The Closing of the American Mind

O'Brien, Dennis

BOOKS From erosion to avalanche THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND Allan Bloom Simon and Schuster, $18.95, 392 pp. Dennis O'Brien It is somewhat embarrassing to agree with such a disagreeable...

...Believing in nothing closes the mind to argument and so all talk and teaching becomes decorous chatter...
...Again, I find much room for agreement...
...The whole enterprise of modern philosophy is contrasted to Plato and Aristotle and is viewed as conspiring toward gradual erosion of the classical sense of truth and rationality...
...Despite my general acquiescence in the bulk of Bloom's comments, I finally think that there is a fundamental error in his analysis that calls into question the whole jeremiad...
...Every time I visit New York City I am reminded of a line from Saul Bellow (who wrote the Foreword for The Closing of the American Mind...
...My agreement runs along the lines of Bloom's critique...
...Indeed, it would seem that every variety of human lifestyle from Adam Smith to the Marquis de Sade is strutting somewhere in the Borough of Manhattan...
...But if that is the case, is Bloom's laborious lamentation on the sins of the youth and the senseless curricula of their universities entirely apposite...
...Worse thoughts for worse living through rationality...
...Dennis O'Brien It is somewhat embarrassing to agree with such a disagreeable book...
...It rather makes our labors seem downright important...
...Bloom and I do, one might be enthralled by the notion of America as a playground of fundamental ideologies...
...Sammler exclaims that New York is a "metaphysical zoo...
...If Bloom is correct about the relativistic soul, then it must be play-acting...
...it was an unmitigated disaster for them...
...It is the insufferable dogmatism of radical thought that is such an unmitigated disaster...
...It is true that my students last fall'were absolutely relativistic...
...But my suspicion is that it is only play-acting...
...Bloom says, "About the sixties it is now fashionable to say that although there were indeed excesses, many good things resulted...
...Having taught Plato's Republic (in the Allan Bloom translation) last year, I cannot fault the observation...
...But the supposition of the sixties' radicals was that history was bad bunk only the future contains truth and beauty...
...The beginning and end of Bloom's book go to the specifics of the subtitle: "How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today's students...
...If you are a Freudian, sex is the Form that compels your thought...
...Sometimes cultures do pay for their sins...
...It was also true thirty years ago when I first taught the Republic and, I gather from the content of Plato's dialogues, relativism was the besetting temptation of the Athenian young who flocked to the house of Protagoras...
...almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes [Bloom has not discovered "he or she"] that truth is relative...
...I give that complaint a muttered Amen...
...Given a choice of dogmatisms between revolutionary radicals and Ratzinger, I would choose the cardinal two to one...
...The clue to Bloom's basic misperception is in the following interesting observation: "Contrary to the popular prejudice that America is a nation of unintellectual and anti-intellectual people, where ideas are at best means to ends, America is nothing but a great stage on which theories have been played as tragedy and comedy...
...Much of what Professor Bloom says about everything from Rock 'n Roll to Rousseau strikes me as "on the mark," but for all that the book has a rambling, grumbling tone that left me saying: "Now wait a darn minute . . . ." As to agreement: I agree with the first sentence...
...Racial oppression was so wicked and recalcitrant in society that even the openness of relativism may be an acceptable price for unclosing the system...
...The argument of the next 391 pages details the causes and the consequences of this modern relativism...
...Nietzsche was serious when he attacked Socrates as corrupter of humankind...
...If there is no God or truth, or beauty humanity has to make up those things as it goes along...
...If you teach philosophy year in and year out, as Prof...
...If I give only a muttered Amen to 422 Bloom's sour assessment of the sixties, it is because I do not believe he pays enough attention to some of the liberation which did occur particularly in the area of race relations...
...It is assured relativism that brings about the closing of the American mind...
...If humanity (including American students) were solely projections of the state of current pop philosophies, Bloom's screed against the professors might hold...
...Relativism is a very high price, however, and in the long run it is no friend of tolerance and a truly open society...
...Any ingenious deviant should be able to find some tissue of proof to support a position...
...Socrates (Bloom's hero) believed that the real nature of things (the Forms) compels our thought no matter how lousy the local curriculum...
...Since the one thing we know about the future is that it is not, it is difficult to argue with the non-existent...
...But so far as universities are concerned, I know of nothing positive coming from, that period...
...A variety of philosophers from Hobbes to Heidegger is considered in relation to the question of the human community and the commonality of truth...
...That is a profound half-truth...
...Having stated the basic thesis, Bloom goes on to elaborate a very interesting, subtle, and wandering set of observations about how modern philosophy has led to this impasse of open-mindedness...
...Although relativism appears at first blush and Bloom doubts that anyone bothers to blush these days to be mar-velously "open" to all manner of beliefs and lives, relativism turns out to be as empty as it is open...
...At one point a bewildered Mr...
...There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of...
...We live in an age of wallpaper philosophy...
...New York is great philosophy redone as high fashion...
...Fabulous...
...Fortunately (or unfortunately) for philosophy teachers, "there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy...
...Thus, the empty-minded, relativist, young dogmatists of Athens could be viewed with some hope they were not reduced to being victims of bad philosophy...
...If there is a protagonist in this array it is Nietzsche who, Bloom argues, was the one philosopher to take relativism seriously...
...Ratzinger is, after all, stuck with at least two thousand years of history and argument...

Vol. 114 • July 1987 • No. 13


 
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