Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man, The Founding of est
After viewing the discarded crutches, eyeglasses, ear trumpets, and other paraphernalia at Lourdes, Anatole France is said to have inquired: “What—no wooden legs?” One could ask a similar question about the cures promised by most self-help books—of frustrations, bad tempers, unsatisfactory orgasms, migraines, insomnia, and other symptoms of the unhappy mind. Their “rules” for a happier life are generally no more helpful or inspiriting to the unhappy than a recommended diet of tap water to an alcoholic. The writing is, moreover, appalling: formularized zest, officious enthusiasm that is thoroughly uncontagious.
Yet these works deserve attention as our popular religions and philosophies. They are the places to look if you wish to find expression, however crude, of prevalent attitudes to classical questions of ethics and human conduct. One might think that trained professional philosophers—whose precursors were the first self-help exponents—would take an interest in these books, but professional philosophers and self-help authors usually occupy non-communicating compartments. Philosophers tend to see themselves as on the frontier of thought; if their work makes progress in their field, it will sooner or later filter down to the multitude. Self-help exponents, in turn, point to practical results of their ideas. They no longer seek, if they once did, the cooperation of philosophers and turn for approval instead to athletes and film stars.
The result of all this is disconcerting: philosophers in effect abandon the field of popular philosophical discussion to irresponsible simplifiers; conversely, the latter proceed with ever-increasing confidence but without the benefit of sound methods. Perhaps the last exemplar in this country of a great philosopher doing his job was William James, who once expressed the hope that philosophy would get as close to problems of life as realistic novels. Of course, it may be argued that no other man of such distinction has lent his support to such undistinguished currents of thought. The content of self-help literature itself has not much changed since the nineteenth-century evangelical “mind-cure” movements James discussed with such naïve sympathy. These movements promoted “fore-thought vs. fear-thought,” urged us to “get in tune with the infinite,” or (the counsel of the “Don’t Worry!” sect) to repeat while dressing for the day the words “Youth, Health, Vigor”!
At first, then, it seems fortunate that a professional philosopher, William Warren Bartley, III, should have chosen to address himself in his latest book to the life and work of Werner Erhard, founder of one of the more successful selfhelp trainings, est (erhard seminars training). Bartley’s lucid and penetrating previous work has advanced our understanding of a number of intellectual currents—especially the work of Karl Popper and the influence of the Vienna School Reform movement of the 1920s on the “middle” Wittgenstein—and he would seem an ideally judicious interpreter. If this expectation is disappointed, the book is nevertheless instructive. It is also attractively written, never shrill or unduly proselytizing, careful to avoid the hysteria and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.