Saturday, August 08, 2009

Back to Cohen, briefly. He begins his Tanner Lecture with a discussion of "egalitarians" using hypothetical examples of their arguments and referring to the debate between "freedom" and "equality." So a supposed leftist, who later cedes at least tacitly the empirical ground to Thatcher, begins by ceding reason to the logic of liberal individualism. By any measure the common functional counterweight to freedom as documented in human behavior is not equality but "obligation." But again most Anglo-American academic radicalism, like most academic political thought, like most people's closely held assumptions, can be described fairly as the habitual attempt to justify the holders' preexisting habits and general beliefs. It's safe to say that Cohen was an individualist, so the prime mover, the primary element in his argument was not a collective understanding, language or history or any other of the forms without which the individual is unrecognizable, but the individual actor himself. You can't institutionalize self-awareness. When it isn't considered a proper goal of an active mind, it becomes harder and harder even to imagine what it is. Before tossing out my old copies of the Journal of Philosophy I dug out an essay by Cohen responding to critics of "Karl Marx's Theory of History" (the book) which he by designation treats as identical to the thing itself. Did he add the subtitle "a defense" in the later edition? That sort of rhetorical de-historicizing of his own effort is par for the course. It's clear reading the essay that he's a brilliant engineer of imaginary logical machines; debating accusations of circularity and the social vs asocial and relating statements such as "There is an autonomous tendency of the productive forces to develop" to a child's 'tendency' to grow but not to grow 'autonomously.' Smartly done but nothing more. Reminiscences here and here. He seems to slide from a passive acceptance of historical determinism, which I take as an honorable position but not, passivity being what it is, a politically activist one, and vague but equally passive hope.
Late this past April, Jerry and Michele travelled to India to visit Sarah, Jerry's "ultraspiritual Hinduizing daughter," as he put it. In an email that Jerry sent the day before they departed, he mentioned "[his] journey from parentally induced anti-religionism to anti-anti-religionism to my current pretty pro-religious condition in which spiritual things keep on happening to me." What spiritual things? Well, "like sitting in a subway train and looking at the faces and a voice inside me--not me, exactly, but in me--says: They are all suffering emissaries of God. And I don't smirk."
I suppose I should be kinder but after 20 years of trying and failing to have conversations on all these subjects I'm beyond it.

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