William Egginton discusses his book, “The Splintering of the American Mind”, at Politics and Prose on 8/27/18.
In this trenchant analysis, Egginton argues that our current national crisis is the result of personal identity ideals overwhelming our sense of community. This imbalance is especially pronounced on college campuses, where identity politics is the norm. Along with turning institutions of higher learning into exclusive, expensive clubs for the cultural and economic elite, this focus on individualism is leading to a new kind of intolerance, degrading civic discourse, and distracting progressive politics from its commitment to equality. Showing that this trend, unlike the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay pride, will not result in positive social changes, Egginton, a professor and director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins, calls for a return to liberal education‘s egalitarian values.
William Egginton is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and Chair of the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins University, USA. He is the author of In Defense of Religious Moderation, How the World Became a Stage, Perversity and Ethics, A Wrinkle in History, The Philosopher’s Desire, and The Theater of Truth. He is also the coeditor of Thinking with Borges and The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy. Egginton writes for the digital salon Arcade, published by Stanford University, and The Stone, an online forum for contemporary philosophers published by the New York Times. His intellectual biography of Cervantes, The Man Who Invented Fiction, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2014.
In 1900, there were two great philosophers working side by side at Harvard, William James and Josiah Royce. James was from an eminent Boston family and had all the grace, brilliance and sophistication that his class aspired to. Royce, as the historian Allen Guelzo points out, was the first major American philosopher born west of the Mississippi. His parents were Forty-Niners who moved to California but failed to find gold. He grew up in squalor, was stocky, lonely and probably knew more about despair and the brooding shadows that can come in life.
James and Royce admired and learned from each other, but their philosophies were different, too. James was pragmatic and tough-minded, looking for empirical truth. Royce was more idealistic and tender-minded, more spiritual and abstract.
They differed on the individual’s role in society. As David Lamberth of Harvard notes, James’s emphasis was on tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and we each know only a fragment of the truth. People should give one another enough social space so they can be themselves. For Royce the good life meant tightly binding yourself to others — giving yourself away with others for the sake of a noble cause. Tolerance is not enough.
James’s influence is now enormous — deservedly so. Royce is almost entirely forgotten. And yet I would say that Royce is the philosopher we need today. In an age of division, fragmentation and isolation, Royce is the philosopher we don’t know we have. He is the philosopher of binding and connection.
Royce argued that meaningful lives are marked, above all, by loyalty. Out on the frontier, he had seen the chaos and anarchy that ensues when it’s every man for himself, when society is just a bunch of individuals searching for gain. He concluded that people make themselves miserable when they pursue nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
So for him the good human life meant loyalty, “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”
A person doesn’t have to invent a cause, or find it deep within herself. You are born into a world of causes, which existed before you were born and will be there after you die. You just have to become gripped by one, to give yourself away to it realizing that the cause is more important than your individual pleasure or pain.
You’re never going to find a cause if you are working in a bland office; you have to go out to where the problems are. Loyalty is not just emotion. It is action.
“The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance. This cause tells him what to do,” Royce wrote in “The Philosophy of Loyalty.”
In such a community, people submit themselves to their institution, say to a university. They discover how good it is by serving it, and they allow themselves to be formed by it. According to Royce, communities find their voice when they own their own betrayals; evil exists so we can struggle to overcome it.
Royce took his philosophy one more crucial step: Though we have our different communities, underneath there is an absolute unity to life. He believed that all separate individuals and all separate loyalties are mere fragments of a spiritual unity — an Absolute Knower, a moral truth.
That sense of an ultimate unity at the end things, shines back on us, because it means all our diverse loyalties are actually parts of the same loyalty. We all, he wrote, “seek a city out of sight.” This sense of ultimate unity, of human brotherhood and sisterhood, is what is missing in a lot of the current pessimism and divisiveness.
Royce’s philosophy is helpful with the problem we have today. How does the individual fit into the community and how does each community fit into the whole? He offered a shift in perspective. When evaluating your life, don’t ask, “How happy am I?” Ask, “How loyal am I, and to what?”
Core postmodern concepts like the hyperreal and simulacra are more relevant and true than they have ever been.
Furthermore, the article claims that postmodern is characterized by an ironic self awareness, and never has this idea been more prominent in culture. In recent years I have noticed that TV commercials have become more and more self-aware. Take for example a recent commercial by what I believe was Verizon. It says something like “More coverage, more data.” and then another actor comes into screen saying “and more people saying more.” If this isn’t ironic self awareness, I’m not sure what is.
Those are postmodern concepts about culture. But the postmodern metaphysical and epistemological nihilism are, as another commenter said, basically bedrock in terms of philosophy.
.. The core of postmodernism is that we have exhausted modernity — and indeed there are no trends that are “new under the sun anymore”, not just because everything has been done before (which is almost true), but because society doesn’t care about following this or that form en masse anymore and then proceeding to another (e.g. how baroque turned romantic, turned 12-tone, etc. or similarly in any other sphere).
Instead, everything is fragmented, and everybody (artist or not) can do whatever they please and have an audience/followers. There is no canon and no single “normative” culture the way it was 80 or 100 or 150 years ago.
Plus, nothing is able to baffle anyone anymore — in the way that each generation before could shock some part of the established culture (up to perhaps punk, but probably not even that, and not even 50s rock n’ roll — it only shocked the most conservative parts of society, and had no problem being marketed, sold, and dominating the airwaves in record time).
Postmodernism is also about having access to all the cultural production and modes of the past, and the internet and co made that even more so. Artists, politicians, marketeers, etc can borrow from any period, and repackage and resell everything, combine it, etc.
All of these things are what are described as the “postmodern condition” by the now dead French theorists of the postmodernism.
And none of those things is going away.
Even a total return to modernism or classicism across all artists for example, would still be postmodern — because before post-modernism art didn’t regress to previous periods, it invented new modes.
.. Nothing is fragmented, because everything has been reduced to transactionalism.
You can do whatever you like, as long as you’re trying to make money (or sometimes more abstract social credit) by selling it/you as hard as possible to your customers.
And there are only potential customers now – not audiences in the old scene-with-common-values sense.
Postmodernism, such as it is, is now a marketing gimmick, occasionally used to add some spicy irony to make sales efforts more successful.
The real horror is that this applies everywhere – not just in commerce, but in the arts, the sciences, academia, and especially in politics.
Pollsters see in terms of broad demographic groups. Big data counts people as if it were counting apples. At the extreme,
- evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives,
- capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest,
- modern Marxism to their class position and
- multiculturalism to their racial one.
- Consumerism treats people as mere selves — as shallow creatures concerned merely with the experience of pleasure and the acquisition of stuff.
Back in 1968, Karol Wojtyla wrote, “The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.” That’s still true.
.. Doing community service isn’t about saving the poor; it’s a meeting of absolute equals as both seek to change and grow.
.. The first responsibility of personalism is to see each other person in his or her full depth.
.. personalism asks, as much as possible, for I-Thou encounters: that you just don’t regard people as a data point, but as emerging out of the full narrative, and that you try, when you can, to get to know their stories, or at least to realize that everybody is in a struggle you know nothing about.
.. Descartes tried to separate individual reason from the bonding emotions.
.. people are “open wholes.” They find their perfection in communion with other whole persons. The crucial questions in life are not “what” questions — what do I do? They are “who” questions — who do I follow, who do I serve, who do I love?
.. The reason for life, Jacques Maritain wrote, is “self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving.” It’s to give yourself as a gift to people and causes you love and to receive such gifts for others. It is through this love that each person brings unity to his or her fragmented personality.
.. personalism is a middle way between authoritarian collectivism and radical individualism.
.. A company that treats people as units to simply maximize shareholder return is showing contempt for its own workers. Schools that treat students as brains on a stick are not preparing them to lead whole lives.
.. today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change.