01-12-2013 - Traces, n. 11


Daring Reason

“Knowledge always emerges in a relationship.” But today there is an attack underway on meaning and memory. Here, a dialogue with the Jewish-American intellectual who, in the columns of The New Republic, has always defended culture against a mentality in which the absolute is not “alive,” and there is only one legitimate question: “How does it work?”

by Mattia Ferraresi

Leon Wieseltier has never considered escape. The intellectual’s place is in the public arena–or in the trenches, if necessary. It is certainly not in tidy rooms where the dust is the most lively presence, and the learned narrate their respective feats to each other for the sole purpose of hearing, once more, the sound of their own voices. Wieseltier, Jewish thinker and literary editor of The New Republicfor over 30 years, is an omnivore. Nothing that comes his way falls outside of the spectrum of his interests, from politics to Jewish messianism, through troubadour poetry and contemporary cinema. “My religious education taught me that everything converges on one question, regarding the meaning of the universe,” explains Wieseltier to Traces. He writes of everything with a particular irony that can be irritating, a trait that has not earned him much sympathy in the circles of the cultural intelligentsia. He was a student of critic Lionel Trilling at Columbia University and, when he wound up at Oxford for a period of study, his teacher entrusted him to the care of philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The academic environment, dominated by analytic philosophy, was not a good fit for this young intellectual, enlightened by classical humanistic culture and the great Jewish thinkers, especially Moses Maimonides. He defends this same culture, in the columns of The New Republic and in lecture halls in half the world, from what he calls “a constant and nauseating denigration of humanistic knowledge and the humanistic method,” an education that leads to “preferring practical questions to those of meaning.” And, according to Wieseltier, the mentality promoted by an excess of technology has its share of responsibility in this degradation of knowledge into a disjointed flux of information. All of this conspires to atrophy reason, to censor its “vain” ambitions. “The only question allowed today is, ‘How does it work?’ All other questions are considered senseless wastes of time.” Several months ago, he told the graduating students at Brandeis University,  “Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself  has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality...” And he concluded, “In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true, the good, and the beautiful.” It is starting from this point that we engage in conversation. 

True, good, beautiful: these transcendentals are seldom found in the cultural discourse; it almost seems impermissible to aspire to something of that nature, or even that they do not exist at all.
But of course they exist! The fact that we often fail to recognize them does not mean that they don’t exist. The skeptic is not the person who thinks that truth does not exist, but the one who destroys all of the paths that lead to it. There are beautiful places, and one doesn’t know about them until he sees them–but that’s not a good reason to doubt that they exist. There was another point that I would have liked to bring up at Brandeis: the liberal arts are complicit in their own decline. Many humanists deny the notions of truth, beauty, and goodness. I can understand why–but, the more I go on, the more difficult and painful it becomes to live without these categories.

Doesn’t it seem to you that the openness of reason to the absolute is already taboo, especially in your environment?
People have an irrational fear of absolutes. In part, it is because they are afraid of the political consequences of absolutes, of absolutism. But the fascinating thing about absolutes is that they are alive–they can always be discussed, attacked, rethought, enriched, called into question.

What do you mean?
I’ll give you an example. Once, I held a seminar on Moses Maimonides at the University of Chicago, and we were discussing his proofs of the existence of God, which are perhaps the weakest part of his philosophy. One student, who later became an important journalist, raised his hand and said, “I would like to clarify that Maimonides is not trying to prove the existence of God, but is simply saying that those proofs are convincing for him, and if it works for you, great.” I asked the students to close the book, and we spent the rest of the lesson discussing the meaning of the phrase, “If it works for you, great.” The conversation got to the point that I understood that there was an enormous fear of the way in which Maimonides or Thomas Aquinas used reason. “What are you afraid of?” I asked. One of them said, “If they’ve already irrefutably proven everything, then we no longer have anything to say; our task is finished.” I answered, “The only argument that is finished is that which is based on irrational premises. That is, if you feel an emotion, then I can’t argue it, explain it, or prove it. A feeling is a feeling. But a rational argument is never ‘finished,’ and that is why we still study Aristotle. Scientists don’t study Ptolemy, but philosophers study Aristotle.” I tried to explain that in human reason there is an infinite quality, something that tends toward an ungraspable absolute, that continually tends toward something beyond. They were shocked. They were so convinced that every argument had to have a conclusion–and they erroneously attributed to the word “conclusion” its double meaning of completion and end–that they were afraid to enter into a field that was anything but purely relativistic.  

What does this have to do with your religious experience? Contemporary culture is dominated by the idea that there is an irreducible opposition between religion and reason.
The religious experience is precisely the key to access knowledge of reality. There are certain categories that I inherited from my religious tradition, without which I cannot reasonably explain something of myself. I have in mind the word “soul.” My religious ideas are very complicated, but even in the moment in which I was furthest from religion–both as a conception and in behavior–I could never live without this word. I needed a word that described the human difference, that which is unique in humanity. It’s clearly not the body, because all of our bodies strongly resemble each other; they are essentially the same. It has to be something incorporeal. “Self” would be a good word, if it didn’t sound so psychological and clinical. I realized that I needed the world “soul,” and I don’t care what interpretation of it the others would have given. In the same way, I need the adjective “spiritual,” which is the most abused and degraded in the dictionary. In America, New Age, television, Oprah Winfrey, and all the rest have ruined and reduced this term, but I can’t do without it. It takes courage to use these words in their true meaning, even at the cost of being misunderstood.

You are tough, even merciless, when you speak of the state of humanistic studies in the West, especially in America. What particular risks do you see?
We witness various attacks on the humanities. One came from philosophy, from Derrida’s deconstructionism; another from sociology, in the form of racial and gender studies. This latter is the most lethal attack, because it uses an inadequate method to study the object. Literary criticism done through the lens of gender or race is absurd, and professors in great universities were complicit in this distortion. The new challenges come from the so-called “digital humanities,” the encounter between technological possibilities and human expression–a risky process, because it introduces a new idea of literature and art. One studies Proust by using the search function: How many times does he say “memory”? In what patterns? Linguistics will be completely reduced to pure structuralism, the recognition of recurring structures. It is an anti-philosophic approach, contrary to the unitary idea that is at the heart of reason. The point is that one can even study philosophy in an anti-philosophic way. And university courses are organized according to these faulty criteria.  

Can you explain?
I learned much more from my teachers than from books, because knowledge always emerges in a relationship. If you lose this conception, then all forms of depersonalization are allowed, both with regard to content, as I said, but also in the educative method. This means that the conception of knowledge as the fruit of a relation between persons deteriorates, morphing into the idea of a simple transmission of content.  In this sense, the enormous diffusion of online courses is very serious, because it reflects the attempt to transform the humanities into a field in which the content of knowledge can be reduced to information. If they are only streams of information to be elaborated, then there is no longer a need for a concrete relationship with the teacher. Whoever says that the means is neutral is already reducing, and therefore betraying, the knowledge that he purports to transmit.

It is rather significant that this reduction of knowledge to information has been affirmed in many ambits of existence. After the Boston Marathon bombing, you wrote, critically, that Americans overcame the pain and shock of the event because they specialize in “emotional efficiency.” What does that mean?
When practical sense prevails over humanity, one reaches emotional efficiency. Americans get many of their convictions from economic and business theory, then transplant them to other fields. The idea of efficiency applied to emotions, to feelings, should be controversial or at least debatable, but in America it isn’t. One has to be efficient, has to overcome, has to carry on. We were never a patient people, but technology, which is the biggest attack on human patience, brought this idea to its extreme consequences. And now it is trying to eliminate the idea of memory.

It seems to me that everything is remembered even too much...
It’s not true. In reality, people are afraid of memory, and everyone tries to live in an eternal present. It’s interesting that, in the past 30 years, there has apparently been a great valorization of memory, both individual and collective. Proust had understood that memory is the mysticism of secularized men. On the one hand, there is this aspect, but on the other, there is practical life, with its velocity and its vacuity, its incapacity to put together the fragments of experience. It’s curious that computer pioneers called the machines “memories.” But the computer is the exact opposite of memory, because memory always implies the possibility of oblivion. Memory is an editorial process of the mind, the heart, the imagination–something that has to do with synthesis, not with analysis. Being able to remember everything is not the same thing as “making”  memory.