Monday, November 28, 2005

I'm Positive

I have a wonderful little book--not so very little actually: it weighs in at 1387 pages--that is remarkable not so much because of what is written in it but because of the witness it gives to a moribund worldview of a bygone era: the historical positivism of the 1950s and 1960s. The book is Volume 6 of the UNESCO-sponsored History of Mankind: Cultural and Scientific Development, the first volume of which, Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization, appeared in 1963. Volume 6, which appeared in 1966, was subtitled The Twentieth Century.

There are a couple of things to notice about this. First, there is the rather obvious hubris of trying to publish any kind of history of the twentieth century before it is even two thirds finished. By the editors' own admission, most of the work for Volume 6 was actually done before 1955. Since we're in the Advent season now, and my children are reminding me once again how difficult it is for those of us born in the 20th century to postpone our gratification, I find this desire to get the history of the 20th century out quam celerrime more than a little close to home. The assumption appears to be that, whatever it was about the 20th century that made it unqiue, that gave it its character, was well established by mid-century, and unlikely to be displaced by any upstart events of the waning years on the downhill side of the century. Looking back over the last 40 years of my life, however, I cannot help but think that the last third of the 20th century had very little in common, culturally or scientifically, with the first two thirds. There is, indeed, a place for a book such as this, but it ought to be titled something like A Provincial and Myopic View of the Significance of the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Now, before people start complaining about what a ridiculously pedantic title that is, remember that the thing was sponsored by UNESCO. I think I'm being rather charitable.

The second thing worth noticing is the apparent assumption that people who are literally in medias res are somehow going to rise above it all and write about the cultural and scientific development of their own era in a way that is not wholly useless. Albert Speer wrote a very interesting account of the Third Reich, but I would not go to that volume for anything like a compelling account of the significance of the history of that regime. Volume 6 of the History of Mankind was "planned and executed from an international viewpoint", it proclaims, and that, I take it, is supposed to be one of its virtues. But in fact such a claim only reflects the sad political reality of the day: you couldn't say anything politically interesting without Soviet kiss-asses objecting on ideological grounds. The chapters on economics and history are interlarded with footnotes from Soviet "experts" who challenge much of what is being said in the main text. In some passages written by Soviets there are a few tepid challenges from Western scholars, but by and large the politicization of the volume is a one-way street.

The book is filled with grandiose-sounding slogans, with section titles such as "Man's Relation to his Past and Future", Dissemination of Nutritional Knowledge", "Extension of Education as a Mass Process". But let's cut to the chase: of course one wants to know what these brainiacs had to say about culture and religion, science and society, and--of course--one is not to be disappointed if one is expecting to find a typical 1960s mishmash of popular psychology, positivism about "man's progress", and communistic economic ideas governing the whole analysis. In particular, there is a very Bill Moyers-ish dismissal of all religion as a mere cultural construct with no real relation to reality--for that one must turn to science, since after all it is science that is really god to these people. The Catholic Church and--of all things--philosophical Thomism! are singled out as the cultural bad-boys of the century, since they toe the line of their respective "orthodoxies" (in this book the word "orthodoxy" is like the word "vice"). For these movements, "rigorous formal logic" was the determining faculty by which we come to know the world. But what of that other "orthodoxy", Islam? You may be surprised to learn that
Most of the interaction between eastern and western thought was onesided, the impact of ideas originating in the West upon the thought of the East.
That's right, the "impact" in the other direction didn't come until the first year of the next century. But I'm interrupting...
The development in the West of the non-rational philosophies during these years, however, began to provide a possible bridge to the philosophical thought of the East which had always stressed the use of non-rational faculties to penetrate to the essence of reality...through the middle of the century, however, the gap remained wide as far as any real penetration of eastern though into the West was concerned. It was indeed a rare westerner who was prepared to submit himself to the discipline which easterners associated with the sort of insight, self-penetration and wisdom which was part of their tradition and which the westerner, too, could only hope to experience from within.
Wow, there's a lot of penetrating going on in there. Notice how the problem of inter-"penetration" is laid at the feet of the lazy westerner, who doesn't have it in him to penetrate himself the way the easterner does. There seems to be some distinction being drawn here between the "rational" faculties and the "non-rational" ones, but as usual with this kind of 1960s garbage there's no explanation (or empirical evicence) regarding what this distinction might amount to and how it is actually worked out in any real theories of either east or west. In short, this is just banal speculation on the part of someone who's read too much Hesse.

Some parts of this volume are fascinating to read--in some sections it does contain rather interesting compilations of data. But as a genuine assessment of the "cultural and scientific development" of the century--well, it's hard to take it very seriously. Culturally much has happened since 1966, such as the fall of western communism, the ascendancy of the Catholic Church, the globalization of the economy, explosive change in music and art, both classical and popular, and in the scientific domain one need mention only a few things such as space exploration, medicine, computer technology, before one begins to see that this volume was hopelessly outdated even before the century it purports to give a history of was finished.

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