Overweening Generalist

Monday, May 23, 2011

Brief Excursion Through the "Dangerous" Land of the "Intellectuals"

Sir Karl Raimund Popper, one of the Titans of 20th c. High Culture thought, and Generalistic enough to have made significant contributions to the philosophy of science and the history of philosophy, is notable in these spaces for his massive The Open Society and Its Enemies. It's usually found in two volumes: 1.) The Spell of Plato, and 2.) The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath. 

Written during what is commonly called "World War II" it's still a bombshell of a book, and, while famous, seems to me criminally under-read (because fat and difficult?), and worse: unheeded. NB the Wiki link I have there for the book(s) and the presence of Leo Strauss and his typically baroque critique of Popper. Ironic: Strauss is the Godfather (and I mean that in at least two common semantic senses) of the Neo-Conservatives. Listen to the ministers in the George W. Bush cabal about why they went into Iraq. Bush's cabinet and ministers were loaded with Neo-Cons, and they got the U.S. into a $3,000,000,000 Iraq "war" - untold death on both "sides" - that will, I think, prove almost fruitless, and possibly to have made the overall situation worse. And Strauss and his cabal (more on them is some future rant) illustrate Popper's thesis (based on my reading): it has always been socially and politically dangerous to follow great intellectuals as if they had the One True Key to reading history, a path to some teleological breakthrough (AKA "historicism" in the Academy) that would lead to things like "The End of History," the "end of ideology," finally, the utopia in which things turn out - as one prominent American fascist popularly put it, "the way things ought to be."

There seems a horrific irony to Straussians and their dismissal of Popper (and they don't like the idea of an open society, from what I can tell) and what happened under the reign of King George the Turd.

I have gone on too long about Popper's massive volume, and really haven't said much, except that he has a crucial point we should heed in our thinking on political matters. There is much room for discussion around Popper's thesis, and I hope to address some particular aspects later. Suffice: intellectuals and their ideas have had some massively unpleasant consequences when played out in what we so laffingly call "the real world."

Anyone want the Amazon link to Popper's book(s) for more info, etc? They're here and here. Or better yet: be (unfortunately) the first person in seven years to check out one of these volumes from your local public library!

An elaboration from a slightly different angle: Ian Buruma, on "Why Is Intellectualism Met With Suspicion In the U.S."


This talk about famous philosophers, their weighty tomes, their extraordinary erudition, etc, reminds me of a golden passage in William James's Eight Lectures On Pragmatism. He's been discussing his idea of the role of individual philosophers and their basic personal temperaments that give rise to massive systems of thought (and is it possible that their systems - whether "tough-minded" and empirical, or "tender-minded" and rationalistic, are merely extreme examples of...autobiography?), and that, for us more slightly down-to-earth types trying to make our way in the absurd dense thicket of philosophical thought, we are correct when we read, say, Hegel, and think foremost, "What an odd egg this Hegel is for writing such a dense book of ideas such as this!" 

The idea applies to all the Great thinkers, probably.

Here's William James, addressing a large popular crowd in 1906, at the Lowell Institute in Boston, in his talk, "The Present Dilemma in Philosophy":

"Few people have definitely articulated philosophies of their own. But almost every one has his own peculiar sense of a certain total character in the universe, and of the inadequacy fully to match it of the peculiar systems that he knows. They don't just cover his world. One will be too dapper, another too pedantic, a third too much of a job-lot of opinions, a fourth too morbid, and a fifth too artificial, or what not. At any rate he and we know off-hand that such philosophies are out of plumb and out of key and out of 'whack,' and have no business to speak up in the universe's name. Plato, Locke, Spinoza, Mill, Caird, Hegel - I prudently avoid names nearer home! - I am sure that to many of you, my hearers, these names are little more than reminders of as many curious personal ways of falling short. It would be an obvious absurdity if such ways of taking the universe were actually true."

After the 20th century worldwide bloodbath, well-grounded thinkers might want to ground themselves further, if they haven't already, in Popper and James. They complement each other. I mention them here in the spirit of a basic plea for more sanity on Earth, and to remind philosophers and/or intellectuals in all possible social standings: your ideas have consequences, your articulations reverberate and ripple outward and what you do and say MATTERS.


Anonymous said...

I tend to think that Open society is quite a short book, especcially considering the subject matter he is dealing with. Popper did hint that it would probably be better subtitled as "some footnotes to the history of historicism" (paraphrased). incidentally, what makes the books long is their copious amounts of foot notes (even DF Wallace would be proud), not only that, it seems to me he is the only writer to consistently use intertextual references to direct you to salient points he has made elsewhere that bear on the current topic but don't need to be repeated, thus making every passage as informative as possible. Each volume of the Open society sans footnotes (which popper suggests you skip the first time, and which struass cricizes him for, in trying to question hs scholarship) is 200 pages long, and, in my opinion, it is a very short work overall.

michael said...

To me it's a thick long work, but I read slowly, and footnotes are like peanuts to me: can't stop eating (reading) them.

If a book (I'm talking both vols of The Open Society) is of sufficient fascination to me, I will read it even more slowly than usual, and take all kinds of notes.

When I read Popper's critique of historicism, I'm particularly interested in the history of ideas and how they go over, politically. I'm also enjoying Popper's reading of Plato, Marx, Hegel, et.al. Popper makes me a better reader, and though they differ in many respects, he has a similar effect on me that Isaiah Berlin does.

How kind of you to offer a comment in such an olde post. I was blogging this back when few people knew this blog existed.

The next time I pick up The Open Society, I'll try not to read the footnotes, but I'm afraid I'll cave.

BTW: a terrific scholarly work - eminently readable too - is Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History. Have you read it? In it he names a bunch of books that have more footnotes than text, and I checked out a few from the library. There's something hilarious about an author going footnote-mad to me.

I've always been interested in LIVELY footnotes, where the author doesn't just say (compare this with what so-and-so says in his book), but digresses a bit. DFW was a master. And so was RAW, esp in The Widow's Son.

OTOH, Noel Coward thought reading footnotes interrupts the omniscient narrator, and likened reading footnotes to going downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of fucking.

I remember reading Asimov on Chemistry and he mentioned that in Mendeleev's original textbook the footnotes almost equalled the main text.

When a writer uses footnotes to compete with the narrative: I just love that sort of playfulness. Apparently the first author to really carry off this "double narrative" was Gibbon.

In The Widow's Son, pp.172-173, the footnotes are about footnotes! That book is my personal favorite book of all time for footnotes.

In early parts of Finnegans Wake there seem to be a few passages that appear not as footnotes, but rather their function. It's odd, because even though there is no sign, my nervous system "feels" as if I've just read a footnote.

1743: German author Gottlieb Wihelm Rabener comes out with Hinkmars Von Repkow Noten Obne Text, which consisted ENTIRELY of footnotes. Rabener said he wanted to "eliminate the middleman and become famous." 1743!

Anonymous said...

You’ll forgive me if in addressing this post I jump around a little.

You’ll be surprised, as I am, amd maybe a little glad, that a lot of time, in reading these old posts of yours, that I come to them through Google search - I put in my search criteria and up pops overweening generalist. I am quite surprised with amount of topics you cover, which probably shouldn’t be that shocking as per the title of the blog.

I am always looking for Popper’s opinion on the issues I am currently researching or reading about, or interested in. So if you have posts on him that link him to other, and sometimes obscure, subjects, I will inevitably end up here.

Footnotes: did you ever read any of the short storys from the Parody of Wallace competition, it has one that is just one sentence but every word has footnote, which made me smile.


Look up finalist 3.

I will put Grafton on my "to read" list, it sounds interesting.

I have tried doing some some footnotes, myself, in doing The bibliography for Illuminatus! Trilogy I was intending to make some of them in-depth and true and some of them unture, but refrained from doing so, one reason was my confidence in my ability to actually mix truth with fiction, and also because I did not want to obscure it so much people would become bored with it (I still have to majorly revise and compile all those posts though ).

Could you point to some examples of the finnegans wake technique you mention, that sounds interesting?

The next question will no doubt be anticipated:

Have you ever thought about doing footnotes in your own posts?

Anonymous said...

I mean that I did not do the footnotes as extenisve and indepth as I was planning.

michael said...

I have thought about doing some whacked footnote-parody, but then the anxiety of influence blew through my bones.

RE: FW and footnotes. Well, obviously the most interesting sections seem to be when HCE is in deepest sleep, so the stuff is particularly rough to crack, but it's all so amusing, so we don't care. See pp.260-308. Isabel, taking part in Anna Livia, flows with her footnotes at the bottom of the page, while Shem and Shaun do copious marginalia, in their tones and voices, and - because it's required - they shift margins and capital letters, typefaces, etc.

But the first time I ran into a passage in which suddenly Joyce (or Somebody Else?) seems to be suddenly addressing me, the reader: p.18:

"(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations."

Maybe the most "famous" is on p.120:

"and look at this prepronomial _funferal_, engraved and retouched and edgewiped and puddenpadded, very like a whale's egg farced with pemmican, as it were sentenced to nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noodle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia: all those red raddled obeli cayennepeppercast over the text, calling unnecessary attention to errors, omissions, repetitions and misalignments..."

Eric Wagner said...

I found The Open Society difficult to read.

Sychronicity 1: Andrew Crashaw in a comment above mentioned D. F. Wallace. I just commented on Facebook about Wallace's fascination with Alanis Morrisette.

S 2: Earlier this morning waiting in line for Weight Watchers to open so I could weigh in I read a passage in Ulysses about Leopold Bloom remembering the last time he weighed himself. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

S 3: This discussion of footnotes reminds of our Pale Fire group.

S 4: On February 2, 1982, I picked up a copy of Finnegans Wake inside of Books, Etc. in Tempe, Arizona. I opened it at random to the footnote chapter, pg. 272. I noticed the musical notes on the right hand side of the page and the "Please stop if you're a B.C. minding missy, please do. But should you prefer A.D. stepplease" in the middle of the page. I checked out the notes: B, C, A, D, and read the passage as "stop reading this book if you prefer the world of the past, but step forward if you prefer the future." I thought, "I can read this," and I bought the book. I still have that battered copy in my classroom.