Tradition of the New

The Helen Merrell Lynd Faculty Colloquium

RE-IMAGINING THE AMERICAS: Contemporary Scholarship and Cultural Diversity

Elfie S. Raymond, Tuesday, January 28, 1992, SLC

The View from San Francisco Bay

Concern for the future is not even the smallest of contemporary philosophy's besetting vices. The big ones are, apart from acrimony and contentiousness, stringent, nay merciless committments to a purely formal conception of timeless reason -- derived from Leibniz's angelic and Descartes' geometric sciences --, and methods of verification that living language simply cannot satisfy. But there are some members of our scattered tribe who see their responsibility tied to the inquiry into the conditions of human life and the quickening of language, for peoples' prospering in this wide world of nations, and the ways we are in truth related to one another, over and above well-known and often shameful invidious distinctions: signatures of prejudice.

Hegel said philosophy brings one, and only one idea to history: the idea of Reason acting in the service of Mind's, or Spirit'self-realization, making time the spurious infinity of our agony and turning us into the unwitting agents of the process. Whereas the right Hegelians advanced arguments favoring passive submission to history's process, the left Hegelians called for action marshalling forceful and intermittently effective arguments to put people, that is to say their leaders, in charge. The rest indeed is history, the history, roughly, and roughly indeed, of this rough century, our own recent past. The page has turned, a new chapter is about to be written. The question is: How New?

With this in mind, the serendipitous audacity to hold a Lynd colloquium and convocation with the title "Re-Imagining the Americas" seems almost plausible and surely timely. Does the history of philosophy, this diverse yet unifiable and rapidly expanding body of thought give us any reason to believe that it may contain some words, some messages, some information, some advice, some rules, some insights, some trans-personal and even trans-cultural knowledge that might conceivably be beneficial to the work of re-imagining our lives together now and tomorrow?

In surveying recent works published in my discipline, I saw little that struck me as being of direct relevance. Yet there are two trends that may have some bearing. The first is a trend toward comparing and correlating the world's philosophic traditions, thus exhibiting and making accessible the underlying unitary structure of the world's cultures. David Dillworth from Yale does precisely this, and does it with great erudition in his book "Philosophy in World Perspective: a comparative hermeneutic of the major theories." It won't grab the attention of a crowd, but rewards close study with knowledge of the completeness and coherence of the world's philosophic wealth. Work along these lines is going on in many places: a word and subject concordance between Confucius and Aristotle is well under way at Boston University and at Notre Dame where Thomas Aquinas is being included in the harmonizing effort for good measure. Promising as this may sound, there is another trend that strikes me as even more pertinent to the matter before us.

The simultaneous waning of Positivism in the West and Marxism in the East has been accompanied by the re-discovery of and a renewed interest in the New Science of Giambattista Vico of 1730, where Vico spells out the dialectical/psychogenetic/linguistic principles by which we proceed from our beginnings in primeval nature to produce the cyclical recurrences that form the overlapping, (and, today, kaleidoscopically swirling) patterns of human life called history. The heart of his theory is the transformative praxis of language. Quoting from Hayden White's essay "The Tropics of History": "Vico's theory of metaphorical transformation serves as the model for a theory of the auto-transformation of human consciousness in history." This then is Vico's great and imaginative, not to say phantastical, innovation with which he hoped to establish the foundation for the human historical sciences in contra-distinction to the natural and formal sciences of Newton, Leibnitz and Descartes. The examination of the origins of institutions and their development, the uses and the cultivation of the imagination, personal and group experience, empathy, the diligent, close study of ancient texts and the analysis of transformative language practices, the so-called 'tropics of history' are the themes and methods of the New Science. Not exactly a small project!

The recent re-discovery of Vico's New Sciene coincides with a revival of the Art of Rhetoric in the Aristotelian vein: the use of language in the search for justice and the harmonious public good. The Belgian philosopher Chaim Perelman is credited with having achieved the beginnings of a restoration of rhetoric's status within the Liberal Arts curriculum with his book titled "The Art of Practical Reasoning". - In Vico's and Perelman's thought the concept of truth is not derived from Platonism, or the spirit of geometry, nor from purely formal, Cartesian systems of logic, whether of numbers, words, or more artificial sets of symbols. Vico's and Perelman's concept of truth evolves from observing in concrete settings the creative use of language in and over time: to wit,

a) from the reasoning of prudence in diplomatic negotiations and the reasoning of jurisprudence in the courts of individual conscience and of the law, whether it be positive, natural, or revealed;

b) from the ironic language of democratic, self-reflective human consciousness in literature, philosophy, and political discourse. Ironies that in their subtleties hide and expose our cruelty, betoken decadence and disintegration and wind up in the barbarisms of reflection characteristic of so-called advanced civilizations;

c) from the poetry of the heroic life and deeds of bronze and copper age aristocrats of which the bards of all nations spellbindingly sings;

d) and from the mythopoeic use of language by which early humans started to imagine themselves as a distinct order of beings; theocratize their communal living patterns and appropriate the worlds in the brightness and the shadow of their awesome gods whose images and names they projected unto nature by their own creative language powers.

By insisting on the centrality of language, Vico, as well as Perelman, point a way, a middle way or via media, for a new humanism in the social sciences and raise hopes for an understanding of language mindful of the one formulated by i.e. the humanist Lorenzo Valla a bit before the time of Columbus' voyages. Whether these encouraging trends will quicken and gather sufficient momentum to revitalize social structures within and without the academy is an open question whose answer is anybody's guess. I will not attempt it, but move on to my presentation of some views from San Francisco Bay.

Here, in three views, I wish to illustrate Vico's three steps, his waltz, of language development, presenting their evolutionary order in reverse: from ironic, i.e. in Vico's terms barbaric reflections, to a brave new heroism in sociology rediscovering and re-deploying the humanist language of finesse, and further back to the more primitive layers of the human mind and brain that speak in our native, but o so foreign tongue: night-talk, the language of mythic creativity and unitive dream, or poetry before it turns subjective.

The West Coast's Russell Baker, the philosopher Art Hoppe, has for years enlivened the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle with the bold and desperate cry "Nobody for President." The arguments with which he buttresses this out-cry change with the political seasons, yet revolve around the stable core of the conviction that the electorate needs to shed its infantile delusions about the purely symbolic and ineffectual role it plays in national politics. Not that government was only an empty symbolic form! No. But its reality consists of powers residing in the bureaucratic structure and vested moneyed interests that prop up party machineries replete with election paraphernalia, patronage schemes, and a Potemkin village on the banks of the Potomac. Presidential elections are a diversion and welcome distraction for a contented electorate slightly bored by its affluence, but an unseemly spectacle when the Hobbesian wolf howls at the inner and the outer doors. Faced with the near collapse of business-as-usual party politics and with a new game of political high-stakes-poker not yet in place, Art Hoppe's irony and satire is outstripped by what we may be only too tempted to call reality itself: the body politic emanating a miasma, an infectious, noxious, deepening despair, while the nation's mind passively absorbs the phantoms of TV's soapy opera dressed up as news and, God help us, so-called philosophic commentary set in motion by the media's spin doctors. The first scenario, it seems, corresponds with exactitude to Vico's third stage of Irony and decadence where the corrosvie forces of his 'barbarisms of reflection' have a field day.

Across the Bay we find a larger, more optimistic, more heroic view; a view that does not satirize the crisis but locates it in individuals and institutions and their snarled interrelationships. The social philosopher Robert Bellah and his team who wrote the much acclaimed book "Habits of the Heart", a title borrowed from Tocqueville, just completed their second collaborative effort, "The Good Society", a title adopted from a book by Walter Lippman where the standard American understanding of the concept of private property is scrutinized and revised.

Bellah and company held the first annual Institute of the Good Society at Berkeley last August, placing much of their confidence in the powers of the Art of Practical Reasoning and the renewal of public discourse to redress imbalances between private and the public, i.e. common goo. Good fences no longer make good neighbors. Stuck in habist of near-sighted private autonomy, Americans are ill-equipped to use their outer resources (quote) "to unite the tremendous possibilities opened up by modern technological, economic, and administrative advances with a coherent pattern of living together." Bellah's critique of today's society and its organizational forms is subtle, elegant, and understated. So, if you forgive me the digression, was Mozart's contained in "The Marriage of Figaro" that premiered in 1786, three years before the French revolution ended Feudalism and (pace Bill Park) Rococo. In Bellah's new book there is just below the surface of his gentle tone a sharp diagnosis of disease: a moral ailment of the value structure of modern-day feudality in corporate bureaucracies that diminishes, even endangers the very viability of this society's version of democracy. Pained by the institutionalized failure of social justice, most visible in the increasing number of homeless people, Bellah says "the society that we have gradually become is showing signs of severe strain, so that it is time to ask the question not just whether we need a different time management team, but whether we need a new levelof democratic institutionalization. For... it is not only those left out of the American dream who have suffered under the present institutional arrangements: the coherence and meaning of life have become endangered for every social group... We need today... the Third Democratic Transformation: this would move us beyond the stages of the ancient city-state and the eighteenth century regime of individual rights while preserving and advancing their gains."

This call for a new, i.e. unprecedented level of democratic institutionalization, inaugurating the Third Democratic Transformation, is where this talk and Helen Lynd's legacy vitally connect. She was wide awake and 'present at the creation' when after the defeat of the anti-democratic forces of the axis powers who without America's intervention might have succeeded in overwhelming the rest of the globe, a brave new world emerged, the world we are used to and that is ending, or so it seems, in front of our eyes. It was then that the United Nations came into being in, of all places, San Francisco.

Helen Lynd, if she were here today, would believe in the world-wide possibilities of Democratic Transformation, not because such possibilities are obvious, they are far from it, but not to believe in them would be a failure of the human heart and imagination. Her abiding interest was in creativity and how to bring it to fruition, and she would recognize in the present moment the potential to generate new, less unjust social forms. She did not share in the myopia of those who cannot see beyond the status quo, or the status quo ante, nor did she share in the utopias that would forsake, destory the flawed present in the name of abstract ideals. Hers was a detailed and patient imagination, disciplined by a comprehensive understanding of history's, the human story's exigency, the kind of imagination we need today for imagining and realizing the specifics of a reformed sustainable society considerate of all its members and its global setting. She would respond to the call for a Third Democratic Transformation because -- and I say this on the basis of long friendship and not empty surmise -- and she knew that our future is a gift as well as our task. A gift of the kind we simply "cannot refuse" and a task to which we better give our best fearless efforts. Talk of the end of history would not be for her. She would find it silly, but would say so in more polite words because courtesy and generosity of heart were her distinguishing, characteristic features. A characteristic feature of her mind, one she shares with many of America's progressive thinkers, is the belief that human nature is neither uniform nor unchanging and that its expression will and should take infinitely varied forms; furthermore that people have the right and the responsibility, to affirm their differences through permanent, though permanently changing institutional diversity ot bring forth a thriving manifold of cultures. The Third Democractic Transformation will go beyond today's false totality, this brutal caricature of the American Dream. It will, in imagination and in fact, reach beyond it and gain access to the possibility of creating social patterns for our lives together that are rooted in the clear, distinct, and certain knowledge of human parity that is the foundation on which to build mutual acceptance and respect.

Neither ironic, nor heroic language, to use Vico's abbreviated terms, can communicate the knowledge of human parity in ways that move us out of the prisons of established language conventions and the habits of our hearts that now confine us. The kind of moving communication needed is a job for poets who re-enter the primary, proto-original forms of feeling and thought that live their lives, their underground existence, in our nightly dreams. But why stay with theory. Not being a poet myself, I cannot give you the poet's view from San Francisco Bay. Lovers of poetry can find it in a book of the same title by Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel poet laureate.- What I can do, or rather, what we can now do together if you are so inclined, is take the step from language theory into language praxis, into speaking lines from a poem that integrates all three language modes, fuses them into unity under the pressure of historic events. The poem is by W. H. Auden, composed on the eve of WWII, and I invite you to repeat each short line:


Defenceless under the night

The world in stupor lies.

Ironic points of light

Flash out

Wherever the just

Exchange their messages.

May we

Composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.


Bibliography appended.


G.W.F. Hegel "Reason in History";

Giambattista Vico "Scientia Nuova" Vol. II;

Georg Lukacs "Die Seele und die Formen";

Robert N. Bellah "The Good Society";

David Dillworth "Philosophy in World Perspective: A Comparative Hermeneutic of the Major Theories";

Stephen S. Daniel "Myth and Modern Philosophy";

Hayden White "The Tropics of History"; (in "Giambattista Vico's Science of Humanity", Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1976);

Stuart Hampshire "Joyce and Vico: the Middle Way";

Hellen Merrell Lynd "On Shame and the Search for Identity";

Helen Merrell Lynd "Possibilities";

Elfie S. Raymond "The Future Comes by Itself, Progress Does Not";

Elfie S. Raymond "The Future of Cities";

Robert Dahl "Democracy and Its Critics" (last chapter: the Third Democratic Transformation);

W. H. Auden "September One, 1939"

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