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Universality or Uniformity

Universality or Uniformity

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Universality or Uniformity ?

A MAJOR REASON for the commercial success o The Closing of the American Mind f is surely its spirited and entertaining attacks on some of the more outlandish aspects of American higher education and the related youth culture. The sorry conditions criticized by Allan Bloom are real enough, although less pronounced in some academic institutions than others. Even readers who might question Bloom’s diagnosis of the malady can applaud his biting comments about pandering, trendy professors, spineless academic administrators, and listless, primitive students. Bloom’s book must also please the large group of readers whom it absolves of culpability. An indictment of American higher education by a professed admirer of Plato might have been expected to blame many of the troubles on the Enlightenment assumptions that came to dominate academia and its alumni. But representatives of the Enlightenment mind can breathe a sigh of relief. It is actually the “closing” of that mind that Bloom deplores. “The American project,” as he understands and defends it, represents the victory of such Enlightenment ideas as freedom, equality, and rationality. The target of Bloom’s critique are movements that threaten this achievement. The deterioration of American academia, Bloom argues, is of recent and primarily German origin. Intellectual impulses springing from writers like Weber, Heidegger, Freud, and Marx were imported into the United States before World War I1 by European refugees and eventually found virulent outlets in the countercultural and New Left movements of the 1960s and 1970s. These are the influences that destroyed American higher education, not some underlying and more slowly working causes of the sort that Walter Lippmann called “the acids of modernity.” Assigning blame only to the most extreme ideological currents leaves Bloom a large pool of potentially sympathetic readers. In some respects, many socialist or left-liberal intellectuals have as much reason as their more conservative counterparts to deplore the decline o the f university and the spread of a youth culture of drugs, rock, and promiscuous sex. Indeed, many o Bloom’sown basic beliefs f should appeal to readers of egalitarian, progressivist, and secular views. It should be reassuring to them that he is not inclined to trace the deterioration of academia to some fundamental flaws in the principles of the Enlightenment, as has been common among conservative critics and especially among those seeking a continuing role for religion. Enemies of capitalism will appreciate the intimate connection seen by Bloom between the free market and the decadent youth culture. In his scathing attack on rock music, Bloom points to “the capitalist element in which it flourishes.” “The rock business is perfect capitalism, supplying to demand and helping to create it. It has all the moral dignity of drug trafficking.” Bloom repeatedly and fondly invokes the principle of equality. In the nineteenth century the ideas of the French Revolution were clearly a force for good. Bloom does not hide his dislike for those trying to stem the revolutionary tide, what he refers to as “the Right.” For Bloom the Right has only one “serious meaning.” It is “the party opposed to equality.” He sharply criticizes the American South for not accepting what he deems to be “the heart” of the U.S. Constitution, its “moral commitment to equality.” The Southerners’ opposition to “mass society,” “technology,” “money-grubbing,’’and the destruction of organic and rooted community appealed to reactionary “malcontents.” Here as elsewhere Bloom lumps together con-

Modern Age


servative defenders of “individuality of culture” with New Left spokesmen for special groups and cultural identities. “The New Left in the sixties expressed exactly the same ideology that had been developed to protect the South from the threat to its practices.” One of the most striking features of The Closing of the American Mind, perhaps especially to a European reader, is the author’s deep prejudice against traditional communities and social hierarchies and particularly the conventions and attitudes of aristocratic and upper class society. The ‘ very principle of the aristocratic, as in natural aristocracy, appears tainted. An appealing characteristic of social contract theory is for Bloom that it places all human beings on par. “It pulls the magic carpet out from under the feet of kings and nobles.” Bloom thinks John Locke has been unfairly criticized for superficiality by conservative critics. They make this charge, Bloom explains, “because he was not a snob.” Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are for Bloom not above criticism, but their egalitarian assumptions made possible a new beginning in theory, just as the discovery of the new world promised a new beginning in practice. “There is no intellectual ground remaining for any regime other than democracy.” Bloom observes that “it is now fashionable to deny that there ever was a state of nature.” Sarcastically, he adds, “We are like aristocrats who do not care to know that our ancestors were once savages.” The ideas of the French Revolution were contradicted by European aristocrats and other defenders of the old order. They feared the possible disappearance in America of the noble and the sacred and a more general narrowing of the human horizon. Bloom dismisses these animadversions as “the special pleading of the reactionaries.” What should be taken more seriously by Americans, Bloom counsels, are “the arguments of the revolutionaries who accepted our principles of freedom and equality.” He sees the French Revolution as raising questions of great relevance to the American project.

One question concerns the future of religion. “The domesticated churches in America preserved the superstition o f Christianity, overcoming of which was perhaps the key to liberating man.” Bloom does not accept the notion that figures like Bacon, Descartes, Voltaire, and the social contract theorists are somehow less deep than thinkers who stress the importance of the transcendent or religion. He rejects the common charge that the Enlightenment has an overly optimistic view of human nature and society. This, too, is a reputation cultivated by self-serving reactionaries. In Bloom’s interpretation, the American regime was admirably founded on universal human rights, as elucidated by the Enlightenment. Americans were thereby liberated from traditional social and political structures and divisions. “Our story,” Bloom writes, “is the majestic and triumphant march of freedom and equality, giving meaning to all that we have done or are doing.” The tenor of Bloom’s thinking differs f sharply from that o Edmund Burke, as well as that of various conservative interpreters of the American Constitution. Burke questions the Enlightenment conception of universal rights and the idea that a good society can be created according to an intellectual blueprint. For Bloom, by contrast, the American regime recommends itself as being the implementation of a rational plan. “This is a regime founded by philosophers and their students.” “America is actually nothing but a great stage” on which theories have been acted out. “There are almost no accidents.” For Burke it is a sign of superficiality as well as arrogance to believe that men can dispense with historical experience and the guidance of tradition in favor of “rational” principles conceived in isolation from particular circumstances. In his Reffections on the Revolution in France Burke warns against the “metaphysical abstractions” of Rousseau and others as posing a terrible threat to the concrete freedoms and rights achieved by a people. Burke particularly abhors the “virtuous” passion


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for egalitarian uniformity. Rousseau’s theory of majoritarian rule by an historically uprooted and undifferentiated mass seems to Burke to be, in practice, a recipe for tyranny. In Burke’s view, the good society cherishes diversity, decentralization, and an element of spontaneous evolution in response to the unexpected. Life is indeed for the sake of universal values, but these are not bloodless, disembodied abstractions. Universality reveals its richness in the proliferating variety of human existence, at the same time that it orders diversity to an enduring transcendent purpose. Since the universal does not reside in certain rigid, sharply defined “principles,” Burke sees an important role for human imagination and creativity in discovering more fully the meaning and implications of universality in particular societies and circumstances. The America that Bloom defends phases out cultural diversity and particularity and unifies human beings in their common denominator. He describes the American project as follows: “By recognizing and accepting man’s natural rights, men found a fundamental basis of unity and sameness. Class, race, religion, national origin or culture all disappear or become dim when bathed in the light of natural rights, which give men common interests and make them truly brothers.” In the United States people are asked “to give up their ‘cultural individuality’ and make themselves into that universal, abstract being who participates in natural rights or else be doomed to an existence on the fringe.” Bloom’s interpretation of the principles of the American regime is strongly reminiscent of Rousseau’s egalitarian vision in The Social Contract. For Bloom, the French Revolution with Rousseau as its main architect represents essentially the same cause as the American. “It was fought and won for freedom and equality, as were the English and American revolutions.” Bloom is surely aware that many American and European thinkers, including Burke, have argued that the American revolution represented a very different

purpose and outlook than the French. The American revolution did not entail any sharp break with the social and political traditions of England or Europe generally. These traditions were continued and developed in distinctive ways on American soil. Bloom does not dignify this view with an explicit refutation. In The Social Contract Rousseau argues for doing away with “sectional associations,” that is, groupings and divisions between the individual and the state. Autonomous associations are for him partisan interests that undermine the sovere.ignty of the virtuous general will of the people. The citizens should form an undifferentiated mass of individuals so that the majority can pronounce the common good. The minority, as a partisan interest, is not entitled to any protection. It must conform to the majority will, or else must “be forced to be free.” Bloom considers the authors of the American regime to be similar to Rousseau. Not only do they adopt the principle of “majoritarianism,” but they also dislike minorities. “For the Founders, minorities are in general bad things, mostly identical to factions, selfish groups who have no concern as such for the common good.” One of the unfortunate develop ments in American society, according to Bloom, is that majoritarianism has been gradually abandoned “in favor of a nation of minorities and groups each following its own beliefs and inclinations.” Bloom’s disparagement of diversity and minorities is not merely directed against a “pluralism” of blatantly self-serving groups and individuals. It stems from a type of universalism that shuns particularity and uniqueness for the treasured common denominator in men, their sameness. Bloom’s depiction of the American approach to politics calls to mind the passions of the French Jacobins for spreading libert;, 6galit6, and fraternite‘ in the world. “When we Americans speak seriously about politics, we mean.that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable.” As if to reinforce the parallel with the French Revolution,

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Bloom adds, “World War I1 was really an educational project undertaken to force those who did not accept these principles to do so.” In Bloom’s ahistorical, abstract conception of universality, the latter is contradicted by the particular, the individual, the unique. In politics it is threatened by particular interests. This is not the place to take up Bloom’s use of the word “historicism,” a term that in some circles has acquired the narrow meaning of historical relativism. Suffice it to say that this way of employing the term indicates a lack of awareness that historical particularity can become one with the universal as the material through which the universal achieves concreteness and enters the human consciousness. It is here appropriate to reflect upon traditional American political and social structures and practices. Contrary to Bloom’s vision of America, they can be seen as expressing an intuitive appreciation for the value of diversity and for the possible union or cooperation of particular interests and the common good. Whether by intent or spontaneous evolution, American society has fostered and protected a proliferation of sectional associations, ranging from states and regions to localities, neighborhoods, and families. This traditional decentralization and diversity was welcomed as enriching the life of American society. To be sure, the authors of the Constitution were much concerned about the dangers of unchecked partisanship and sought ways to control “factions.” Yet America did not assume an inherent and necessary tension between autonomous groups and the common good. It is largely through life in groups, especially such intimate associations as the family and the church, that the individual is thought to learn the habits of responsibility, discipline, and tolerance that prepare him for a wider citizenship. Far from obliterating minorities and particular interests, American tradition has treated autonomous groups as potentially capable of contributing in their special ways to the common good. Needless to say, this re-

quires a sense of common purpose, especially a shared ethical aim. There should be unity in diversity: Epluribus unum. But the desired unity does not cancel the diversity. To the contrary, genuine unity, as distinguished from a tyrannizing uniformity,manifests itself in and harmonizes the particularities of time and place. The notion that the good society prescribes adherence to certain ready-made, abstract formulas like “equality” or “human rights” and asks of individuals and groups that they strip themselves of all but their sameness bears little resemblance to American tradition. When Bloom asserts that America wants people to “make themselves into that universal, abstract being who participates in natural rights,” he may be expressing the ethos of Rousseau, and Locke to some extent, and of various recent social engineers, but hardly the desires of those who created a diverse and decentralized American society. Bloom and Straussians like him are often associated with the so-called “neo-conservatives,” but on this score at least Bloom appears to be on a collision course with such writers as Michael Novak, Irving Kristol, and Brigitte and Peter Berger, not to mention the pioneering intellectual champion of the autonomous groups, Robert Nisbet. Although Bloom ascribes to the American Founders a preference for a “national majority” and a dislike for minorities, those same Founders provided not a single institutional channel through which a national majority can express and organize itself. They did not think of the American people as an undifferentiated mass whose numerical majority would decide. They assumed that the people would be organized and thrive in groups and subdivisions of various kinds. According to both American theory and practice, citizens have formal political standing only as members of sectional associations: states, electoral districts, counties, cities, etc. In the effort to attribute his own favorite ideas to the Founders, Bloom is not even deterred by the fact that for them the term “democracy” carried loathsome con-


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notations. Whatever the accuracy of Bloom’s interpretation of “the American project,” it is interesting to note that in essential respects it conforms to a familiar pattern. That pattern of reasoning was analyzed at length in a book by James Burnham called The Suicide of the West (1964). Burnham’s term for the universalistic and egalitarian predilections in question is “liberalism.” It might seem odd that a writer who extols the “new beginning” of the Enlighten,merit and the egalitarian assumptions of social contract theory should also profess an admiration for Plato and Aristotle. For Bloom there is no contradiction. Although Plato and Aristotle disagree with the “moderns” about various particulars, they agree with the “moderns” about “what philosophy is.” “Greek and French philosophy were universalistic in intention and fact.” It might be objected that Plato and Aristotle were preoccupied with the polis and were sensitive about the differences between Greeks and “barbarians.” But in Bloom’s view, “The proper noun in Greek philosophy is only an inessential tag, as it is in French Enlightenment. . . . The good life and the just regime they taught knew no limits of race, nation, religion or climate.” But did not the Greeks stress the social and political nature of man, while the social contract theorists adopt highly individualistic assumptions and contend that man’s natural state is a primitive, presocial condition? Did not the Greeks also emphasize the communal dimension of the contemplative life and the need for intellectual authority? According to Bloom, Aristotle actually believed that “the essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason.” Aristotle was of the opinion that “authority is the contrary of philosophy.” Like the Enlightenment figures, Socrates was a champion o f free inquiry who would have feared “the reintroduction of religion and the irrational.” Socrates turns out to have been a kind of Enlightenment skeptic. “Socratic dialectic . . . always culminates in doubt.” For Bloom “Enlightenment is an attempt

to give political status to what Socrates represents.” “The regime of equality and liberty, of the rights of man, is the regime of reason.” Specifically, the Enlightenment is the creator of the academy and the university, “institutions that incorporate the Socratic spirit more or less well.” It can be objected further that down the centuries scholars have assumed Plato to be hostile to the principle of equality and most particularly to what The Republic calls “democracy.” Plato’s description of the arbitrary, whimsical, and primitive personal and political life of “democracy” with its demagogues and unprincipled majority rule exemplifies his aristocratic disdain for egalitarianism. But, in his own edition of The Republic, Bloom has tried to show that appearances are deceiving. The “just regime” of The Republic is actually rejected by Socrates. It is “democracy” that he prefers, because it is most hospitable to the philosopher. It is here important to add that, like Plato, Bloom does not make the important distinction between what may be called plebiscitary, majoritarian democracy and constitutional, representative democracy, two conceptions that imply radically different views of man and society. What Socrates is said to endorse is “democracy” as described in The Republic, that is, plebiscitary rule recognizing no moral or legal restraints. Against this background, it is not surprising that Bloom should regard Rousseau as closely attuned to the spirit of Greece. No matter that Rousseau rejects the classical idea of man as a social and political being as well as the notion that man is divided between higher and lower potentialities and in need of moral and other selfdiscipline. It is Rousseau who dreams of a pre-social primitive state of nature in which reason has not fully awakened and who insists on man’s original, spontaneous goodness. The use of antiquity in Rousseau’s writing can be said to reflect his primitivistic longing and egalitarianism. Still, for Bloom his use of ancient examples is “very profound . . . a perfect model of the reason for having ancient thought available.” Rousseau’s way

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of looking back to the ancient city was “the source of the romantic longing to breathe the fresh air of Greece again. Its moral and esthetic health was what Rousseau conveyed so convincingly.” Bloom sees modern democracy as the natural home of the university and the university as a particularly great asset for democracy, because the latter always tends to undermine standards. One of the curious features of The Closing of the American Mind is the belief that there need be no particular correspondence between the norms respected by universities and the habits of democracy. It is possible to praise and practice equality and majoritarianism in the larger society and still have a university that is not inundated by the vulgarities of the surrounding society, provided the universities themselves are dedicated to the study of the great questions. Just as Socrates’ teaching can be tolerated in the “democratic” polis, so can the university go about its business within a society that is not prone to respect the higher things treasured in academia. Bloom does not entertain the possibility that the university might be hosted by a constitutional democracy that does not pander to the majority of the moment but has incorporated aristocratic checks on popular opinion. Such a regime, with corresponding social, political, and cultural habits, might actually maintain an ethos not entirely subversive of discriminating norms and tastes. It would surely be more congenial to the university than a majoritarian democracy governed by the lowest common denominator. It can be argued that a constitutional popular regime with aristocratic safeguards was what the Founders intended. Why, then, does Bloom not explore and encourage the more aristocratic potentialities of American democracy? His antiaristocratic sentiments have already been noted. Bloom mentions that Socrates and the other ancient philosophers always allied themselves with nobles and other representatives of the upper class. But this affinity, Bloom explains, was simply due to the fact that these individuals had the

universal education possible. Enlightenment philosophy reduces the aristocrats to the common level. In fact, it demonstrates that “the aristocrats, with their pride, their love of glory, their sense that they are born with the right to rule” are “impediments to the rule of reason.” Philosophy now turns to the people “as an apprecia-


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course. Yet he does not see any significant connection between the crumbling of academic standards and the gradual disappearance of traditional civilization in the surrounding society. An earlier society that sought to uphold discriminating standards, especially in circles that set the tone, could provide the university with the raw material for the scholar and gentleman, and society in its turn derived necessary sustenance from the university. Increasingly the scholar-gentleman has been replaced in academia by the sociocultural rebel or the primitive with a brain. If many of the new academics tend to resent and violate traditional norms of academic discourse and decorum, it may be partly because these norms are dimly felt to suggest the inferiority of the new arrivals. Bloom’s view of the purpose of the university is rather rationalistic. Just as he considers the university to be separate from life in general, he“is prone to see the rational mind as somehow independent of the human will and imagination. There is something abstract- and bloodless about his notion o intellectual discourse on the f great questions. The university should help the young “to gain a taste for the intellectual pleasures,” as if wisdom were a matter of cerebral titillation. Bloom recommends the dialogues of Plato for showing that the student and his friends “can think together. it requires much

thought to learn that this thinking might be what it is all for.” The Closing of the American Mind shows signs that its author is not a close student of epistemological questions. He seems unaware of the intimate connection between reason, will, and imagination and o how precisely they are different. The f centrality of the imagination in shaping the human mind has not caught his attention. Partly for these reasons, Bloom’s comments about how academia might improve itself are not only intellectualistic but vague and groping. One o the reasons why Bloom’s book f can so easily blend seemingly disparate and contradictory ideas is its lack of systematic reasoning and clear definitions. Terms like equality, freedom, democracy, and reason are central to Bloom’s arguments but are. never quite fixed in meaning. While the book’s philosophical fluidity is disturbing to a scholar, it may well have helped sales among middle-brow readers. The latter may have taken advantage of ambiguities to read into the book their own prejudices. One well-known columnnist, impressed by The Closing of the American Mind, called the author a leading conservative philosopher of education. What Bloom is in fact is for the educated reader not particularly mysterious.

-Claes C.Ryn

Modern Age


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