Archive for July 27th, 2009

Cygnus X-1

The work goes on as we build our clearing in the back woods (with play house for the kids, a fire pit, and some benches), and install our drainage system, which has expanded to reshaping our whole lawn with massive amounts of sand and soil.    So my blogging has been more sparse, made worse by the fact I pushed my shovel against my hand all day doing something to my nerves.  My hand has been numb and tingly the last couple days, with some bits of intense pain.   It makes it difficult to type.   Yet I’ve also been reading and thinking about my research project, particularly a book Adorno’s Positive Dialectic by Yvonne Sherratt.

Adorno’s critique of the enlightenment is one I find both convincing and similar to general tone to my thinking in recent years.   I appreciate that Sherratt’s book is as easy to understand and follow as Adorno’s writing is difficult.   Since my research will focus on political science (probably looking at the twin failings of the US in recent years – overuse of military power and decades of economically unsustainable policy), I have neither the time nor the desire to wade deep into Adorno’s whole philosophical system.   Moreover, Adorno came from the generation where academia was a place for the elite, all of whom would share a vast knowledge of the classics and main themes of western history.   My generation is fragmented into disciplines that are often so cut off from things outside their subject matter that the metaphor of not being able to see the forest for the trees is especially accurate.

I really think it’s time to take a step back, intellectually, and see our current condition in the context of a 2500 year history of western thought and culture.    Adorno is known as one of those who throw cold water into the face of Enlightenment optimism, a Jewish-German philosopher who had flee Nazism.   He and Max Horkheimer argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment that enlightenment thinking was in part the cause of the rise of Nazism.   I believe it also can be seen as a cause of the growth of militarism in US foreign policy, and thirty years of utterly unsustainable economic and ecological practices.

Yet Adorno is not the first to grapple with this sort of problem.  Plato and Socrates responded to the Sophists who had taken Greek Enlightenment thought to an extreme, where at least some Sophists argued that reason can used to support whatever subjective desires a person might have.   Plato turned to idealism and the notion of the “Forms” to try to argue for a transcendent truth.   The Fidiests such as Bayle and Pascal, at the dawn of the Age of Reason in the 17th Century, recognized that reason and rational thought could only be used as a means, but would not provide ends (e.g., you can’t use reason to figure out morality or true meaning in life).    They thought the solution was faith in God, and rejection of reason for anything but daily problem solving.

It is a true dialectic, reason and rational thought distrusts sentiment and emotion.   Thus it stands opposed to movements such as 19th century romanticism (which also responded to the ‘coldness’ of objective, rational thought), and rejects tradition and religion.   It has been part of western thought since the Greeks.   As I work through these books, think of my research project, and contemplate this ‘world in motion,’ the cultural, political and social turmoil of the early 21st century, I think the problem is clear: can we find  away to balance the need for meaning that comes from the heart, and the need for understanding that comes from the head?

Can this be done without sacrificing the ideals of rational enlightenment thought, and avoiding simple appeals to tradition or organizezd religion?   How does this connect with our current problems as a country and even a civilization?   Those thoughts are on my mind as the summer moves on…