Mind in the Modern World
Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society
Little Prayers and Finite Experience
Professor Trilling has made good and graceful use of his invitation to give the first annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. He has no difficulty in showing that Jefferson took for granted that men in their political associations were equal in their rationality. He also shows that such a view is warm and optimistic in the confidence it has in the speculative powers of the mind and in its ability to judge social policy and to understand the natural world. He notes that many of the educated have lost this high confidence; and that among the causes of this loss are not only the social and political vicissitudes through which the world has passed since Jefferson’s day but also the astonishing performances of “the wild ranging intellect of man” in bringing about a kind of self-stultification of mind.
There is something paradoxical about this. The intense energy with which the processes of mind themselves are now examined both exhibits the power of mind and makes plain its impotence. Arnold’s attempt to see the object as it really is, the obligation, that is, to strive after objectivity and rise above prejudice, is held by many today to be both epistemologically absurd and politically undesirable—it is the attempt, of course, that is seen as wrong, for if objectivity can’t be had it can’t be had. The notion of a humane education resting upon an appreciation of the long historical development of our culture and upon the study of letters (the study Lionel Trilling has in so distinguished a way advanced in his time) is now derided, not so much by the obvious louts and bullies who reach for their revolvers when they hear the word “culture,” but by such members of the intelligentsia as the 1971 president of the MLA.
Self-laceration to provide a mock blood-sacrifice before a fashionable idol is not of great interest in itself, and Trilling is concerned with Professor Kampf not as a contributor to a debate but as a representative of, presumably, some members of his profession who have, since the apocalyptic year 1968, come (in Trilling’s words) to believe that “their faith in the educative powers of literature…was a commitment to a corrupting frivolity.” This is, for the university teacher, what finds expression among university students in a concern for “relevance,” a confidence in spontaneity, and a distrust of formalized learning procedures.
Nothing quite like this has ever been known in the world before, though there have been signs for some years that the “transvaluation of values” was impending. Many of the surface phenomena are quite certainly ephemeral. But Trilling doesn’t doubt that there are deep changes. One of them is the gradual prevailing of the view, even in notable institutions of the highest reputation, that “the intellectual disciplines in which they give instruction are to be regarded not as of intrinsic value, but, at best, as elements of a rite of social passage and, at worst, as devices of social exclusion.” But there is, he thinks, no sufficient reason for despair.
…I have ventured to urge upon you the awareness that mind at the present time draws back from its own freedom and power, from its own delight in itself. That my having done so is not a counsel of despair is assured by one characteristic of mind, its wish to be conscious of itself, with what this implies of its ability to examine a course it has taken and correct it.
In a footnote Trilling refers to Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture as “the best tempered defense of the ideologized antagonism to mind.” The comment is kind and not all that unfair, though it wasn’t really clear in that book on which side the author in the end came down. Certainly, Roszak thought the dissident young people he had in mind were on the whole going in the right direction. But a certain avuncular anxiety showed itself. Here are a couple of examples. Roszak had (understandably) found it creepy that an “underground” newspaper should have printed a long article on Aleister Crowley, a shrewd Englishman who took dabblers in the occult on entirely bogus “spiritual” trips and gave it out, toward the end of his life, that he was the Beast 666. Roszak suggested that “at this point…the young, who are offering us, I feel, a great deal that is good to work with, need the help of mature minds, in order that enduring distinctions can be drawn between the deep and the shallow, the superstitious and the wise.” (This doesn’t sound much like a defense of the ideologized antagonism to mind, though the expression “a great deal that is good to work with” is forbidding.)
Again: “How is one to make certain that the exploration of the non-intellective powers will not degenerate into a maniacal nihilism? The matter needs sorting out (sic) and I am uncertain that many of the young have reflected sufficiently upon it.” Not that he is really uncertain about this—to say he is is just a part of the avuncular style. He is quite certain not only that the young he has in mind haven’t reflected on this problem but that they don’t propose to reflect upon it and don’t see why they should.
The attraction for many of The Making of a Counter Culture was just that element of good humor Trilling talks about. People who could be spoken to so indulgently and have fingers wagged at them with such bonhomie were plainly not going to bring middle-American society to destruction. It wasn’t serious stuff. The subversiveness of the people and beliefs of the “counter culture” was to real subversiveness as Playboy is to hard pornography. (Of course, unless one is very corrupt Playboy is the more distasteful.)
Since 1969 Roszak has done some sorting out. In his new book he is clear that the “counter culture” has the brightness of a coming new day for humanity and that within the old society the new is already present in the form of rude sketches or wavering adumbrations. There is an alternative society
…people seek once they have broken the spell of the urban-industrial Reality Principle. We can see the postindustrial alternative emerging in a thousand fragile experiments throughout America and Western Europe on the part of the young and the no longer young; communes rural and urban; voluntary primitivism; organic homesteading; extended families; free schools; free clinics; handicraft co-operatives; community development coops; Gandhian ashrams; neighborhood rap centers; labor gift exchanges…. Here is the new society piecing itself inventively together within the interstices of the old.
Roszak professes to have a general explanation in the light of which this farrago of principles and practices constitutes a living unity. I have some difficulty in stating the explanation, but it seems to go something like this. Natural science since Bacon and Galileo has given us a reductive, falsifying account of nature. The scientific account of nature spills over into our attempts to state what it is to be human and impoverishes the inner world or even hollows it out, leaving us shells of men. We begin from Hobbes and Gassendi and advance by way of La Mettrie to Professor B.F. Skinner. The scientific attitude to nature issues in technology of the kind we are familiar with, and this technology was developed at a time when, by a piece of great good fortune, the bourgeoisie was available to push the whole thing ahead.
It was the good fortune of science, not only that its world-view should have been so readily identified with praxis, but that there should have existed in Western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a restive class of practical-minded people who had begun to sense their own social importance. For these dynamic middle-class entrepreneurs, the New Philosophy conveniently became part of a bold liberal ideology….
The technological society at its present state of development blunts our sensibilities, robs us of natural piety, crams our lives with trivia. Our hubris is such that we move toward catastrophe without noticing what awaits us. The remedy? We need to learn from a variety of sources a new vision of things. The sources are many: shamanism; various Eastern religions; the mystical traditions; the Romantic poets, especially Blake and Wordsworth; the mavericks of our own religious traditions such as Boehme and Goethe. Curiously, there seems to be no mention of John Aubrey. He, surely, deserves a mention, for he notes, at a time when Bacon and Hobbes were victorious in the land, an incident which must be almost the last occasion on which visionary powers were exercised, before the time of Blake. “Anno 1670, not far from Cirencester, was an apparition: being demanded, whether a good spirit or a bad? returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume and most melodious twang.”
The perfume and the twang are of some relevance to Roszak’s case. When he says that the natural world has been drained of its richness by natural science he seems to have in mind the distinction, familiar to the seventeenth century, between primary and secondary qualities, that is, those macroscopic properties of bodies that are of a geometrical and dynamic sort, and those microscopic properties that (it was believed) causally affect our senses in such a way as to provide perceptions of color, sound, odor, and the like. It is important to state this theory correctly. Secondary qualities are not subjective; they are as geometrical and as dynamic as the primary qualities, though they may be imperceptible; it is the ideas of secondary qualities, our “sensations” of color, odor, and so on, that are in a sense subjective, though they are the steady signs of secondary qualities that are themselves perfectly objective though not very accessible.
This is of some importance for weighing Roszak’s heavy moralizing about the flattening effect of the scientific view of nature. Roszak would suggest that Galileo, for example, or Locke takes the view that seeing the world as colored and noting that it is full of sweet sounds and odors is a misperception, a kind of weakness, like a belief in the evil eye, to which simple men are prone. There is nothing to this interpretation by Roszak of Galileo and Locke. As a piece of epistemology the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is full of difficulties; but it isn’t at all committed to the absurd view that if we hold with Newton, for example, that it is only under such and such material conditions that we perceive such or such a color, then really we don’t perceive the color in question. Even if the theory were as crazy as Roszak seems to think it is, and as Berkeley for other reasons thought it was, it could hardly have such vast effects. To take a parallel example, we all of us know, in at least a vague kind of way, a great deal about the central nervous system of which Aristotle was totally ignorant. But how does Aristotle’s ignorance, or our knowledge, make a difference to those issues in the philosophy of mind that Aristotle talked about and that we are still talking about?