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…

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on July 27, 2009 - 14:55

    ” 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.” (I got a new mouse that has a working right clicker so I can copy and paste again! YAY for me!)

    Well, if I understand what you’re saying here correctly, then technically the Sophists were right. Look at all the studies done in this world. Reason is used in all of them, yet many studies contradict each others’ findings (despite the same information)with exact symmetry.

    Other than that, good luck with the yard work…and for helping out your hands and the nerves within…try a big old back hoe machine….more work done with less effort, albeit you need a skilled operator to get things as exact as you want them.

    And even though it makes my feeble mind hurt in ways you can only imagine, I enjoy the intellectual nature of your posts. It forces me to think, if only for a few fleeting minutes.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on July 27, 2009 - 23:08

    We have had some equipment here (mostly run by my more able brother in law) to dig the trench and move the sand. But some of the piles were in places it couldn’t reach, or we had to shovel the dirt onto the tractor because if he tried to load it it would push too much back into the trench.

    One of the first things I tell students when we get into social science research is “never trust it when someone says ‘studies say…'” You are right, they contradict each other, especially when one moves away from very controlled experiments. I think in social science a lot of what gets done is simply to find ways for analysts to try to verify their pre-existing beliefs. That’s why I hesitate to call it a science. That point of view, by the way, has gotten me into heated debates with my fellow social scientists.

  3. #3 by henitsirk on July 28, 2009 - 03:38

    Those are some big thoughts you got there, Scott!

    I was just thinking about the Romantics today, and how they were clearly rebelling against so much of the culture of their day. I had been thinking about how confined and structured Regency society was. It’s like we’re always on one swing of the pendulum or another, never quite finding the middle path.

    Sometimes I think we can get to a place of balance between reason and emotion only when we remove self-interest. Maybe that’s too simplistic, but it feels like it might be right.

  4. #4 by Josh on July 28, 2009 - 20:30

    I agree with Henitsirk. We have to evaluate life objectively without personal agendas. This is, however, very difficult to do (if not impossible).

    Here are my thoughts on art, reason, etc:

    I’ve been studying symbolism in the Romantic period. Symbolism rejected artistic realism (paintings of everyday life) opting for a more abstract, idealist approach to their depictions. It’s amazing how, despite the symbolists’ favoring of the supernatural, there is such logic in their realization of the impossible. Just like scientists, artists reason and problem solve all the time.

    On the other hand, natural scientists must admit that a theory cannot be “proven” beyond a shadow of a doubt. To some degree, they must put their faith in something that may not be real. This is okay, however. After all, life would be boring if we could know everything “for sure”.

    So it seems to me that no one can ever balance reason and emotion perfectly. No one can be completely rational or irrational either.

  5. #5 by classicliberal2 on July 28, 2009 - 20:35

    “He [Adorno] 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.”

    I haven’t read the book in question, but on its face, the idea seems EXTRAORDINARILY flaky to me. Fascism was, first and foremost, a counter-Englightenment movement, profoundly anti-liberal to its core, and celebrating a fictitious cult of heroism, a twisted romanticism to which the Enlightenment thinkers would have been diametrically opposed.

    As for the growth in U.S. militarism, that is often publicly rationalized by a similar sort of twisted romanticism, but the engines actually driving it, now as always, are much more basic economic concerns.

    The Enlightenment thinkers always appealed to reason. There are a lot of problems with that approach, but the mere fact that the economic and ecological practices of which you speak are, in fact, demonstrably unsustainable (and hence irrational) pretty much removes them from the list of problems that can be lain at the doorstep of the Enlightenment.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on July 28, 2009 - 21:41

      Adorno and Horkheimer were not flakey, they were renowned philosophers, founders of the Frankfurt school which has a history of critiquing enlightenment thought and capitalism. They focused first on myth, and asked the question why did Germany, the land of Kant and a paramount force in the enlightenment, fall to the myth of Nazism. The answer was that the enlightenment made this likely. They draw heavily on Freudian and neo-Freudian psychology, how political actors (or advertisers) can use their power to appeal to emotions, using reason as a tool to manipulate. The key problem is that reason does not give meaning, especially not in the sense of the ‘id’, or life fulfillment. It is instrumental. The search for meaning then does not get fulfilled by rational thought alone, which breeds a kind of anxiety and stress in everyday life. That opens the door to an appeal to myth. We see how that has degraded political debate today in that it tends to be emotion that trumps reason (also in the news). They argue that this in part comes from the limits of reason. That’s a very quick and overly simplified synopsis — they may be wrong, but I don’t think “flakey” is an accurate term. Adorno arguably (in the book I site above she makes the argument) wants to figure out how to redeem the enlightenment from these problems — allow us to use reason to truly achieve liberation.

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