10 March 2013

Liberal Arts and Philosophy

Ah, the fate of the liberal arts in the United States wears heavily on my mind. I have two children still in school and a whole generation moving through the public schools and colleges. In his memoir Native Realm , Czeslaw Milosz describes friend, Boleslaw Micinski, the philosopher-poet who acquires the nickname Tiger because “of his rapacity in argument, which reduced others to the status of grass-eating animals.”  Milosz writes: “For me, Tiger incarnated a truth that Europe was discovering anew: that philosophy, despite the university departments, is not mere speculation; that it both nourishes itself on everything within us and impregnates our whole being; and that if it does not help us to judge a man, a piece of sculpture, a literary work, it is dead." I believe that he means that unless we must understand that our basic beliefsour stance in the worldderive from philosophy, and that unless we accept that idea and unless we teach from that position, then philosophy is dead.
And what would it mean to think that philosophy is dead? The possibilities are too enormous and frightening to consider. We would become automatons, mere shitting, eating and fornicating machines in the service of something we would never know. But with the death of philosophy even our leaders would be nothing but empty shells functioning on some motives even they might never comprehend. In one of the most perceptive views of the United States that I have ever read Milosz writes: “Americans accepted their society as if it had arisen from the very order of nature; so saturated with [nature] were they that they tended to pity the rest of humanity for having strayed from the norm. If I at least understood that all was not well with me, they did not realize the opposite disablement affected them: a loss of the sense of history and, therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience.” The problem with US citizens is that they do not accept (they do not know!) that they are a product of history and that they are immersed in it whether they like it or not. Americans lack the sense of the tragic, and therefore they behave in ways that do not reflect the least understanding of others or even of themselves. Americans know nothing: think of Republicans! And therefore, they do not experience history. Like Gatsby, they think of themselves as the child of God pursuing an unattainable Daisy Fay, beating on, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” And I fear that we might end like him, floating lifelessly in our own unused swimming pool, shot dead by an ignorant and jealous gas station mechanic.
The liberal arts are essential: because without them we render ourselves unimpregnable and sterile.  


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is still vital interest in philosophy in the country. There are currently 515 comments responding to last week's Wittgenstein piece located at the link below. It appears that many of the comments come from residents of the US.

11 March, 2013 09:01  

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