Tag Archives: Civil Society

F.R. Leavis: The Literary Critic As Anti-Philosopher

F.R. Leavis

Thesis: The various academic disciplines of the university world are each “jealous gods” who proclaim, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This is true whether we are speaking of philosophy, history, literature, arts or sciences. Each would be the Master Discipline, the organizing center of intellectual and cultural life. Each one may develop a natural antipathy to its competitors. Each one may create a vortex of knowledge that becomes a silo of power. But there are better options.

I hold in my hands a collection of essays and papers by the great English literary critic F.R. Leavis entitled “The Critic as Anti-Philosopher.” The companions to this book include Dickens the Novelist, Nor Shall My Sword, The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought, and Thought, Words, and Creativity: Art and Thought in D.H. Lawrence. Leavis was invited to deliver the prestigious Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1965 that was later published as “English Literature in Our Time and the University (1967). Leavis’ subjects of literary criticism included Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Conrad, Coleridge, Arnold, James, Hopkins, Hardy, Joyce, and Dickens, among others. Leavis did admire the philosophical writings of Michael Polanyi, author of “Knowing and Being,” and so his “anti-philosopher” stance was selective rather than universal.

Leavis was a friend of the philosopher Wittgenstein who also taught at Cambridge and on one occasion playfully (but seriously) urged him to “give up philosophy.” This is ironic because in fact Wittgenstein did give up teaching philosophy for a while to go teach school children, something for which he was singularly unsuited. Leavis describes Wittgenstein as an intellectual genius of remarkable intensity who was fascinating to watch at he wrestled in a sustained spontaneous effort to resolve self-imposed problems of his intellectual discipline. Leavis writes, “Wittgenstein has an intensity of a concentration that impressed itself on one as disinterestedness.” But the same could be said of Leavis. There is something obsessive in each of these men’s intellectual passion. Maybe there is something “obsessive” in the temperament of all intellectuals who enjoy working tirelessly on various thought-problems they assign themselves to work on.

And yet it must also be said that there was an intellectual incompatibility, “an antipathy of temperament” between these two men of genius. Leavis puts it this way, “Wittgenstein couldn’t in any case imagine that literary criticism might matter intellectually. Even at that time I had the opposing conviction: it was, as it is, that the fullest use of language is to be found in creative literature, and that a great creative work is a work of original exploratory thought.”

Another literary critic who shares Leavis’ sensibility is Michael Wood, author of “Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.” Wood is the Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, and from 1995 to 2001 he was the Director of Gauss Seminars in Criticism at Princeton. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. But here’s his difference from Leavis. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society. His works include books on Stendhal, Garcia Marquez, Nabokov, Kafka, and films. In addition, he is a widely published essayist and book reviewer. And so we can deduce that Michael Wood is a secular henotheist who is able to render some limited devotion to the god of Philosophy but his supreme devotion belongs to the god of Literature.

Several blogs ago I wrote about the binary nature of intellectual discourse within the various intellectual disciplines of the university world. But it is also true that there is a binary fixation between the liberal disciplines as well. For some that binary tension between Literature and Philosophy. For others it will be a binary tension between Philosophy and Science, or say philosophy and Religion. Any combination of intellectual disciplines can become a binary fixation and focus of dialogue, discourse, dialectic and debate.

What happens rather spontaneously in the complex mental lives of intellectually inclined individuals in general and of professional academics in particular is a gradual concentration and intensification of knowledge and reflection that consolidates principally around one “master discipline.” Its scholarly body of knowledge, assumptions, methods and styles become normative. The deeper one goes into that intellectual discipline and critical domain the more it becomes a creative vortex that gathers up and organizes one’s thought until we see the world almost entirely through its lens. Of course this same process is what creates academic silos from which the intellectual partisans come to view each other across disciplines with growing suspicion.

Occasionally something surprising will happen. A few “organic free-range” intellectuals and “home-grown polymaths” will adopt a radically pluralistic and pragmatic approach to intellectual and cultural inquiry. Such a pluralistic and diversified approach is characterized by “interdisciplinary complementarity” in which no single academic discipline or ideology of any discipline “captures the flag” or “gets to have the last word.” It is a continuing and open dialogue between multiple modes, methods and styles of discourse, like learning to fluently speak multiple languages and dialects. This, of course, is extremely rare. Most domesticated and sequestered academics believe, whether they will publicly admit it or not, that only one intellectual discipline can serve as the master discipline that explains (at the most fundamental level) what is really going on, and it just happens to be the one they have devoted their lives to studying with almost religiously passionate intensity of sustained devotion.

Occasionally something perhaps even curious will happen. An intellectual who had devoted his life to the primary study of one academic discipline, for example natural science, decides that his time would be better spent in the study of philosophy or literature, music or art, and so he switches horses. One can become disillusioned or weary of one’s own intellectual discipline. It may lose its magical luster and persuasive power. And of course this switching of horses may happen in any direction.

In addition, let us admit that we are each naturally influenced by the people around us and by the interests of others. Academic types figure out what seems to have intellectual pizzaz and cultural cache. Let us say one is studying and teaching the humanistic disciplines such as philosophy, religion, history, literature or the arts in an academic community that is overwhelming dominated by the prestigious and well-funded disciplines of science, technology, business and economics. In such an institution professors of the humanities and the arts are likely to feel marginalized and irrelevant to the serious business of the increasingly corporate university, which is, well, business. Colleges and universities that can’t generate income, compensate their faculty, staff the administration and pay their bills go out of business. Let’s be realists here.

One “realist” approach to teaching follows the principle: “If you can’t beat them join them.” Let’s say one is teaching philosophy, an intellectual discipline that some utilitarian cynics question as being relevant, since it is unlikely that one will ever be able to use it to make a living or become a success in the world. The sensible way for a politically astute professor of philosophy to attain at least a measure of status, relevance and respect in a science and technology-driven institution is to teach courses in “Philosophy of Science” and “Ethics of Technology.” Likewise, if theoretical and practical studies in “Economics, Finance, Business and Management” have become the academic center of university  then one hones his liberal academic discipline to address the philosophical and ethical problems of those domains. The ways in which the liberal disciplines of history, linguistic, literature and the arts justify their existence in such a utilitarian academic institution remain deeply problematic.

In any case, it is not only the specialized literary critic like Leavis who is the anti-philosopher. Every intellectual specialization will breed disciplinary elitists who can at best tolerate the distracting presence of the competing intellectual disciplines. They will assume that what is “explained” or left “unexplained” by other disciplines is “fully explained” by their discipline. After all, we only have so much physical and mental energy to spread out and use up.

Here’s my pitch: The great benefit of a true liberal arts education is that we “learn how to learn” through broad and in-depth encounters with multiple disciplines and perspectives that continuously engage each other in critically reflective and constructive dialogue. We learn how to question, compare, contrast, communicatecooperate and collaborate. We learn from others who have “casts of mind” and “styles of temperament” that are quite different from our own. We learn that philosophers, theologians, historians, scientists, literati and artists, among others, can be friends and colleagues without succumbing to suspicion, contempt, alienation or reproach. And this knowledge is precious in any progressive society that values the importance of cultural literacy, intellectual discourse, human solidarity and civil society.

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Who Are Your People?

people_of_the_world_2_by_kirsty_mercer88-d32dago“People of the World”

In his book, “Hymns to an Unknown God,” Sam Keen poses a variety of “Perennial Mythic Questions.” Keen asks the great questions pertaining to reality and existence, life and death, meaning and purpose, identity and belonging, knowledge, ignorance, suffering and evil, wonder and joy, love and hate, hope and despair. One of his questions is “Who Are Your People?” I have asked myself that question countless times throughout my life and often find the question itself problematic. What if I don’t have a single group of people with whom I identity but rather find myself among multiple groups that live in entirely different worlds? Has this been your experience too?

Like many people I have associated and affiliated with many different organizations and groups throughout my life.  Frequently these different organizations and groups seemed to co-exist with little or no knowledge of each other, and even less interest in getting to know each other. The same is true of various individuals I’ve known along the way. While there have been natural attractions and elective affinities between some of them, many have lived in incommensurable worlds. I find the word “incommensurable” to be a word I’m using a lot these days. And I’ve learned that “the post-modern condition” is one of living in many incommensurable worlds with their different meanings, beliefs, values, loyalties and commitments. There is jangle, perplexity, complexity and dissonance in such an experience, but also perhaps great beauty and opportunity. Beyond the post-modern world of “incommensurability” may lie the “trans-modern” possibility of a complexly hyphenated identity — the fusion of multiple and divergent horizons, the first step toward pluralistic integration. No doubt this hope of pluralistic integration or at least of creative dialectic has something to do with why I’ve been drawn to facilitating conversational salons for so many years.

In the Modern Age of the Rational-Scientific Enlightenment Project, a key assumption has been that there is one right answer to every question, and that one can know that answer to be objectively factual and true. In the “Postmodern turn” in our culture a new paradigm has emerged, a paradigm that says that there may be many “right answers” to some kinds of questions, and that what we actually do is to “try out” those various answers to see if they are relationally “fit” for different kinds of useful purposes. This has led to a “pluralistic,” “hyphenated”  and even “oxymoronic” sense of identity and belonging. We are “many selves” and we belong to many different communities of discourse, or hermeneutical circles.

So who are my people? My people are the inhabitants of multiple cultures, traditions, thought-worlds and life-styles. My people are not ideological purists living in one exclusive world but are eclectic pragmatists, having joined the horizons of divergent intellectual and cultural traditions in creative dialogue. We have decided that “both-and” is sometimes more profound and fruitful than “either-or.” But neither are we ideologically attached to “both-and” in every circumstance, for sometimes a choice must be made between “either-or.” Sometimes there are multiple human and social ends that cannot all be fulfilled at the same time.

Many of us have decided that words alone cannot fully capture the mystery of reality in a net, that there is always more to life than we can say, a “surplus of meaning.” We are inclined to think that there are times when Silence, Music, Art and Poetry, along with Symbols, Rituals, Stories and Dance may do a better job than discursive prose of evoking and honoring if not naming and capturing the Ineffable Mystery in which we live and move and have our being. We respect the rational and empirical ways of knowing, but we also reverence the visionary and ecstatic, the sacred and the sublime.

So who are my people?

Metaphysically, my people include religious, spiritual, humanistic and secular folks of all types, and those who make no such claims at all. But more to the point, they include hyphenated  “sacred-secularists” and “secular-sacramentalists.” They include a “dialogical dialogue” between the archetypal ways of the Existentialist, Sage, Shaman, Prophet, Evangelist and Mystic, and between their respective ideals of Beauty, Goodness, Healing, Justice, Reconciliation and Unity. My people nonor an eclectic and integral combination of principles and ideals as diverse as Beauty, Goodness, and Truth;  Justice, Mercy, and Peace; Faith, Hope, and Love; Gentleness, Strength, and Harmony; Life, Liberty and Happiness. Today in the global age one’s core principles and ideals may include Hellenistic, Hebrew, Christian, Taoist, Pagan and Democratic influences, among others. The world’s living wisdom traditions are not oppositional to each other. Their relationship is mutual and symbiotic. That is a lesson that many are still learning, and others have yet to learn.

Of course there are negating and destructive ideologies and value systems that are implicitly or explicitly committed to perpetuating fear, hatred, envy, jealousy, arrogance, greed, conflict, violence, alienation, war, conquest and cruelty as a perpetual way of life. A liberal democratic  society that is committed to such progressive ideals of freedom, dignity, justice and peace is not compatible with any fascist plutocracy, whether in socialist or capitalist, anarchist or totalitarian guises.

Philosophically, my people include Platonists and Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans, Rationalists and Empiricists, Existentialists and Pragmatists. But more to the point, they include those who hold to a provisional view that multiple philosophical movements may each be “partly right,” useful cultural constructs that seek to solve different theoretical problems and serve different purposes.

Educationally, my people include Literati and Philosophers, Mythologists and Historians, Psychologists and Sociologists, Artists and Scientists. But more to the point, they include those who have “transgressed the boundaries” between these liberal academic disciplines in order to appreciate their diverse domains, questions, problems, methodologies, exemplars, schools and styles of inquiry.

My people do not insist that any one academic discipline is “king of the mountain.” They do not need to subordinate one discipline and method of discourse to another — as if it alone where the true and final “vocabulary” that all men must speak or be deemed ignorant fools.

In the Philosophy of Language there is a continuing debate between those who insist on the primacy of: (1) Objective Correspondence and Coherence, (2) Subjective Imagination and Expressiveness, (3) Relational Symbols and Metaphors, and (4) Pragmatic Uses and Consequences, as if every use of language ought to employ the same theoretical tools.  My people suspect that each linguistic theory may be “partly right” and so we will attempt to negotiate between all four of these epistemological language games rather than choose only one theory to serve our needs on all occasions.

Culturally, my people enjoy “the epicurean life” of good books, music, art, theatre, cinema, nature, health, beauty, gardening, food, drink, stories, travel, conversations and friends. They value the life of their minds as much as the pleasure of their senses. They combine the functions of introspection and observation, sensibility and practicality, affection and reflection, perception and judgment into a heightened awareness and creative way of life.

Politically, my people include liberals, conservatives, communitarians and libertarians. But more to the point, they include Principled Pragmatists and Radical Centrists who seek to negotiate reconciliation and peace between opposing parochial ideologies and entrenched narrow interests that wish to play the barbaric game of “winner takes all.” Politically, my people are looking for common ground and the middle way. But at the same time they know that there will always be a struggle between those who seek a world that advances the greater good of all, and a world that rewards only the lucky and ambitious few while abandoning and exploiting the many. My people are “radical centrists” and “passionate moderates” who seek to balance and reconcile the complementary principles of the individual and community, tradition and progress, rights and responsibilities, enterprise and ecology.

Well, these are my people, but obviously not in any possessive sense. These are people who seek to broaden and deepen their complex humanity, to live in harmony and respect for nature, and to seek a transcendent horizon of meaning, purpose, serenity and hope through a constructive dialogue with the world’s living wisdom traditions.