In the June 1949 issue of Partisan Review, William Barrett — a professor of philosophy at New York University and an associate editor at Partisan Review — closed a series of exchanges with the literary critics Richard Chase and Lionel Trilling on the nature of and prospects for “liberalism” with the following characterization of Trilling’s contribution:
Mr. Trilling indicates what might be described as the Counter-Enlightenment in the figures of Pascal, Blake, Burke and Wordsworth. I agree that the movement of the Counter-Enlightenment is a very deep and significant one in modern thought, though I should come at its historical definition a little differently from Mr. Trilling: I should not, for example, include Pascal though he deals with all its data, because he antedates the actual historical epoch in which this movement comes into being; and I think the issues of the Counter-Enlightenment are defined in more extreme, and therefore more lucid, fashion by figure of Continental rather than English literature.
Barrett then proceeded to offer his own version of the Counter-Enlightenment, which included Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy “in his later phase,” Nietzsche “who lived completely this duality of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment” Bergson, Freud, Heidegger, Ortega y Gasset “and, in certain way, Whitehead.”1
For those who care about such things, Barrett’s use of the term was once thought to have been one of the first, if not the first, use of the term in English. Zeev Sternhell — who, as we have seen in earlier installments mistakenly assumed both that the term had a distinctly Nietzschean provenance and that Barrett’s first use of the term occurred in Irrational Man, his 1958 study of existentialism — found it “not surprising that it was precisely in a book on existentialism that this Nietzschean concept appeared.”2 But, as I discussed in the third installment in this series, we now know that there had been scattered appearances of the term in English back to at least 1908. In contrast to Sternhell (who rarely seems to be surprised by the connections he discovers), my slog through the history of the concept of “counter-Enlightenment” has been filled with surprises. In the case of Barrett’s 1949 use of the term, what is perhaps most puzzling is how a set of articles about the meaning of and prospects for “liberalism” would up turning into a dispute about the legacy of the Enlightenment.
Back in January 2011 I gave a paper at the American Historical Association meetings that traced the general trajectory of these discussions and, since then, have uncovered a bit more in the Trilling Papers at Columbia about the dispute. There are still a few blank spaces that need to be filled in (and also some material that I need to get permission to cite), so what follows is a preliminary sketch of a discussion that will need to be fleshed out elsewhere.
How a Question about Liberalism Became a Controversy about the Enlightenment
Since there has not been a great deal written on the broader discussion that prompted Barrett’s use of employment of the term “counter-Enlightenment” let me begin by listing the contributions that appeared in Partisan Review and saying a bit about them:
- Newton Arvin, Robert Gorham Davis, and Daniel Aaron, “Liberalism and Confusion,” Partisan Review XVI:2 (1949): 220-222 — a letter from the three faculty at Smith College, written in response to earlier articles in Partisan Review and elsewhere (including a number of articles on Hermann Melville by Trilling’s friend Richard Chase), which the authors characterized as a “counter-attack against what is called the liberal-progressive tradition.” In response, the authors requested for clarification on “(1) What is the exact and responsible semantic content of the words ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ when used, as they increasingly are, in a pejorative context?”” and “(2) … from what similarly well-defined point of view are anti-liberal and anti-progressive writers speaking?.”
- A brief reply from Richard Chase in the same issues as #1, lamenting that he could not “in the space allotted me, defend my reading of Melville, or my use of words like ‘liberal'” and referred “interested persons” to the texts at issue. He concluded by noting, “If, as I hope, a skeptical, secular liberalism is to survive, it must be comprehensive, sharp, and an open view of life, not simply an acceptable stance vis-à-vis certain limited moral and potential issues.”
- William Barrett, “What is the ‘Liberal’ Mind?” Partisan Review XVI:3 (1949) 331-6 — an article that sharpened the question posed in item #1 with (1) a somewhat harsh assessment of Chase’s general approach to literary criticism (e.g., ” I suspect that he is in the grip of an idee fixe, a very large idea indeed, that obliterates for his mind the boundaries of literary criticism altogether: he is outside literature, outside politics, painfully engaged in groping for a philosophy of life”) and (2) a suggestion that a similar critique of liberalism could be found in “the flexible and extended critique of the liberal mind (and liberal imagination) executed by Lionel Trilling over the past decade or so.” He was, however, perplexed by Trilling’s use of the term “liberalism” (a confusion that, it might be noted, was hardly unique to Barrett), noting that “At certain points where Mr. Trilling says ‘liberalism.’ Could he not just as well say ‘naturalism’ or ‘pragmatism’?” Continuing on these lines, he asked “if the fundamental attitudes of liberalism are the objects of our criticism, ought we not push our inquiry to its historical source and question the values of the Enlightenment itself?”
- “The Liberal Mind: Two Communications and a Reply”: a trio of articles by Chase, Trilling, and Barrett in Partisan Review XVI:6 (June 1949) 649-665. Responding to Barrett, Chase and Trilling offered their assessments of the significance of “the Enlightenment” and Barrett, focusing chiefly on Trilling, offered his own characterization of the “Counter-Enlightenment.” He concluded by arguing that “while we must recognize that our tradition is formed of both these currents, and while also we must continuously enlighten the Enlightenment by its counter-movement, I think that it is to the Enlightenment we must, in the end, give primacy.” In his final paragraph he offered a sort of olive branch to Trilling, suggesting that he saw himself as having “passed from disputant to collaborator with Mr. Trilling.” And, with that, the discussion closed (though a somewhat peevish exchanges of letters continued between Barrett, Chase, and Trilling for the next month or so).
What we have here are a series of exchanges that began as yet another exercise in trying to clarify the nature of “liberalism” at the dawn of the Cold War, carried out by participants with contesting interpretations of what the concept implied. That it rather quickly turned into something different can be attributed to Barrett’s intervention, which — as the exchanges of letters between Chase and Trilling indicates — annoyed Chase greatly and drove an initially reluctant Trilling to enter the discussion.
William Barrett, Friend of the Enlightenment?
The contributions to the discussion that are of greatest interest importance for understanding the role of “the Enlightenment” and the “counter-Enlightenment” in this affair are, unfortunately, also the ones that are hardest to explain: the two contributions from William Barrett. As was the habit of other editors of Partisan Review, Barrett went on to write a memoir of his adventures among the “New York Intellectuals,” but it says nothing about this affair and its chapter on Trilling offers little that has not been said elsewhere (much time is devoted to the poet Delmore Schwartz, with who Barrett was friends).3 Nor is there much to be gleaned from his published work from this period. His January 1949 article in the Kenyon Review on recent trends in American literary criticism avoids a discussion of either Chase or Trilling.4 Barrett had also been the author of the journal’s 1946 editorial “The ‘Liberal’ Fifth Column,” which, in effect, charged those associated with the liberal publications PM, The Nation, and The Republic with plotting treason, but the position he staked out in the 1949 exchanges was considerably less incendiary and, indeed, is not entirely easy to reconcile with the stance he had taken three years earlier.5 Unfortunately, Barrett’s papers remain in private hands, so all that is available to researchers are the few bits of correspondence of his that Chase and Trilling saved — that both of them seemed to have been quite annoyed by Barrett (indeed, at times, their comments border on open contempt for him) does not make matters any easier to sort out.6
So, we are left with these two articles, where Barrett appears — in contrast to the works that would later secure his reputation7 — as a friend of the Enlightenment. Admittedly, he presents himself a somewhat skeptical friend — but I am inclined to think that there may not be, and ought not be, any other kind.
His initial contribution began as follows:
The twentieth century is the failure of the nineteenth. Hence follow many things through which we are now living, including a rather strange religious revival, or the effort at one, as well as a great variety of attacks upon what used to be called the liberal ideology. No doubt, liberalism, being part of the common failure, must come in for its share of the recriminations now hurled so earnestly at our parent century. But, amid the general muddle, there may be some point in observing that liberalism originated with the Enlightenment, that the Enlightenment was not the enthusiasm of a few people thinking by fits and starts but the conscious summation of the secular mind of Europe since the Renaissance, and that our present intellectual reassessment (if we are to have any) ought to start there. Since reaction is being worn this decade, the time may be here for our own reactionary banner with the slogan: Back to the Enlightenment!
It might be worth pausing, for a moment, to reflect on Barrett’s fleeting reference to the “rather strange religious revival” that he saw as part of the general assault on “the liberal ideology.”
We saw something similar in Charles Morris’ 1941 contribution to the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, which — as discussed last time — portrayed empiricists as confronted by a “counter-Enlightenment and counter-Reformation which threatens to spread over mankind” and went on to argue that the best way to respond to this threat was to craft a new, universal religion that, free from the confines of particular dogmas, would supply the set of “motivational” signifiers that embattled democracies desperately needed. The idea that friends of liberal democracy might best support their cause by taking religion seriously was not, of course, unique to Morris or to the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion. It was central to much liberal thought in the 1940s. And, perhaps most important for our immediate interest, the same concerns play an important role in Trilling’s work.
Forcing the Question: Trilling and Eliot
In 1940 Trilling published a short article in Partisan Review pondering the implications T. S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society, which had been published the previous year. While Trilling has never struck me as a particularly clear writer, this essay seems even more labored than usual, perhaps because Eliot appears to have struck a nerve:
I am far from thinking that Mr. Eliot supplies a new world, yet in this troubled time when we are bound to think of eventual reconstructions I should like to recommend to the attention of readers probably hostile to religion Mr. Eliot’s religious politics. I say no more than recommend to the attention: I certainly do not recommend Mr. Eliot’s ideas to the allegiance. But here we are, a very small group and quite obscure; our possibility of action is suspended by events; perhaps we have never been more than vocal and perhaps soon we can hope to be no more than thoughtful; our relations with the future are dark and dubious. There is, indeed only one connection with the future of which we can be to any extent sure: our pledge to the critical intellect.8
The idea was that Eliot might play the role for troubled liberals that Coleridge had played for John Stuart Mill. Trilling drew out the parallel at the start of the essay in a passage that (unlike the rest of the essay) would appear again in the introduction to The Liberal Imagination:
It is a century ago this year that John Stuart Mill angered his Bethamite friends by his now famous essay on Coleridge. … he thought Coleridge’s ability “to see further into the complexities of the human feelings and intellect” offered something practical to add to Bentham’s too “short and easy” political analysis. And he told his radical friends that they should make their prayer this one: “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies’ . . . sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom….” (367)
What, exactly, Trilling thought liberals could learn from Eliot is best left to more sympathetic interpreters to elaborate, but this peculiar essay helps to explain part of the reason why Trilling appears to have been so bothered by Barrett’s reiteration of the questions initially raised by Arvin, Davis, and Aaron. It would seem that he thought Barrett was attempting to force him to clarify something that he was either unwilling or unable to clarify.
At the risk of inflicting injury on readers who, unable to stay awake through Trilling’s tedious hand-wringing, wind up smashing heads into keyboards as they lapse into unconsciousness attempting to stay awake, let me quote the opening of Trilling’s response to Barrett:
Mr. William Barrett refers in a very gracious manner to my critical effort of the last decade and he characterizes its intention in a way that I should be happy to think is accurate. He then goes on to say, in reference to my strictures on the liberal mind, that he is puzzled about “the precise limits” at which my criticism might halt in its objections to the culture of liberalism; and he puts certain questions which are not, I take it, wholly rhetorical.
Mr. Barrett asks whether liberalism is not properly to be defined by its naturalistic and pragmatic beliefs rather than by a particular political, and presumably cultural, content. And he asks: ” If the fundamental attitudes of liberalism are the objects of our criticism, ought we not to push our inquiry to its historical source and question the values of the Enlightenment itself?”
It is to be observed of Mr. Barrett’s questions that they are, considered in their polemical intent, forcing questions. I conceive that they are intended to force Mr. Richard Chase and myself, or any critic of liberalism, to the wall of — let us for brevity be blunt about it — religion.
In sum Mr. Barrett is saying to Mr. Chase and me something like this: “Very well then — you have this habit of raising all sorts of objections to liberalism. I will give you a chance to say that you mean Stalinism and not liberalism at all. But if you don’t say that, then you must admit that when you attack liberalism as it now exists, you are really attacking naturalism, pragmatism and the values of the Enlightenment, and then the only frank and logical course open to you is to admit further that you want dogmatism and supernaturalism — that, in short, you are ripe to declare for religion.”
Mr. Chase will of course speak for himself, but I expect that he will join me in rejecting Mr. Barrett’s alternatives. My own reason for rejecting them is not that I regard the religious alternative with horror. My conception of the nature of our life is of a kind which prevents me from supposing that the person who elects religion is, by that, neurotic or ill-willed or intellectually discredited. I should add, for one can easily be misunderstood in these matters, that I myself am not drawn towards making this election. I reject Mr. Barrett’s alternatives simply because they are not real and legitimate alternatives (653-654).
Taking a lot of words to say rather little (it would seem that the editors of Partisan Review were intimidated enough by Trilling not to attempt to edit him) Trilling appears to see Barrett as forcing him down this path:
- Admit that the critique of “liberalism” that he and Chase are offering is, in fact, limited to a critique of liberal fellow-travelers, rather than liberalism itself.
- If #1 is not acceptable, then grant that the critique that he and Chase are offering amounts to rejection of an entire tradition that reaches back to the Enlightenment.
- But, having opted for #2, grant that it is necessary to abandon the pose of simply “recommending” a position such as that taken by Eliot and instead concede that the position defended is essentially the same as Eliot’s (or, worse still, Mortimer Adler’s).
Morris opened his contribution to the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion by charging that critics such as Adler wanted to force the question back to the alternatives of scholasticism and positivism. Trilling may have concluded that Barrett was presenting him a similar set of alternatives. But where Morris was willing to cast his lot with the positivists (albeit a form of positivism that could reinvent itself as an open-ended form of religion), Trilling would appear to be attempting to hedge his bets. But only for a moment.
Lionel Trilling, A Counter-Enlightener in the Service of Enlightenment?
Barrett closed his initial contribution by in effect offering Trilling the first of the options sketched above: i.e., confess that the problem is not with liberalism per se but rather with certain particular variants of liberalism. If Trilling grants that, Barrett will be more than happy to join him.
It would be a pity if we did not record our deep gratitude to the critics of the liberal mind when the targets they have demolished have been so loud, public, and obnoxious: targets we recognize in the mentality of the now defunct PM and of certain contributors to liberal weeklies. But even where this social service of demolition has been real and necessary, there remain certain important considerations of intellectual economy. How much energy can is profitably expended in attacking the degradation of a doctrine? Is it really wise to take The New Republic as the residual legatee of the Enlightenment? And, finally, shall we be altogether unjustified if we begin to feel that when so much ammunition is expended on the minor targets the major target itself is indirectly under fire? It is conceivable that we have finished forever with Liberalism and the Enlightenment, that their intellectual values are no longer of use to us; but if so, we should like to know it; and we shall know it only if critics direct their scrutiny to the central attitudes, beliefs, and values involved, rather than to the various peripheral aberrations of these (336).
As we saw (and please don’t make me quote him again!) Trilling had begun his rejoinder by refusing either to accept or reject Barrett’s offer. But after having characterized— perhaps not incorrectly — Barrett as “forcing” him to “the wall of religion,” Trilling began banging his head against the wall.
Two paragraphs from the close Trilling announces “One last point and I have done” (cue sarcastic applause from the peanut gallery) and offers the following:
Mr. Barrett in conclusion expresses gratitude to the critics of the liberal mind for having “demolished” certain “targets” which he exemplifies by PM and certain contributors to the liberal weeklies. He then goes on to speak of intellectual economy and asks, “How much energy is profitably expended in attacking the degradation of a doctrine? Is it really wise to take The New Republic as the residual legatee of the Enlightenment?” If Mr. Barrett sees the quarrel with the liberal mind as having only this extent, then we who have carried on the quarrel are no doubt to blame. I, for one, am willing to take the fault to myself — a literary person is always likely to be a little provincial in argument and to deal with what is closest to his immediate literary interest. But whether or not I have been able to make it plain in my own work, the quarrel with the liberal mind directs itself beyond PM and The New Republic. I have in view the ideas of our powerful teachers’ colleges, the assumptions of our social scientists, the theories of education that are now animating our colleges and universities, the notions of the new schools of psychoanalysis, the formulations of the professors of literature, particularly of American literature. Here are indeed the residuary legatees of the Enlightenment, and how eagerly they will tell you so, and how vehemently they will defend themselves from any question by pointing to the fine legality of the testament. This is the liberal culture that my own criticism has ultimately, if with insufficient explicitness, been directed against, although not, I would say, with quite the purpose of “demolishing” it. I only do not want to see it go its way unquestioned, unchecked and unmodified because I believe that, unless purged and enlightened by a critical effort of great seriousness, it will inevitably corrupt and betray itself into the very opposite of its avowed intention of liberation (657-658).
This passage could well serve as a sort of locus classicus for Lionel Trilling’s troubled relationship with liberalism and, more generally, the Enlightenment. He presented himself as a critic — and certainly not an enemy — whose aim was to save both from their own worst tendencies. But, at the same time, it is far from clear that he was particularly well-informed about what either liberalism or the Enlightenment might have involved. Because I work in a trade where the latter failing tends to matter more than the former (good intentions are nice, but accurate footnotes are better), I am one of those philistines who (pace Adam Kirsch) is not inclined to think that Trilling “still matters.”9
Though the editors of Partisan Review never placed much stock in the tedious business of offering supporting citations for their claims, it would be worth knowing just which “powerful teachers’ colleges, … social scientists, … theories of education … new schools of psychoanalysis, … professors of literature” were characterizing themselves as the heirs of “the Enlightenment”? If there was, in fact, a massive groundswell of self-proclaimed admirers of the Enlightenment, how was it that the young Peter Gay, writing only a few years later, could have found himself faced with a cultural landscape in which critics of the Enlightenment war outnumbered its admirers?10 I doubt that the answer was that Gay was more careless in his scholarship than Trilling.
The “counter-Enlightenment” that Barrett sighted in Trilling’s rejoinder was, as he went on to note, a somewhat peculiar construction: “the line of Blake, Burke, and Wordsworth” with a bit of Pascal thrown in for good measure. Barrett based this characterization on a paragraph in Trilling’s rejoinder that, briefly and somewhat uncomfortably, sought to summarize his stance toward the Enlightenment.
… although I would add the proviso that we must be careful not to confuse with its source the present issue we inquire into, I agree with Mr. Barrett that something is to be gained by a historical reprise. And I myself habitually keep the Enlightenment in my thought and reading, having been led to do so a good many years ago by the necessities of dealing with Matthew Arnold’s situation. I don’t say this with any pride in my special historical vision, for I conceive that the whole of modern literature has been an inquiry into the values of the Enlightenment. The inquiry began with Rousseau; indeed, if Montaigne has any part in the liberal tradition — and whose part is finer? — then the inquiry began with Pascal’s attack on Montaigne. In ways too numerous to mention here in detail, the inquiry has continued up to the present, and the contemporary literature which by common consent is of the greatest stature follows in the line of Blake, Burke and Wordsworth (654).
What Trilling might have read about the Enlightenment is far from clear (his Arnold book does not betray much in the way of an examination of the broader historical context). Had he consulted the 1942 edition of the Manual for the Study of Contemporary Civilization — the mimeographed guide for those who taught in Columbia’s ambitious core curriculum (and, unless I am mistaken, their number included Trilling) — he could have found a wide-ranging and quite competent survey of the period that was put together by the young Charles Frankel, who would go on, a few years later to write a brief and sensible survey of the period.11 But Trilling’s take of the period was more in line with what one finds in the account of the Enlightenment that opens the section on “The Romantic Period,” a section to which Trilling’s friend Jacques Barzun was a principal contributor.
It has been pointed out that the common attitude characteristic of Romanticism was the sense of a constructive effort to be made. But how does this differ from that of the men of the Enlightenment? Chiefly in this, that the task of the Enlightenment was critical, destructive, defensive. The task of Romanticism was creative, innovating, speculative. There is a further difference. For its propaganda, the Enlightenment assumed the universal applicability of a few simple principles of reason. The philosophers of the Enlightenment were, on the whole, rationalists in the spirit of Descartes and Newton. The Romanticists, however, found eighteenth-century views too simple and too abstract. They were impressed by the diversities that exist in the world and they sought concreteness to supplement abstract truths.
Bad as this is, it manages to get worse. In support of the alleged “abstractness” of Enlightenment thought, this section of the Manual appeals to the judgment of Joseph de Maistre.
- William Barrett, “Art, Aristocracy, and Reason,” Partisan Review XVI:6 (June 1949) 664-665 ↩
- Sternhell, Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 3. ↩
- William Barrett, The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982). ↩
- William Barrett, “A Present Tendency in American Criticism,” The Kenyon Review 11:1 (1949): 1-7.
- Barrett discusses the circumstances behind his writing of the editor on pp. 75-97 and reprints the lengthy editorial as an appendix to The Truants. ↩
- As far as I can determine, the William C. Barrett Papers at Kent State University are not those of William Christopher Barrett, the philosopher, but of a different William C. Barrett, who served as editor of the Kent State University Alumni magazine, and are limited to correspondence having to do with the 1970 Kent State shootings. ↩
- William Barrett, The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization, (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press, 1978) and Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer, (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press, 1986). ↩
- Lionel Trilling, “Elements That Are Wanted,” Partisan Review 7 September/October (1940): 367–379, 368. This article is particularly admired by those who see Triling as a neoconservative avant la lettre. See, for example, the discussion in Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006) 219-229. ↩
- Adam Kirsch, Why Trilling Matters, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). ↩
- Peter Gay, “The Enlightenment in the History of Political Theory,” Political Science Quarterly 69:3 (September 1954): 374–389. ↩
- Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason; the Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1948). ↩