Monday, January 10, 2011

Liberals -- Essential Beliefs Relativism 130

The 19th and 20th Century German Roots of Modern American Philosophy

Let us begin with two definitions – value relativism and conflict resolution.

Value relativism

value-relativism amounts to the assertion that there are no compelling moral reasons
to do - or to refrain from doing - anything; therefore, we have the "right" to do everything.

  • Gregory R. Johnson, Morehouse College

conflict resolution

Conflict resolution is a range of methods of eliminating sources of conflict. The term "conflict resolution" is sometimes used interchangeably with the term dispute resolution or alternative dispute resolution. Processes of conflict resolution generally include negotiation, mediation, and diplomacy. The processes of arbitration, litigation, and formal complaint processes such as ombudsman processes, are usually described with the term dispute resolution, although some refer to them as "conflict resolution." Processes of mediation and arbitration are often referred to as alternative dispute resolution.

--Wikipedia, which also notes that, “Intercultural conflicts are often the most difficult to resolve because the expectations of the disputants can be very different, and there is much occasion for misunderstanding.

Alan Bloom wrote a very controversial book, published in 1987, called The Closing of the American Mind. A chapter of that book is titled “The German Connection,” and it begins by talking about value relativsm and conflit resultion. Then Bloom says this:

Persons deeply committed to values are admired. Their intense belief, their caring or concern, their
believing in something, is the proof of autonomy, freedom and creativity. Such persons are the contrary of easygoing, and they have standards, all the more worthy because they are not received from tradition, and are not based on a reality all can see, or derived from thin rationalizing confined to calculation about material interests. The heroic and artistic types dedicate themselves to ideals of their own making. They are the antibourgeois.

Value here serves those who are looking for fresh inspiration, for new beliefs about good and evil at least as powerful as the old ones that have been disenchanted, demystified, demythologized by scientific reason. This interpretation seems to say that dying for values is the noblest of acts and
that the old realism or objectivism led to weak attachments to one's goals. Nature is indifferent to good and evil; man's interpretations prescribe a law of life to nature.

Thus our use of the value language leads us in two opposite directions —to follow the line of least resistance, and to adopt strong poses and fanatic resolutions. But these are merely different deductions from a common premise. Values are not discovered by reason, and it is fruitless to seek them, to find the truth or the good life. The quest begun by Odysseus and continued over three millennia has come to an end with the observation that there is nothing to seek. This alleged fact was announced by Nietzsche just over a century ago when he said, "God is dead." Good and evil now for the first time appeared as values, of which there have been a thousand and one, none rationally or objectively preferable to any other. The salutary illusion about the existence of good and evil has been definitively dispelled. For Nietzsche this was an unparalleled catastrophe; it meant the decomposition of culture and the loss of human aspiration. The Socratic "examined" life was no longer possible or desirable. It was -itself unexamined, and if there was any possibility of a human life in the future it must begin from the naive capacity to live an unexamined life. The philosophic way of life had become simply poisonous. In short, Nietzsche with the utmost gravity told modern man that he was freefalling in the abyss of nihilism. Perhaps after having lived through this terrible experience, drunk it to the dregs, people might hope for a fresh era of value creation, the emergence of new gods.

Modern democracy was, of course, the target of Nietzsche's criticism. Its rationalism and its egalitarianism are the contrary of creativity. Its daily life is for him the civilized reanimalization of man. Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to face the fact, not to look into the abyss. Nietzsche's call to revolt against liberal democracy is more powerful and more radical than is Marx's. And Nietzsche adds that the Left, socialism, is not the opposite of the special kind of Right that is capitalism, but is its fulfillment. The Left means equality, the Right inequality. Nietzsche's call is from the Right, but a new Right transcending capitalism and socialism, which are the powers moving in the world.”

--Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, ppg. 142-3

Bloom demonstrates a convincing argument that the right did not pick up and profit from Nietzsche as much as the left. His reasoning is that the common man is the ruler of a democracy, and therefore the attainment by an ordinary man of a distinct life-style made him a ruler in a small but important way, an attainment beyond the ordinary and common goals stressed in earlier philosophies. Bloom uses as an example comedian Woody Allen. Bloom notes that Allen got his intellectual concepts for his comedies from his analyst, Eric Fromm, who got the notions from reading Reisman's Lomely Crowd and from Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who followed Nietzsche. Allen then discusses the Woody Allen comedy Zelig, a discussion which has been referenced earlier in this blog.

But Allen's inner-directed man is simply empty or nonexistent, forcing one to wonder how profound his creator's understanding can be. Here is where we confront the nothing, but it is not clear that Allen knows it. Inner-directedness is an egalitarian promise that enables us easily to despise and ridicule "the bourgeois" we actually see around us. This is all terribly lightweight and disappointing, for it really tries to assure us that the agonies of the nihilism we are living are just neuroses that can be cured by a little therapy and by a little stiffening of our backs. Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom is just Dale Carnegie with a bit of middle-European cultural whipped cream on top. Get rid of capitalist alienation and Puritan repression, and all will be well as each man chooses for himself. But Woody Allen really has nothing to tell us about inner-directedness. Nor does Riesman nor, going further back, does Fromm. One has to get to Heidegger to learn something of all the grim facts of what inner-directedness might really mean.”

--ibid, p. 146

Bloom goes on to discuss how common these discussions are in American life:

In politics, in entertainment, in religion, everywhere, we find the language connected with Nietzsche's value revolution, a language necessitated by a new perspective on the things of most concern to us. Words such as "charisma," "life-style," "commitment," "identity" and many others, all of which can easily be traced to Nietzsche, are now practically American slang, although they, and the things to which they refer, would have been incomprehensible to our fathers, not to speak of our Founding Fathers. A few years ago I chatted with a taxi driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily he had undergone "therapy." I asked him what kind. He responded, "All kinds—depth-psychology, transactional analysis, but what I liked best was Gestalt." Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-class talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing
gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with any original sin or devils in him. We have here the peculiarly American way of digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.”

--ibid, ppg. 146-7

Bloom is amazed that the technical terms of Max Weber and the attitude of Herbert Marcuse are common in America to produce “a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.”

Bloom became interested in the history of this Germanification of American intellectual discourse. At the University of Chicago in the 1940s, he noticed the great influence of Freud and Weber:

Freud and Weber were both thinkers who were profoundly influenced by Nietzsche, as is obvious to anyone who knows Nietzsche and knows what was going on in the German-speaking world in the late nineteenth century. In a strange way they divided up Nietzsche's psychological and social
concerns between them. Freud concentrated on the id, or unconscious, the sexual as the motor of the most interesting spiritual phenomena, and the related ideas of sublimation and neurosis. Weber was most concerned with the problem of values, the role of religion in their formation, and
community. Together Freud and Weber are the immediate source of most of the language with which we are so familiar.

Everyone knew that they were German thinkers, and that the professors teaching them were a mix of German refugees from Hitler and of Americans who had either studied in Germany prior to Hitler or who had learned from these emigres. It was not problematic to any of them that these ideas were German. Freud and Weber were part of that great pre-Hitlerian German classical tradition, which everyone respected. Nietzsche himself was not at that time very respectable because his thought seemed to have some discomfiting relation to fascism, and many of those who had favored Nietzsche in the Anglo-Saxon world (where he had had his greatest direct influence on artists, most notably, of course, Ezra Pound) had not been sufficiently alert to the dangers of fascism and anti-Semitism (although Nietzsche himself was the very opposite of an anti-Semite). The fact that German thought had taken an antirational and antiliberal turn with Nietzsche, and even more so with Heidegger, was evident. But this was simply repressed, and a blind eye was turned to their influence on their contemporaries. There were some superficial attempts to blame Hegel, Fichte and Nietzsche for what happened in Germany, but the German classical tradition in general, as well as German historicism, remained in favor, and the special stars in our firmament were either treated as spinoffs from them or as having been generated spontaneously. The trouble with Weimar was simply that the bad guys won.”

  • The Closing of the American Mind, ppg. 148-9

Bloom notes that his professors in those days were not philsophers or historians of philosophy. “They were addicted to abstractions and generalizations,” he tells us, and thought they were on the verse of historic breakthroughs in the social sciences:

These teachers were literally inebriated by the unconscious and values. And they were also sure that scientific progress would be related to social and political progress. All were either Marxists or New Deal liberals. The war against the Right had been won domestically at the polls, and in foreign
affairs on the battlefield. The decisive question of principle had been resolved. Equality and the welfare state were now a part of the order of things, and what remained was to complete the democratic project. Psychotherapy would make individuals happy, as sociology would improve societies.”
--ibid, ppg. 148-

Bloom points out that Freud was dubious about civilization and the role of reason in mankind. Weber regarded life as mostly chaotic and avoided discussions of values. And Americans aren't very interested in the history of philosophy; the Weimar Republic had a certain sentimental appeal:

The image of this astonishing Americanization of the German pathos can be seen in the smiling face of Louis Armstrong as he belts out the words of his great hit "Mack the Knife." As most American intellectuals know, it is a translation of the song "Mackie Messer" from The Threepenny Opera, a monument of Weimar Republic popular culture, written by two heroes of the artistic Left, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. There is a strange nostalgia among many of the American intelligentsia for this moment just prior to Hitler's coming to power, and Lotte Lenya's rendition of this song has long stood with Marlene Dietrich's singing "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt" in the Blue Angel as the symbol of a charming, neurotic, sexy, decadent longing for some hazy fulfillment not quite present to the consciousness. Less known to our intelligentsia is an aphorism in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book well known to Brecht, entitled "On the Pale Criminal," which tells the story of a neurotic murderer, eerily resembling Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who does not know, cannot know, that he committed murder out of a motive as legitimate as any other and useful in many important situations, but delegitimized in our pacific times: he lusted after "the joy of the knife." This scenario for "Mack the Knife" is the beginning of the supra-moral attitude of expectancy, waiting to see what the volcano of the id will spew forth, which appealed to Weimar and its American admirers. Everything is all right as long as it is not fascism!”

--ibid, p. 151

Of course, we Americanized all of this. Bloom even points out that “stay loose,” as opposed to being uptight, is considered an American phrase – but – actually it is a translation from Heidegger's Gelassenheit. “The historical sense and the distance on our times, the only advantages of Weimar
nostalgia, are gone, and American self-satisfaction—the sense that the scene is ours, that we have nothing important to learn about life from the past—is served,” writes Bloom.

...Our stars are singing a song they do not understand, translated from a German original and having a huge popular success with unknown but wide-ranging consequences, as something of the original message touches something in American souls. But behind it all, the master lyricists are Nietzsche and Heidegger.

In short, after the war, while America was sending out its blue jeans to unite the young of all nations, a concrete form of democratic universalism that has had liberalizing effects on many enslaved nations, it was importing a clothing of German fabrication for its souls, which clashed with all that and cast doubt on the Americanization of the world on which we had embarked, thinking it was good and in conformity with the rights of man. Our intellectual skyline has been altered by German thinkers even more radically than has our physical skyline by German architects.” [Bloom footnote that Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus style was another product of the Weimar era].

--ibid, p. 152

Bloom points out that Greece was a profound influence on Rome and that France greatly influenced Germany and Russia. The Greeks and French were seeking universal knowledge – truths applicable to all men everywhere. This appears most obvious to us when we talk of science. When Americans talk about politics, we mean that our principles of freedom, equality and rights apply to all peoples everywhere. Philosophically, Germans are distinctly different from this tradition:

But German philosophy after Hegel cast doubt on them, and there was some relationship between German politics and German thought. Historicism has taught that the mind is essentially related to history or culture. Germanness is, according to later German philosophers, an essential part of them. For Nietzsche and those influenced by him, values are the products of folk minds and have relevance only to those minds. The possibility of translation itself, as I have mentioned, is doubted by Heidegger. For him the Latin translations of the Greek philosophical terms are superficial and do not convey the essence of the translated text. German thought tended not toward liberation from one's own culture, as did earlier thought, but toward reconstituting the rootedness in one's own, which has been shattered by cosmopolitanism, philosophical and political.”

--ibid, p. 153

Bloom make this difference clear by stating, “The difference can be seen in the way Cicero treats Socrates as opposed to the way Nietzsche does. For Cicero, Socrates is a friend and contemporary; for Nietzsche he is an enemy and an ancient. Given our country's extreme Enlightenment universalism,
nothing could be more unwelcome to Nietzsche and Heidegger than our [American] embrace.”

Then Bloom gives us some very daunting and unsettling statements about German philosophers and post-War America:

Whether this value relativism is harmonious with democracy is a question that is dealt with by never being raised. The social sciences have dealt with Nazism as a psychopathology, a result of authoritarian or other-directed personalities, a case for psychiatrists, as presented by Woody Allen. Social science denies that thought, especially serious thought, even the very thought at its own root, could have had anything to do with Hitler's success. But the Weimar Republic, so attractive in its left-wing version to Americans, also contained intelligent persons who were attracted, at least in the beginning, to fascism, for reasons very like those motivating the Left ideologues, reflections on autonomy and value creation. Once one plunges into the abyss, there is no assurance whatsoever that equality, democracy or socialism will be found on the other side. At very best, self-determination is indeterminate. But the conditions of value creation, particularly its authoritative and religious or charismatic character, would seem to militate against democratic rationalism. The sacred roots of community are contrary to the rights of individuals and liberal tolerance. The new religiosity connected with community and culture influenced people who look at things from the perspective of creativity to lean toward the Right. On the Left there was only an assertion that Marx would, after his revolution, produce exactly what Nietzsche promised, while on the Right there was meditation on what we know of the conditions of creativity. I shall not comment on the Nazi period of the now de-Nazified Heidegger [who was a Nazi party member from 1933 to 1945], other than to remark that the ever more open recognition that he was the most interesting thinker of our century, formerly chastely displaced in admiration for his various proxies, gives evidence that we are playing with fire. His interest in new gods led him, as it did Nietzsche, in his teaching to honor immoderation over moderation and to ridicule morality. Both helped to constitute that ambiguous Weimar atmosphere in which liberals looked like simpletons and anything was possible for people who sang of the joy of the knife in cabarets. Decent people became used to hearing things about which they would have in the past been horrified to think, and which would not have been allowed public expression. An extreme outcome in the struggle between Right and Left in Weimar was inevitable.”

--ibid, p. 154-5

Bloom finds it a mystery that American souls are fascinated by this and copy the drama though obviously not prepared by education or historical experience to comprehend it. As a boy in Chicago, Bloom was fascinated that merchandising heir Marshall Field III, after being psychoanalyzed, poured fortunes into left-wing causes. “Was there something the American self-understanding had not sufficiently recognized or satisfied?” Bloom writes, then noting:

Once Americans had become convinced that there is indeed a basement to which psychiatrists have the key, their orientation became that of the self, the mysterious, free, unlimited center of our being. All our beliefs issue from it and have no other validation. Although nihilism and its accompanying
existential despair are hardly anything but a pose for Americans, as the language derived from nihilism has become a part of their educations and insinuated itself into their daily lives, they pursue happiness in ways determined by that language. There is a whole arsenal of terms for talking about nothing—caring, self-fulfillment, expanding consciousness, and so on, almost indefinitely. Nothing determinate, nothing that has a referent, as we saw in [Woody] Allen and [David] Riesman. There is a straining to say something, a search for an inwardness that one knows one has, but it is still a cause without an effect. The inner seems to have no relation to the outer.
The outer is dissolved and becomes formless in the light of the inner, and the inner is a will-o'-the-wisp, or pure emptiness. No wonder the mere sound of the Existentialists' Nothing or the Hegelians' Negation has an appeal to contemporary ears. American nihilism is a mood, a mood of moodiness, a vague disquiet. It is nihilism without the abyss.

Nihilism as a state of soul is revealed not so much in the lack of firm beliefs but in a chaos of the instincts or passions. People no longer believe in a natural hierarchy of the soul's varied and conflicting inclinations, and the traditions that provided a substitute for nature have crumbled.”

--ibid, ppg. 155-6

Bloom concludes that this leads to a tangle of confusion and to a lack of self-understanding. Our longings are not those of the well-read and well-versed Nietzche. He says we are something like missionary converts to Christianty who have no knowledge of what happened before or after the revelation:

The fact that most of us never would have heard of Oedipus if it were not for Freud should
make us aware that we are almost utterly dependent on our German missionaries or intermediaries for our knowledge of Greece, Rome, Judaism and Christianity; that, however profound that knowledge may be, theirs is only one interpretation; and that we have only been told as much as they thought we needed to know. It is an urgent business for one who seeks self-awareness to think through the meaning of the intellectual dependency that has led us to such an impasse.”

ibid, p. 156

Note: the entire text of The Closing of the American Mind is available on line at no charge at: 


  1. I'm not sure i know what Bloom is talking about throughout most of this. I never read any of the philosophers mentioned (except Socrates and Cicero), never cared for or saw Threepenny Opera (though i could have seen it for free), I used to think Woody Allen movies were funny but don't anymore, and I certianly don't have any nostalgia for the Weimar Republic (it makes me laugh just to actually type that out)!

    bloom here is talking about an America and a Germany I don't particularly know but have certainly had brushes with. so to me, most of this sounds like so much blabber. However his observations of the modern American lexicon seem accurate and correct.

    In any case, I can safely draw one conclusion from all of this. It's an observation I made years ago about much of that philosophy that Bloom seems to confirm here and for which my friends often ridiculed me for thinking: I'm glad i never wasted any time on any of this stuff because it seemed then, and seems even more so now, to be very irrelevant!

  2. Bloom is saying the American left has been playing with fire since 1945 by adopting the same philosophers who helped lead Germany to national socialism.

    Bloom names names. Heidegger is critically important here. We're not done with him yet.

    Had this German philsophical stuff burned itself out,you would have been right to ignore it because it's boring. But this blarney is CENTRAL to the modern liberals' civil religion. And it hasn't burned out -- instead it metastasized.

  3. OK, then let me rephrase it: I thought they were irrelevant to my experience as an American. I accept your point about them being central to the civil religion.

    In the war for Quiddity, it may be important to understand the role they play.