Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Dying Art of Disagreement

For what it's worth. From The New York Times:
Thirty years ago, in 1987, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago named Allan Bloom — at the time best known for his graceful translations of Plato’s “Republic” and Rousseau’s “Emile” — published a learned polemic about the state of higher education in the United States. It was called “The Closing of the American Mind.” The book appeared when I was in high school, and I struggled to make my way through a text thick with references to Plato, Weber, Heidegger and Strauss. But I got the gist — and the gist was that I’d better enroll in the University of Chicago and read the great books. That is what I did.
What was it that one learned through a great books curriculum? Certainly not “conservatism” in any contemporary American sense of the term. We were not taught to become American patriots, or religious pietists, or to worship what Rudyard Kipling called “the Gods of the Market Place.” We were not instructed in the evils of Marxism, or the glories of capitalism, or even the superiority of Western civilization.

As I think about it, I’m not sure we were taught anything at all. What we did was read books that raised serious questions about the human condition, and which invited us to attempt to ask serious questions of our own. Education, in this sense, wasn’t a “teaching” with any fixed lesson. It was an exercise in interrogation.

To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.

It’s what used to be called a liberal education.

The University of Chicago showed us something else: that every great idea is really just a spectacular disagreement with some other great idea. Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.

These quarrels are never personal. Nor are they particularly political, at least in the ordinary sense of politics. Sometimes they take place over the distance of decades, even centuries. Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out. (Read more.)

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