Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age

The focus of this rambling treatise disguised as a cultural critique is the relationship between the is and the ought. Susan Nieman explores the works of Kant and Rousseau, Hegel and Hume, in her efforts to describe how our view of “real life” takes shape, how it’s challenged by cruel experience, and how we ought to respond to that challenge. Half Enlightenment philosophy and half developmental psychology, and liberally strewn with clich├ęs about the nihilism and disillusionment of today’s youth, Neiman has a very simple piece of advice to give us—acknowledge the logic of the real, without abandoning our pursuit of the ideal.

Good idea. As a small way of putting the pursuit of the ideal into effect, let me suggest a few ways that her own book might have been improved.

1) Much tighter editing. There are long passages that introduce us to elements in a philosopher’s thought or biography that have no bearing on the issue at hand. It were as if Neiman had written a term paper about Rousseau’s Emile and decided to include the entire thing as a means of padding the book. The presentation would have been more compelling if a hundred pages had been cut.

2) Better philosophy. Neiman is a devout Kantian, and she accepts many of Kant’s odd notions uncritically. For example, the idea that space and time are categories of the human mind, rather than aspects of the world outside out heads; that causality is a necessary principle of understanding; that a categorical rule can be a foundation for ethical behavior. It might have been a better idea for her to use Kant as an example of the delusional thinking that can make it difficult for individuals to open themselves up to the adult world. Kant’s eloquent Scottish predecessor David Hume made two important observations that Kant found it impossible to accept: that life is inherently unpredictable and morality is based on feeling more than on logic.

In light of Neiman’s affection for Kant, it comes as no surprise to find that she misrepresents the theories of his successor Hegel entirely. This is singularly unfortunate, because Hegel’s description of what he calls “the phenomenology of spirit” dovetails nicely with Neiman’s own theories concerning how the developing consciousness comes to grip with “the real.”

Neiman describes the contrast between the two positions in one place as follows:
Hegel, like Leibniz, has the curious effect of bringing us back to the place where we accept the given as given, not because we have followed the Stoic’s advice to detach ourselves from it, but because we have understood something about the nature and necessity of the given itself. For Kant, by contrast, philosophy’s role in helping us grow up is precisely the opposite. It will not console or sooth you; it is practically guaranteed to make your life harder. For the real is not rational, and reason’s task is to make sure we never forget it.
Neiman’s basic mistake here is to imagine that when Hegel refers to “the real” he’s talking about our day-to-day understanding of the life going on all around us. Not so. For Hegel there is only one “reality” and it’s a dynamic one: spirit. Spirit moves though history, and wherever we come upon it—in a noble act or a stunning work of art—we make contact with “the real.” Similarly, our own actions become “real’ only when they’re inspired.

Hegel recognized that we’re seldom entirely satisfied with the things we do, and rightly so. Our actions never fully achieve the desired effect. Thus his philosophy describes the workings of “reality” as a restless and energetic dialectic between thinking and doing fueled by “spirit.” Hegel’s message is the same as Neiman’s, except that it focuses less on glib abstractions and more on genuine historical manifestations of the ideal becoming real. For Hegel, as for Neiman, "growing up" entails participating, forging ahead, strengthening our affections and advancing our ideals, mindful of our failures and inadequacies and reshaping our efforts in light of them.

3) Broader range of reference. Neiman fails to duly appreciate that from the aesthetic (rather than the ethical) point of view, the world can appear quite lovely just as it is. Children appreciate things, of course. Learning to deepen our appreciation as life as it becomes more troublesome and complex is another important aspect of “growing up.”

Neiman does advise us to read Middlemarch, limit our time on the Internet, and consider travel a part of our education. Such platitudinous recommendations are spread throughout the book—so much so that they begin to sound like the lectures we received at the kitchen table from Aunt Betty, who dropped out of grad school to raise a family but doesn’t mind sharing a word of advice from time to time. The only thing missing is the cherry pie.

A book so heavily laden with errors, blindspots, and truisms would not have been worth mentioning, except that Neiman’s pursuit is basically a noble one. At one point I pulled my copy of Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics off the shelf to double-check one of her references and was led to a useful passage exemplifying Kant’s failure to come to grips with Hume’s attack on induction.

To give Neiman credit, she’s trying hard to make some important ideas intelligible, ignoring the quibbles of her academic colleagues in an effort to enrich the lives of common readers like me.

The single worst element of the book is the cover, over which the author perhaps had no control. It shows a cluster of colorful but faded balloons, as if from a child’s birthday party. It’s easy to imagine a bevy of twenty-somethings in a New York marketing department discussing how to make what is essentially an erudite exercise in intellectual history look like a critique of societal ills on the order of David Brooks’s recent forays into that realm. Words in the title such as “subversive” and “infantile” are likewise designed to pull us in.

For myself, I don’t believe we live in an infantile age. On the contrary, I’m often flabbergasted by the depth of insight on display in a wide range of print and online publications and also by the weight of moral concern evident in even the most casual Facebooks posts. “Spirit,” Hegelian or otherwise, continues to percolate through events, and young people continue to surprise their elders by the freshness of their perspectives and the wisdom of the choices they make.

Would young people be better off if they read Kant and Hegel? I doubt it. Would they be better off after reading Neiman's book? Perhaps.

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