U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (11/2/09)

1.a. The History of the Idea of Political Correctness: With a hat tip to John Quiggin at Crooked Timber, this old NYT story and the Wikipedia entry for political correctness got me thinking about how a history of the idea in the United States would look. It would seem that no history of the Culture Wars could be written without some accounting of the roots of p.c. But would it begin with the linguistic turn, as Quiggin briefly asserts? Or is it a Left political phenomenon, as some conservative thinkers assert, and the Wikipedia and NYT articles support? And while I’ve brought up Wikipedia, the early historical sample given there in relation to the U.S. (Chisholm versus Georgia, 1793) seems to confuse political theory with language usage. But maybe this is just a case of more context being needed with quote?

1.b. Related Aside: Philosophy of the History of Ideas: Is it just me, or can you turn anything into a form of intellectual history by giving the topic Platonic-like form/idea status and then claim to talk about its history? If so, then historians of ideas are going to run into the same critical problem Aristotle had with Plato: How many forms are there? And if *everything* has a form (which it appears even Plato did not assert), then isn’t it more useful to talk about the specifics of the real object in front of you rather than the idea? But I suppose that kind of materialism is an anti-historical line of thought. I mean, if everything is unique, then there is no history. But this goes against our common sense. Even if the number of forms is not infinite, the pool of them is large enough that there is plenty of material with which to work. Perhaps it’s necessary to being a historian that we believe there’s an underlying-but-similar essence about which we can discuss change. The issue then becomes a well-worn one: how much change? In any case, it appears that a certain amount of Platonism, combined with the possibility of change, buttresses our attraction to the history of ideas.

2. The Creation of a Neoliberal Audit Culture in Higher Education: Decasia‘s Eli Thorkelson meditates on how Margaret Spellings’ ill-fated effort to control/dictate/reform higher education accountability has led to a voluntary regimen of outcomes assessment over the past few years. To quote the post, this has created a new “neoliberal audit culture” in higher education (the phrase might be from Morten Levin or Cornell University’s Davydd Greenwood).

3. Jennifer Burns’ Competition: After Jennifer Burns received excellent exposure for her new book on The Daily Show (#6 here), another biography of Ayn Rand is now on the market: Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Here is a review. I like the present-past connections made in Kirsch’s review. And Kirsch does mention Burns’ effort. Amazon shows the release of Burns’ book as Oct. 19 and Weller’s as Oct. 27. Our days in the sun do not last long, do they? [BTW: Here is an excellent combined review of Burns’ and Heller’s books.]

4. Saul Alinsky and Jacques Maritain: About a month ago I learned that Alinsky and the moderate-to-liberal Catholic Thomistic philosopher Maritain maintained correspondence for almost 30 years, from 1945 until Alinsky’s death in 1972. This was sort of a “worlds colliding” moment for me. And there’s a book about it, no less: Bernard E. Doering’s The Philosopher and the Provocateur. I suppose this is a reiteration of a lesson I’ve learned many times over: Never the let the *reputation* of person’s philosophical commitments and social views (whether Left or Right) dictate your assumptions about her/his connections with the rest of the world.