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Dr. David Berlinski has a new book out “Human Nature.” It is a series of interesting essays on what might be called the intellectual geography of our time. He leads off with an essay that I consider sublime. It is a discussion of the causes of WWI. More importantly, it is a criticism of the standard banal take on WWI that satisfies so many but not Dr. Berlinski (nor I). It would be wrong to place the entire text of the piece here on my post (however tempting that is). I have left the Amazon link and there is an inexpensive Kindle version you can read on your phone if necessary (I did). Instead, I will take a few quotes that I find very interesting.
The First World War was a catastrophe for European civilization because it destroyed its moral structure. The war demonstrated to European statesmen and their military leaders that they had misjudged, and misjudged profoundly, the ground over which they were walking. They had imagined that their system was so conceived as to be continuous in its fundamental aspect and that a general European war among all of the great powers would be like a local European war among some of them. They were mistaken.
…None of the Great Powers were compelled to go to war. They could have walked away. If these considerations are admitted, the causal chain that was designed to explain the outbreak of war is less a chain than a series of unconnected links. None of them are properly causes because each could have occurred without effect, depending on how they were described or what the various actors believed.
…Richardson persuaded several generations of political scientists that his was a scientific attitude toward war. The research that has resulted has the very great merit of having occupied many political scientists in an undertaking that is as innocent as it is irrelevant. Nothing has been discovered about the onset and seriousness of war that was previously hidden from common sense.
Men go to war when they think that they can get away with murder.
Berlinski gives detailed arguments to back up his claims. Even employing his skills as a professional mathematician. However, I have chosen these particular quotes not just to tantalize you into reading his whole book but to present a little thought of my own. If you take the four sentences in bold out of context reading them one after another a hypothesis comes to my mind.
What if WWI didn’t destroy the moral structure of European civilization but rather the moral structure had already been destroyed not by war but by an intellectual erosion of values from a new nihilism? This new nihilism coming into vogue in the late 19th century and early 20th century undermined not only religious values but all secular ethical values also. Whether it was the elegant Positivists and their symbolic logical conclusion that the concepts of morality had no objective meaning (they were only emotion-charged words) or it was the wildly romantic Nietzsche, convinced that Judeo-Christian morality itself was the cause (not the cure) for societies problems or still the pretentious claims of the new sciences Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, Jungianism,etc., by 1914 the intellectual underpinnings of European civilization’s moral structure had been torn to shreds. Thus the minds & consciences of the European statesmen and military leaders had been anesthetized to paralysis. They could have walked away if their brains and their souls had been functioning as normal. My hypothesis is that they were already neutralized by the new nihilism into accepting what should have been unacceptable.
Now Dr. Berlinski demonstrates his range and switches gears. From the sublime to the ridiculous. He is after a very big fish. A fish as big as Moby Dick but Dr. Berlinski is no Ahab. Ahab had no sense of humor. In this wildly sarcastic piece, he deconstructs a prime American Deconstructionist, Stanley Fish. Here are a few quotes.
…In reading Fish, skepticism starts early and it never flags. If literal meanings go in one essay, transcendent truths disappear in another. Whatever they are, these truths “would not speak to any particular condition or be identified with any historical production, or be formulated in terms of any ethnic, racial, economic, or class traditions.” Lacking these identifying caste marks, they would be humanely (but not divinely) inaccessible. Yet if there are no transcendent truths, there are nevertheless transcendent statements— those that fail to mention history, class, race, and gender, and of these, there are many.
…“There is no such thing as literal meaning,” he buoyantly affirms, “a meaning that because it is prior to interpretation can serve as a constraint on interpretation.”
…Might Fish have been a seal in another time or place? Under what other circumstances? It is again a contingent fact that cats do not have pink fur and lack the capacity to play the oboe, but not a contingent fact that cats are mammals rather than reptiles or amphibians. It is a part of the essence of literary criticism that it is not dentistry. Whatever a critic’s position on essentialism, and the issue is yet vexed and has long been vexed, the distinctions embodied by these commonly made and intuitively plausible judgments need either to be enforced, or, if rejected, explained convincingly as artifacts. This Fish does not do.
…Expatiating on this theme, Fish remarks that “it is no longer taken for granted,” and surely not taken for granted by him, that “molecules and quarks come first,” in the scheme of things, “and scientists’ models of molecules and quarks come second.” These theses taken literally, it follows that so far as sociologists of science are concerned, a speech act such as “Arise, Dumbo” could bring an elephant into being; and that molecules, and so the materials they compose, did not exist before the molecular theory of matter, the Cathedral at Chartres thus acquiring, on Fish’s account, its molecular structure eight hundred years after its construction. This is not a conclusion that inspires confidence.
…The requirement that words be used assertively means that uttering a specific form of words on a particular occasion is never sufficient for the charge of speech crime. The argument just given implies that uttering a specific form of words on a particular occasion is never necessary for speech crime either. And if uttering a specific form of words is neither necessary nor sufficient for speech crime, it is hard to see that any independent content remains to the concept.
…Had Stanley Fish really been rejected for some senior position in favor of a less-qualified woman or black, he would not have yielded gracefully in the name of remedial affirmative action. Strong illness, strong remedy? Not a bit of it. He would have been outraged.
I have left out some of the more pungent harpoons with which Dr. Berlinski skewers the great fish. You must read the book to enjoy these. Not to be a spoiler of some really good sarcastic wit, I would come back to my own theme. I propose that it was nihilism that undermined European Civilization before WWI. The new big fish represents more than just a modern nihilistic triumph of the inane. However absurd, we should realize just how dangerous such ideas are if they go unchecked. Luckily we have Dr. Berlinski to do the checking.
Enjoy the book.Published in