Wieseltier on the Barricades

As an aspiring curmudgeon (and damn, it takes a lot of effort), I’d like to like Leon Wieseltier’s Brandeis commencement address — I mean, it’s really cranky and curmudgeony.  But there are some things that even a would-be curmudgeon can’t pull off.

I’d have remained blissfully ignorant of the advice that Mr. Wieseltier was giving to the graduates of Brandeis were it not for the fact that an historian whose work I respect had kind things to say about the following lines:

If Proust was a neuroscientist, then you have no urgent need of neuroscience, because you have Proust. If Jane Austen was a game theorist, then you have no reason to defect to game theory, because you have Austen.

I’m not inclined to be kind.  It strikes me that this just doesn’t make sense:  were Proust a neuroscientist, then it would seem that admirers of Proust should  be interested in learning more about neuroscience.  The same goes for the business about  Jane Austen:  were she, in fact, engaged in game theory (everybody please note the conditionals here, OK?) and if her work seems appealing, then it might be worth reading a few other game theorists.  (Let us pause for a moment to note how effortlessly Wieseltier slips the verb “defects”  into the second sentence,  as if to suggest that intellectual interests were like political commitments from which one dare not stray:  for him, as for the younger Bush, one is with us or against us).  Sometime around 1700 Europeans discovered that, rather than reading one book (e.g.,  the Good one), over and over again, there was something to be gained by reading a lot of them.  This suggests that though the addressees of Wieseltier’s philippic may “have” their Proust, there’s nothing to stop them from acquiring a few other books as well.  Or from spending some time in a lab.

Much of the heavy lifting in Wieseltier’s address (not that there’s a lot of heavy lifting here:  after all, it’s a commencement address) rests with his juxtaposition of  “science” and “scientism.”  In brief:  science is “a blessing” because it knows its place, while scientism is “a curse” because it doesn’t.  To clarify: scientism “gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions” and, of course, we know which are which because we’re humanists and, hence, can speak with confidence about everything’s and everybody’s place.

Reading the speech reminded me why I’ve come to find a certain breed of literary humanists increasingly creepy: in their world Western civilization is always under siege and the barbarians — armed with gadgets that glow in the dark — are never far from the gates.  Since I’ve been known to advise my students that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take notes on computers (even, horror of horrors, in lectures)  and  (heaven forbid) have actually found the Google Ngram viewer to be moderately useful in making sense of how various nineteenth-century “humanists” attacked the Enlightenment, I know on which side of the gate I belong.  This, I suppose, makes me a scientist: after all, I know my place.

Finally there’s this:

Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness — and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

I suppose I should be impressed that these two sentences manage to give a shout out to Max Horkheimer (“instrumental reason”!), to praise the ancients (always a smart move), to let us know what the “proper subjects” of our thought ought to be (John Wilkes prided himself on having  “no small vices,” and we, it seems, should take pride in having “no small thoughts”), and to dismiss “modern American philosophy” (would it be impolite to ask the speaker just which modern American philosophers he has in mind or —  better still —  request that he name five “modern American philosophers”?).

But I’m not impressed, just depressed.  If this is what passes for a defense of the humanities, things are even worse than I thought.  But maybe there’s some comfort in that:  it means that I’m making some progress with this curmudgeon thing.

Humanists of the world unite!  You have nothing to lose but your iPads!

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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3 Responses to Wieseltier on the Barricades

  1. Pingback: On the Genealogy of “Scientism” (Part I) | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    I may have been a bit too quick on the “instrumental reason” business. Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason (which was first published in English) appeared in German as “Critique of Instrumental Reason.” I’m not sure whether the title was his idea or his publisher’s and I haven’t done due diligence on the history of the term itself. A correspondent suggested that it could be found in Max Weber (the concept is certainly there, but I’m not sure about the actual word). At some point, I should look into this report back.

    I’m afraid I know nothing about Leon Wieseltier beyond his cranky little commencement speech. I do, from time to time, read David Brooks. And every single time I come away wondering why.

  3. sean matthews says:

    why would anybody pay attention to Wieseltier. He strikes me as a sort of left wing David Brooks with added self-satisfaction – last time I encountered him, he was demonstrating himself to be either incapable of honestly representing David Hume, or incapable of understanding him (strongly suspect the former – not sure which is worse).

    On the other hand, many thanks for the pointer to Horkheimer, who I did not realise was the originator of the term ‘instrumental reason’.

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog, which I have just discovered. I’ll certainly be checking out what appear, on first browsing, to be determined attempts to defend Teddy Adorno from the charge of being a reactionary crank with bad prose [a position to which I subscribe, but I’m always interested in counterarguments].

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