Thursday, January 24, 2013

A conflict of visions

Not exactly the same conflict of visions of which Thomas Sowell spoke, but it is closely related....

One opinion piece below appears at a section called The Stone at the New York Times website; the sidebar describes The Stone as follows: "The Stone features the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless."  We can safely take the opinion pages of the Times as representative of "left-liberal" opinion in the United States.  The other opinion piece below would find a home in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, which is fairly representative of right/conservative and libertarianish opinion in the USA.  The first is dated August 18 of 2012; the second, as if responding to the first retroactively, is dated August 13 2012.

(1) Deluded Individualism

(2) Obama's Assault on the Institutions of Civil Society

Regular readers of this blog could readily tell which article I think better represents (a) reality and (b) traditionally and distinctively 'American' attitudes concerning the relation between the individual, civil society, and the state.  As I have pointed out in two separate blog entries in the past couple years, the interest among academic moral and political philosophers as a group in the whole idea of individualism appears almost nonexistent.  (There are two academically-published books I know of from within the past forty years that deal to a great extent with the concept of individualism: David L. Norton's Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton, 1976), which can be found at many a good university library; and Leslie Paul Thiele's Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: A Study of Heroic Individualism (Princeton, 1990), which can be found hardly anywhere, it would seem.  [EDIT: Upon further search, there are volumes by Tibor Machan that cover individualism in a positive light.  It also turns out that there are a few academic volumes scattered about here and there which tackle individualism, including a couple significant-looking ones by philosophy professors; they appear to aim at debunking individualist 'myths' such as the view - held by whom, I'm not sure - that the atomized individual is prior to or independent of society.  Perhaps this conception of individualism exists mainly in the fevered imaginations of authors like that of the first opinion piece above and not among actual proponents of individualism?])

(As the first opinion piece would have it, the content and direction of here blog is not due to autonomous or self-directing intellectually-virtuous/perfective activity; that would be a "delusion."  The credit for all this is due to society, or the welfare state, or other external factors.  That being the case, why isn't society all perfectivst already?  What contribution did I personally make to perfectivism?  Jack shit?)

I've said on this blog numerous times that, as the intellectuals go, so goes the nation.  To ward off a potential misunderstanding here among those who might go out of their way to misunderstand: The professional intellectual "class" is certainly filled to a great extent with people who are very bright, and very virtuous intellectually: they adhere to rigorous standards of truth-seeking inquiry.  If the People as a whole practiced such intellectual virtue in their own lives in their own ways and endeavors, we'd be in a vastly improved situation compared to what we have now.  This is the goal I would like to see accomplished.  So why isn't the nation going that way per my dictum?  Well, the chief problem is how the intellectuals make (or fail to make) their work relevant to the People.

It's not like the American people are inherently anti-intellectual.  Rather, what you see in this country is a widespread attitude, more on the Right than on the Left I should think, of hostility or indifference to what "higher learning" is or has become these days.  I'll enter as exhibit B (exhibit A being Scumbag Leiter & Co.) the first opinion piece above.  When this is the kind of thing that shows up on the opinion pages of "the liberal media's" flagship publication, accessible from page 3 of a google search on "individualism philosophy" no less, what else are the People - especially those right-of-center - to think about the "liberal" intelligentsia?  What use are such authors to the People?  Are they fulfilling their highest professional responsibility to serve as the guardians and integrators of human knowledge?

The feeling among many of the "higher ed" intelligentsia is mutual: a contempt for the unwashed masses.  There's a gulf separating what's going on up there in the ivory towers and what's going on out there in flyover country (where the folks cling bitterly to guns and bibles).  Whereas a genuine philosophical mindset and temperament would seek to facilitate a dialogue between the two groups, what we have here is a failure to integrate.  What's more, the intellectuals are in the position, as professional full-time thinkers, where they're supposed to understand the causes and solutions to this problem, and act accordingly.  (Or are they not really in control of this, per the first opinion piece above?)  So that's the short-short explanation for how the course of the country is dictated by the way the intellectuals conduct themselves.

What would Aristotle and/or Jefferson think about all this?
"Checkmate, asshole."