced and muddy. It's only a third of the book. This section got the attention of the shifting from left to right crowd in the US and UK. I got the impression she knew what she was writing about on Germany, but since she had never been to Russia, she had to just read about it, so there's an element of abstraction that lacks a sense of life. Even so, the two examples were merged in a theoretical way and got turned into good use by the Allied propaganda machine. The whole liberal-lefty intellectual climate had changed because of Stalin, so there was a big reaction.

Jim Farmelant writes in more history and background on Hayek and Popper. A few years ago, I managed to tease out this intellectual history, which is hard to do. Secrecy is not the problem. It's all the reading and study you have to do in order to see the history. And you really can't trust somebody else to do this for you, except maybe Harvey, most of the time.

These Austrians had a tremendous influence over the intellectual climate of the post-war US. They basically formed the foundation for most of my college years (1961-9). The effect was to bury Marx and cut off his influence in the development of US intellectual life. This was countered to some extend by people like Leo Lowenthal at UCB who for awhile was chair of Sociology. Lowenthal was a lesser known Frankfurter who stayed in the US and like Marcuse, he kept up contact with the ones who went back to Germany.

Intellectual life in the US? Yes, we have one, and this helps explain why it is so crappy. Americans, even the well educated progressive crew, tend to not read European work and study European historical origins. If they do, they don't go far enough back to see a kind of grand view (one of those metanarratives) of a western intellectual life.

This is getting off track, but just one example. Isaiah Berlin coined the term counter-enlightenment and traced it back to Vico, an Italian historian-philosopher. Here's the wiki on Vico:

``Relying on a complex etymology, Vico argues in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. Each age exhibits distinct political and social features and can be characterized by master tropes or figures of language. The giganti of the divine age rely on metaphor to compare, and thus comprehend, human and natural phenomena. In the heroic age, metonymy and synecdoche support the development of feudal or monarchic institutions embodied by idealized figures. The final age is characterized by popular democracy and reflection via irony; in this epoch, the rise of rationality leads to barbarie della reflessione or barbarism of reflection, and civilization descends once more into the poetic era. Taken together, the recurring cycle of three ages - common to every nation - constitutes for Vico a storia ideale eterna or ideal eternal history.''*


But then Berlin used the term to characterize a form of thought that embraces a shifting and historized view of value systems, and he saw that was counter to enlightenment thinking. Fine. It's arguable. But the historical process has so drastically changed us (me), I actually don't believe in one set of such universal codes, but many that may conflict in different ways in different uses within the social temporal context. Cassirer had also studied Vico twenty thirty years before Berlin, but his interpretation was to adopt Vico's position of shifting systems (but not their cycles) over time, and expanded the basic idea to build up a dynamic theory of culture (and history), with the relativity of worldviews. Cassirer adapted the mathematical idea of transformations to reconcile a collection of frames between themselves. This is a point that Berlin either didn't understand or didn't believe. Cassirer's more general framework was Hegelian, only he didn't buy the progression of history idea at all. In turn this progression upwards was a core ideal of the enlightenment...

I was going to use this term counter-enlightenment, but Berlin muddied up the plan, because I was going to put Strauss in this camp. Strauss doesn't belong under Berlin's use of the term to be synonymous with a relativity of values, since the whole Strauss project was devoted to a critique of shifting foundations.

As an aside, knowing some of this history with all its problematic flaws helps explain Feyerabend's philosophical and political anarchism, which was a reaction to Popper. Feyerabend started in physics in Vienna after the war and switched to philosphy of science.

What a joy he was. He handed out a reading list which was voluntary. I didn't look through it in class because he was already on about something else. We were forbidden to take notes so I didn't want to miss anything. When i got home and went through about ten pages of books I couldn't believe it. It started with the pre-socratics and ran up to something like Kuhn. In other words the entire philosophy reading list for Western Civ. The next class somebody raised their hand and ask for selection suggestions. Feyerabend said, just pick one and read it. Since he was lecturing on Galileo, I picked the Dialogues. That was a mistake. I didn't understand much except the parts that trashed the church.

Ah, all these years later I can figure that lecture out, since it was against rationalism and for an anarchistic empiricism, and I didn't understand the difference.


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