Sunday, April 15, 2012

Closing Time

As some have noted, it's the 25th anniversary of one of the most unlikely bestsellers ever, Allan Bloom's The Closing Of The American Mind.  The book was a jeremiad against higher education, which professor Bloom claimed had failed democracy and impoverished students souls.

The book received great early reviews. Later, though, there was pushback--for two reasons, I think.  First, critics started to realize (or at least believe) the book was conservative. (Not that Bloom was a conservative, though many thought he was.) Second, a little-known academic, one of their own, became a rich celebrity, and that was too much to take.  So Bloom spent his last years enjoying his money and fame while being on the outs with the academic world.  If Bloom had one thing going for him, at least he tended to make more sense than his enemies.

I read the book years ago, so it's hard to go into much detail, but I wasn't that impressed.  It seemed the lengthy (and widely unread) portion of the book discussing major philosophical figures, while it had some points to make, featured a specialized, even pinched view of great ideas and their effects on the world today.  It's one thing to question the value of deconstuctionism, it's quite another to be threatened by the Enlightenment.

As to his much better-known look at contemporary culture, once again, some reasonable points were drowned out by too much cranky "get off my lawn" rhetoric.  The idea that minds that had once been open were now closed wasn't analysis, it was nostalgia.  Yes, there were cultural threats to deal with at the time, but there are always threats, and those of the 1980s weren't especially worse than in other eras.  Furthermore, Bloom seemed to have trouble distinguishing real threats from simple cultural fads--or even positive trends.  In any case, though we didn't change the way Bloom wanted, many of the cultural problems of that time have lessened in the intervening years.

Part of Bloom's answer was elitism of a type that goes back to Plato.  Once again, in small doses, not a bad idea--let the cream rise to the top, and spend their days discussing higher ideas in the groves of academe.  Let them publish and have their ideas filter into the wider world.  But that's only a small part of a system that's greater than philosophers, not run by it.  Furthermore, one of these ideas is relativism, and it's the job of the modern philosopher to deal with it, not slay it.


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I read this book during two very different periods in my life, and it impacted me very much both times.

Back in 1987 it was the first book we read in a book group put together by our friend Bruce (LA Guy later became a regular member of the second incarnation of that group). I found many of his arguments persuasive, but what impacted me the most was the scope: my friends and I suddenly realized just how unaware we had been of the 2500-year-long "great conversation" of Western philosophy.

In 1999, I ran across the book in a used bookstore and decided to read it again. I saw both the power and the flaw of Bloom's central argument. I wouldn't say he was "threatened by the Enlightenment". Rather, it was the early postmodern philosophers (Nietzsche and Heidegger in particular), who had demolished the Enlightenment project, who really upset Bloom. Yet at the same time he admired them, and was unable to find fault with their arguments. He truly hated the effect their arguments had had on the academy. Enlightenment thinkers (like their predecessors) believed the purpose of words was to communicate thought. The postmodernists saw words as tools of power, not tools of truth. In Bloom's view, this had caused the entire philosophical enterprise to become corrupt, or even simply collapsed it. Yet while railing against this effect, he was unable to question their conclusions, and it feels as if he ultimately agrees with Nietzsche and Heidegger.

I wasn't sure where to go from there. I discussed these issues with Bruce and LA Guy in some emails, and briefly considered trying to convince people to re-create the old academy in a new setting. But finally I focused on another point Bloom makes: the original purpose of philosophy was to find what is true, not merely to play with ideas. So I asked myself what was true, and after some soul searching I returned to the Catholic Church.

Which was probably not what LA Guy expected in our email discussions, not to mention what Bloom expected when he wrote the book.... :-)

7:52 PM, April 15, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Maybe he didn't hate the Enlightenment, but in John Locke and others, I think he saw the seeds of modern liberalism, with its emphasis on self-interest and relativism.

I agree with him to a point that the reason Nietzsche and others seem so threatening is not that they're wrong, but quite the opposite--that their arguments are so hard to defeat. There have been thousands of years of searching for the truth, but no one's come up with a convincing argument that they've found it. When the modern world recognizes that, it seems as if the entire edifice we're trying to build up crashes down.

Straussians (not unlike, perhaps, Plato), would support things like religion not because they necessarily were believers, but because they thought it was useful to keep the general public satisfied and under control while those as the top could continue the search--and, presumably, run things. For this, they've been attacked (mostly from the left--the right has better things to do, or perhaps will take support for religion where they can find it) as liars and fascists and cultists and whatever other slanders they could come up with.

8:23 PM, April 15, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Slanders" ? Really? Looking at the man behind the curtain is a slander?

7:37 AM, April 16, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Straussians must be thrilled that the left has moved on and now mindlessly blames the Koch Brothers for everything.

10:35 AM, April 16, 2012  

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