Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Let's talk about Heritage

Every reader of this blog knows that one of my favorite books is Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  Another favorite book is Albion's Seed.  Both of them have a lot to say about the Puritans.  The Puritans were arguably the most intellectual of America's founding cultures.  Their clergy were educated at Oxbridge, and their sermons were transcribed and distributed publicly for discussion.  There were meaningful parallels with the Jewish tradition of reading the Bible, reading the commentaries, and then discussing and debating the primary text and the commentaries.s

They were also among the most egalitarian Western societies of their era, in terms of their laws on marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance.  They fell far short of our modern standards, but they were ahead of their time, and helped to enable the progress that has been made since.  They did own slaves, but they owned fewer than other American sub-cultures and abolished it well ahead of others.

Since America is currently debating whether Nazis and Klansmen are bad, let me note that some of the most ardent abolitionists were New Englanders of Puritan heritage.  They marched to Kansas with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, determined to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state.  Uncle Tom's Cabin, an abolitionist novel dripping with Biblical references, was written by a scion of the Puritans.  John Brown was of Puritan descent.  Though we typically think of New Englanders as less militaristic than Southerners, fire-breathing abolitionists of Puritan extraction eagerly matched the Confederate ardor for civil war.

So, you want to talk about Heritage?  Yeah, let's talk about Heritage.  Some of us trace our cultural influences to New England, and the people who crushed the Confederacy are our Heritage.  Some of us look at the Confederacy the way we look at Nazi Germany.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Moral Syndromes and the Two Cultures

Although it's not possible to map perfectly from the Two Cultures of C.P. Snow to the Two Syndromes of Jane Jacobs (if it were then Jacobs' book would have a lower Kolmogorov Complexity, being equivalent to a couple essays by C.P. Snow), I think there are a lot of parallels.  In particular, I am inclined to say that just as the STEM culture maps roughly to the Commercial Syndrome (a point I argued yesterday), the arts and humanities map more or less to the Guardian Syndrome.

At first glance that may seem absurd:  Artists are often great critics of political power, and are often pacifist critics of Guardian activities like war.  Moreover, artists love to defy tradition.  Besides, isn't art often put to Commercial ends, and without the corruption that we see when Guardian and Commercial activities are blended?

The answer to all of those questions is "Of course."  You can't fit all of life into a single, simple framework.  At best, a framework can generate insights to place alongside other analyses.  And though artists are often critics of the establishment, the arts are heavily reliant on patronage.  That needn't be seen as a flaw or indicator of hypocrisy; dissent can be a constructive element of a society, even while existing within it.  Moreover, while an artist of today may break from tradition in many ways, when a person in the future wishes to study that artist it will be necessary to look at the context of this time, to see the artist in the context of the society that he/she was breaking from or critiquing.  The study of the arts and humanities can illuminate the present but it also requires a look backward.  That is not a bad thing, it is actually a source of strength.  The study of arts and humanities is an attempt to learn from tradition, even while challenging it.  If one wishes to learn from the Greeks and Romans one can and should draw on contemporary sources, but one cannot escape the need for primary sources.  That need for connection with the past is a mark of how the arts and humanities fit more closely with the Guardian Syndrome than with the Commercial Syndrome.

At this point some ardent defender of the liberal arts will probably feel a need to say that many people study humanities in college but go on to have great careers in the private sector.  Indeed.  All of teaching, even in STEM, is a heavily Guardian-based activity.  And even armies rely on commercial products.  Identifying a field of study with one Syndrome does not mean that the rest of society must look askance at it.  A healthy society draws heavily upon the best of both Syndromes, and even individuals may have experience in both types of activities.  Simultaneous mixing of activities in one organization is different from partaking of both in the course of a well-lived life.

Now, one big difference between Two Cultures and Two Syndromes is that mixing two Syndromes in areas with very tangible stakes for money and power can result in monstrosities (e.g. Marxism and the Mafia).  Mixing Two Cultures in academia, if done properly, can be quite positive.  I respect historians of science, scientists using their tools to help archaeologists or art historians, computational methods applied to linguistics, etc.  Of course, it can also be done to dangerous effect, either through "interdisciplinary" work that lacks a rigorous foundation on either side or through the false ecumenicalism of STEAM.   But then again, academia is (properly) different from the rest of the world, which is not the same as saying that we're completely immune to problems that could plague the rest of the world.