March 16, 2015

Rescuing Rhyme and Reason

"One day a small ship appeared on the Sea of Knowledge. It carried a young prince seeking the future. In the name of goodness and truth he laid claim to all the country and set out to explore his new domain [, but] the demons, monsters, and giants were furious at his presumption and banded together to drive him out."The Phantom Tollbooth

Despite the popular image of America as anti-intellectual—which don't get me wrong, the majority of Americans certainly are (of course, so is the majority anywhere)—our country has actually been a great stage upon which the most profound philosophical ideas of the last 500 years have played out. Although these ideas began in Europe, the comparatively tabula rasa nature of the American mind is uniquely susceptible to their influence. This, most certainly, is a consequence of America being the first (if not the only) country founded by Philosophers, but also of our unshakable optimism in the future and the resulting joy we get from novelty.

But unlike in Europe, we never fully embrace these new ideas unadulterated, instead always attempting to blend them with our founding principles of Liberty and Equality. This has resulted in a very confusing mishmash of contradictory ideas—and political/cultural movements—that have recreated America into a nation whose moral, political and epistemological conception of itself would be wholly unrecognizable to our Founders. I don't point this out, however, as some sort of conservative reactionary, decrying the debasement of the idyllic utopia bequeathed to us by our infallible fathers, but rather to make clear the complete incoherence of our thought today (For one of the most conspicuous examples, check out an article I wrote about Freud's surprising influence here).

We now hold entirely contradictory thoughts, in an attempt to achieve entirely contradictory ends. The most conspicuous symptom of this is the confused language that we now employ when attempting to talk about ourselves, our relations to others and our place within eternity. And the ironic (moronic) part of all this is that the majority of this language was created by our most venomous European critics—in order to describe how awful and contemptible the American (bourgeois) way of life looked to them. Yet we now utilize this language in order to talk about how interesting we are (or, at least, wish that we were).

The majority of this language originated in continental Europe—specifically France and Germany—flowing from a very unlikely fount: a shy, semi-schizophrenic, self-educated, son of a poor Calvinist watchmaker, named Jean Jacques Rousseau. His, and all of his followers', devastating critiques of America's way of life have now been incorporated, piecemeal, into American life, yet somehow belief in our original principles have not eroded—and are actually championed louder than ever. Needless to say, it is quite the epistemological mess.

Check back soon in my Dictionopolis section as I begin to explore this new language and the implications for our belief in the Founders' proposed system of rational consent, freedom and equality.

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