U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An Intellectual History of Culture as Becoming



The term “culture” denotes several meanings. As opposed to the more commonly held notions of culture—i.e., as reference to how a specific group lives, or as tastes, high or otherwise—I am interested in the concept of culture as a state of becoming. More specifically, I am curious about the intellectual history of culture as becoming.

My curiosity is piqued thanks to Allan Bloom. I am currently re-reading his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, as I prepare for a paper I am giving at the upcoming OAH. (Aside: The paper is part of a session of potential interest to USIH readers. It is titled “Relativism and Its Discontents in Modern American Thought.” Casey Nelson Blake, who is on the plenary slate at our next USIH conference, is chair. Bruce Kuklick is commenting. I am joined on the panel by fellow USIH blogger Ben Alpers, and USIH conference regular Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen.)

In seeking to understand why all of his students were relativists, Bloom analyzed the distorted importation of Nietzsche into American thought. Bloom held that one of the key Nietzschean premises that gained traction in the United States is the belief that there is no text, only interpretation. “This observation is the foundation of the currently popular view,” Bloom wrote, “that there is no is but only perspectives on becoming, that the perception is as much reality as there is, that things are what they are perceived to be. This view, of course, allied with the notion that man is a value-creating, not a good-discovering, being” (CAM, 159-160). For Bloom, the idea that humans create their own values and that, as such, values are not natural, was how he defined culture. Conceptualized in such a way, culture ran opposite to nature. Furthermore, cultural theory, as such, ran opposite to Bloom’s epistemology, rooted in natural rights doctrine.

Bloom believed that Enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke discovered that the surest path to social equilibrium was to harmonize nature’s laws with those of humankind—to ensure people the right to pursue happiness, or self-interest, by securing property. Such “rights are ours,” Bloom argued. “They are our common sense.” For Hobbes and Locke (read through Bloom), society functioned best when humans were reconciled to the truth that nature made them self-serving. This was a universal truth. “The spring that makes the social machinery tick is this recognition, which generates the calculation that, if he agrees to respect the life, liberty and property of others (for which he has no natural respect), they can be induced to reciprocate. This is the foundation of rights, a new kind of morality solidly grounded in self-interest” (CAM, 166). (To the degree that Bloom posited humans as naturally self-serving, he surely agreed with his University of Chicago colleagues across campus in the economics department.)

Americans, according to Bloom, internalized the rights doctrine like no other people, which explains the degree to which Americans of all classes seemed to lack a servile temperament, and which also explains why the importation of the Nietzschean concept of culture as becoming is experienced by Bloom as cognitive dissonance. It seemed out of place for Americans to believe that everything could be remade, nature be damned, and yet still hold onto their natural (some might say “God given”—not Bloom, he was an atheist) right to the pursuit of happiness.

Bloom believed culture—as becoming—rationalized human behavior in the wake of nature’s death. God is Dead, Culture is Your New Maker. Bloom posited that in a post-Robespierrean world, “changing human nature seems a brutal, nasty, tyrannical thing to do. So, instead, it began to be denied that there is such a thing as human nature. Rather, man grows and grows into culture; cultures are, as is obvious from the word, growths. Man is a culture being, not a natural being” (CAM, 190).

So my question to you, gentle reader: Is the intellectual history of culture as becoming worth thinking about? What are its parameters? Although Bloom dated this history as far back as the French Revolution—actually, further back, since he saw the nature/culture tension as internal to Western thought going all the way back to the Greeks—in an American context, surely pragmatism, which Bloom hardly mentions, is more formative to such cultural theorizing than the continental nihilism of Nietzsche. And according to John Dewey, the best method for understanding how humans behaved was to understand how they were conditioned or acculturated. What Dewey termed the social habitude—culture—was more important in forming the individual than was a hypothetically static “human nature.” “The meaning of native activity is not native, it is acquired,” Dewey wrote in Human Nature and Conduct. “It depends upon interaction with a matured social medium.” Culture was something we became for the pragmatists.

Whether or not you agree with Bloom that we should lament that culture conquered nature, or even that this victory was total—I don’t—it is worth pondering the degree to which the notion of culture as becoming shapes American scholarship, if not broader social sensibilities.

In the graduate seminar that I’m currently teaching—the topic, “Left and Right in U.S. History Since the 1930s”—I’m learning anew that many contemporary historians of the American left describe the legacy of the leftist movements they research as decidedly mixed. They all understand these movements, from the Popular Front, to the New Left, to Black Power, to have largely failed at the political level. How could one examine the current political terrain with eyes wide open and think otherwise? But they all, also, think these leftist movements attained cultural success, or left an indelible cultural mark. Americans became different, better, they argue.

For example, in his influential tome, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture, Michael Denning argues that the sprawling culture of the 1930s Popular Front, from the radical folk music of Woody Guthrie to the modernist-realist literature of John Dos Passos to the “ghetto pastorals” of Richard Wright and other plebian artists, inexorably reshaped American culture. From then on, American culture took on a working-class or “laboring” accent. Americans became something different.

Similarly, William Van Deburg, in his provocative New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975, concedes political defeat. The hollowed-out landscape of the urban black ghetto is proof of such defeat. At the biographical level, the fact that some of the most militant Black Power leaders became shills for “whitey” (Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver became, respectively, a barbeque sauce vendor and an anti-Communist Christian evangelical!) serves as similar such evidence of defeat. But at the cultural level, Van DeBurg maintains that Black Power achieved success, as seen in the irreversible attitudinal shifts of blacks. Counter-historically, rap music is made to seem impossible minus Black Power. For Van Deburg, such cultural promise was written into Black Power from its inception, resting as it did on the cultural power of becoming. “It was their hope and expectation that the revolutionary psychological process of becoming black would initiate a social revolution of great magnitude” (NDB, 55).

As culture increasingly came to be about becoming, its political significance was ratcheted up. This might help explain the culture wars. Bloom loathed this historical development, even though, somewhat ironically, The Closing of the American Mind is considered one of the primary culture war texts. Bloom wished to return to a time when politics was proper, when it was bracketed off from culture and other seemingly non-political realms. “The disappearance of politics is one of the most salient aspects of modern thought and has much to do with our political practice. Politics tends to disappear either into the subpolitical (economics) or what claims to be higher than politics (culture)—both of which escape the architectonic art, the statesman’s prudence” (188-189). A prudent statesman, presumably, would understand the lasting brilliance of the social contract and the universal truths upon which it rested. Prudence, in other words, was not becoming.

20 Thoughts on this Post

  1. i am a little confused about how all this fits together. the stereotype is that the 18th century was typified by the search for static laws (like gravity) to govern everything. It’s governing name is Newton. Th 19th century, again in this stereotypes view, is the century of becoming (Hegel); this is taken to be the result of a new experience of history, perhaps as a result of the French Revolution. The ghosts of Hegel and Kant struggle with one another over the course of the century, and produce the terrifying moral absolutism (which is also, necessarily, historical relativism) of Marx, but also the relativistic nihilism of (again, still, stereotypically) Nietzsche, say, but also many others.

    the 2nd half of the 20th century, though, we are told, exists in an entirely different mode. leaving aside the confusion over appropriations of Nietzsche (who has the great virtue of meaning all things to all people), the new cultural politics of the late 20th century are generally not thought of as ‘becoming’ in any even vaguely hegelian sense of this word. indeed, they are something like an argument for the ‘end of history.’ certainly, they could be accused of relativism, but of becoming?

    maybe i am still a little confused about how it is that replacing nature with culture implies any kind of ‘becoming,’ or even what this would mean detached from (what i take to be its) hegelian origins. becoming implies something like teleology, but the idea that culture is something that makes us, rather than the other way around, does not have this implication.

    maybe a question: how does your notion of becoming interact with constructivist explanations of culture (which are, i think, themselves in general deeply indebted to pragmatism)?

  2. An interesting post, Andrew. There’s a lot of unpack. I share Eric’s question about the term “becoming.” As for the impact of pragmatism, I agree. But what about Franz Boas, who was the first to really study culture in terms of learned and malleable traits? Certainly, the field of anthropology, particularly as it was shaped post-Boas (with people like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead) did much to popularize the notion that what we might think is “natural” is actually cultural. This was also all happening within the context of massive immigration in this country. Even as nativism was virulent and ugly in the early 20th century, Americans were at the same time becoming more aware of cultural diversity and difference.
    As for the fact that leftist social movements were more effective in changing culture than they were politics – yes, absolutely. What I find interesting is how many Americans seems to accept cultural differences between groups of people, while still adhering to notions of natural rights in the political sphere. So there’s no cognitive dissonance — “culture” and “nature” are just separated into distinct spheres. I’m generalizing – but I’m thinking of modern liberalism and human rights discourse. Human rights discourse is, of course, based in understandings of universal and natural rights. At the same, liberals also want to accept and celebrate cultural difference, and for the most part, don’t really see a contradiction between accepting cultural difference while also believing in universal rights — except when they collide, as in issues like female circumcision.

    I might have taken your post in a different direction than you intended, but that’s what it got me thinking about.

  3. Dear Eric and Amy: Thanks for your very smart comments on my post. As for my eclectic (wrong?) use of the term or concept of “becoming,” I admit to a lack of precision, especially with regards to the standard or, as Eric calls it, “stereotypical” continental narrative. “Becoming,” as Hegelese, does indeed denote teleology. I guess I was intrigued to explore this notion further by Bloom, whom I’ll get to shortly, and the seemingly teleological use of culture as “becoming” by Van Deburg in his analysis of the Black Power movement. Just as Hegel asserted that “being” tends to become its opposite, “nothing,” and that both are united in the concept “becoming,” (the Hegelian dialectic) some of the Black Power thinkers (taking their cues from Fanon, who had his Hegelian moments, especially in “Black Skin, White Masks”) tended to theorize that their antithesis (Black nationalism) to the mainstream culture of “whitey” would allow the larger culture to “become” a synthesized, unified new culture. This, at least, is how Van Deburg thinks about the results of the Black Power movement–although he’s not so overtly theoretical in his explanation. (He’s also hyper-attentive to the psychological freedom black militancy offered, which again, has Fanon written all over it.)

    For Bloom, who is more important to my (mis)use of the concept of “becoming,” the standard, “stereotypical” continental narrative is worth exploding, because the very first move away from natural rights (Hobbes, Locke, or in Eric’s formulation, Newton) is the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope of relativism to nihilism. Thus, Hegel and Kant (and to some degree Rousseau) find their logical conclusion in Nietzsche, or more absurdly (for Bloom) in Foucault and Derrida (and their American counterparts, like Rorty, de Man, Judith Butler. I’m extrapolating a bit here–as Bloom ignored most recent cultural theory more generally). So, for Bloom, there was little difference between, say, Hegel, Marx, and even Dewey, in relation to their dismissal of natural rights, which are discovered, not created. I’m not saying he’s correct, but I was being playful with his ellipses in my post.

  4. Cont…

    As for the importance of anthropology, I think you are exactly right, Amy. Obviously, twentieth-century anthropology is of the same epistemological tree as pragmatism. And although someone like Louis Menard is quicker to point to the post-Civil War crisis of meaning for pragmatism’s context, and someone like James Livingston is quicker to point to capitalism and fictitious money as its context, certainly immigration and its effects were instrumental.

    Bloom mentioned Mead briefly, only to dismiss her and cultural relativism more generally as monstrously illogical. A few samples:

    “Historicism and cultural relativism actually are means to avoid testing our own prejudices and asking, for example, whether men are really equal or whether that opinion is merely a democratic prejudice” (40).

    “To live, to have any inner substance, a man must have values, must be committed… Therefore a cultural relativist must care for culture more than truth, and fight for culture while knowing it is not true” (202).

    “Cultural relativism, as opposed to relativism simply, teaches the need to believe while undermining belief” (203).

    “Everyone likes cultural relativism but wants to exempt what concerns him. The physicist wants to save his atoms; the historian, his events; the moralist, his values. But they are all equally relative. If there is an escape for one truth from the flux, then there is in principle no reason why many truths are not beyond it; and then the flux, becoming, change, history or what have you is not what is fundamental, but rather, being, the immutable principle of science and philosophy” (203).

    He even addressed this in relation to the split in liberalism between cultural relativism and human rights that you, Amy, rightfully point out: “When the critics of the US in the name of culture, and of the Ayatollah in the name of human rights, are the same persons, which they often are, they are persons who want to eat their cake and have it, too” (191).

    One of the things this paradox in liberalism highlights is the contradictions inherent in all philosophies as they enter the political realm. It also highlights the fact, as Rorty seemed to conclude later in his life–the Rorty who wrote “Achieving Our Country”–that political ideology and philosophical foundations need not be synched. Bloom would have shuddered at such a thought, of course.

  5. There’s so much here. I’ll just add a few points—mixing some of my particular historical work, my sense of students’ maturity (then and now), and my sense of culture as it relates to philosophy:

    First, Bloom’s view of intellectual history in relation to American students has annoyed me since my first reading. The quotes Andrew has put up have only intensified my annoyance with his sweeping, mixed sense of cultural currents. Anyway, in addition to Andrew’s point about pragmatism, Hutchins and Adler complained about student relativism in the late 1930s. The seminal article from Adler (from whom Hutchins took his intellectual cues) that holds their complaints is called “The Pre-War Generation” (Harper’s Magazine, Oct. 1940, pp. 524-534). Their gripes were better than Bloom’s in that they rooted student apathy, and relativism, in materialism (meaning students’ professional/vocational foci and desire for m-c comforts)—a still relevant complaint. It’s not about Nietzschean/continental philosophy so much as the notion that in America “becoming” is part of the point—aspiring to be more than what you are. Becoming is less the problem than ~what~ students, and youth in general, have in sight as their goal. It’s not that perception is reality. The problem, rather, is moving up to only an apparently “better” position. In addition, Adler and Hutchins sensed an apolitical attitude on the part of mid-century students.

    Per Amy’s comment, Bloom’s view is excessively pessimistic in light of what we know, for instance, about the pervasive, dynamic religious conservatism of the 80s. If there was, or has been, a closing of the American mind, it came more from righteousness and not relativism. It is not conceivable to Bloom that youth (or adults, depending on whom is target is in any one of his chapters) might hold together, in perhaps a naive way, a tension between pop culture relativism, or multiculturalism, and the lasting, more universal undercurrents of liberalism (i.e. human/natural rights) that coincided with students’ sense of permanent values, especially as buttressed by religion. It wasn’t so much that there wasn’t sense of permanence in the world, it’s that Bloom couldn’t conceive of that sense in relation to his desire for a certain structure—for intelligibility to him (esp. in relation to his students).

    Finally, as to lasting, general relevance of the philosophical notion of “culture as becoming,” I’d look to Arthur Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being. Therein he discusses the transition of the idea of being from a focus on gradation, hierarchy, optimism (all that we have is here), otherworldliness, and a transcendent God ~to~ an idea of being focused on plenitude, thisworldliness, becoming, and a God more firmly in the world. Let me quote to you from the end of Lovejoy’s tome (p. 325-326, Harvard paperback, 1936/1964, 22nd printing):

    “The originally complete and immutable Chain of Being [has] been converted into a Becoming, in which all genuine possibles are, indeed, destined to realization grade after grade, yet only through a vast, slow unfolding in time; but now God himself is placed in, or identified with, this Becoming. The World of Ideas which defines the range of diversity of possible existence has definitely been transformed into a realm of mere possibility awaiting actualization, empty and without value until it attains it. …The world-generating process starts not at the top but at the bottom.”

    I realize Lovejoy is covering more than you need, but he locates the philosophical switch to “becoming” in the Copernican revolution and Leibniz (and others). But Lovejoy found in this switch to becoming the stronger need for a sense of realism—and saw that science was enabled by a view of the world as becoming (in constant need of study, not mere categorizing).

    I’ll stop now. – TL

  6. there is indeed a great deal here.

    i think the crucial reference here in the anti-relativism issue is Leo Strauss. Bloom is a Straussian (although the meaning of this is less clear than it is sometimes said to be) is he not? from this perspective, indeed, the relativism of the anthropologists is absolutely of a piece with pragmatism, and *also* with Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Hitler (who isn’t himself a relativist, but is the consequence of relativism). Strauss’ “Natural Right and History” is a crucial text for this debate. incidentally, just to be a bomb-throwing anarchist here, Rorty is himself not without potential ties to Strauss (via his U Chicago education).

    this becomes interesting because, as certain intellectual historians continue to point out, it means that the culture wars of the US 1960s, 70s, and after, were fought in large measure with tools forged and tested in Wiemar Germany (and overdetermined by its collapse). and considerably rusted as they crossed the atlantic.

    i know that fred cooper has a very long chapter about how we should stop talking about ‘identity’ and rather should talk about ‘identification.’ this seems to me a reasonable point, and one that fits well with the processual aspects of ‘becoming.’

    as far as lovejoy, again from a european perspective: this is Bergson, and then Deleuze. when you think of the world as becoming with hegel, but put him back on his head, you get marx, and his aftermath. and when you attempt to strip becoming of teleology in the modern world, but still be materialist, you’ve got to begin with Spinoza’s plenitude, then you’ve got Bergson, and then, stripping Bergson of the spiritualism we can no longer stand, you’ve got Deleuze, becoming without end. but against all that, there is Strauss and a certain kind of conservatism. i recently attended a lecture in which Mark Lilla, who belongs in a sense to this same lineage, argued that we need to return to political theology, essentially to reground our political practice (since liberalism is relativist, and saps our will), for him the more proximate reference is Erich Voegelin—also, i should say, out of Wiemar.

  7. Thanks for your substantial comments Tim and Eric (again). I need to think about them before responding. But for now, Eric, could you give some citations for intellectual historians who compare/contrast Weimar with the US culture wars. Thanks.

  8. Wow! Lots going on here. Let me just make a quick comment on Bloom as Straussian….’cause I think it’s important here.

    One should not misread Bloom as celebrating the Enlightenment notion of natural rights that he sees as having deteriorated in the U.S. This sentence that Andrew quotes is important:

    This is the foundation of rights, a new kind of morality solidly grounded in self-interest.

    That may sound like praise. It isn’t. The novelty is what’s important. We’re already on a kind of slippery slope to nihilism, via a rehearsal of Leo Strauss’s narrative of the three stages of modernity, the language of which Bloom is largely borrowing. Even the solidity is illusory.

    On the very next page, this point is emphasized when, for the only time in the entire book, Bloom mentions his teacher by name:

    As Leo Strauss put it, the moderns “built on low and solid ground.”

    (Strauss says this on p. 247 of Natural Right and History where he puts the phrase “the low and solid ground” in quotation marks in the midst of a discussion of Locke, as if quoting from one of Locke’s two treatises on government….though so far as I can tell, these words are Strauss’s not Locke’s).

    This reading of Bloom is shared by Catherine and Michael Zuckert (also Strauss students, fwiw), in their useful, if rather partisan, guide to Strauss and his followers The Truth About Leo Strauss (p. 234):

    Bloom appears to be telling a tale of degeneration–from the good American origins to the bad present. . . .That impression is quite mistaken however–doubly so, in fact. The American origins, it turns out, were not good; and the present decline into “openness,” renamed by Bloom later in the book as “nihilism–American style,” is a direct and apparently inevitable development out of the deformative origins.

  9. On Rorty and Strauss:

    Rorty apparently studied with Strauss at Chicago. In an interview with Giancarlo Marchetti in the October/November 2003 issue of Philosophy Now, Rorty even cited Strauss as an early influence:

    Who in particular influenced you during your early studies?

    Various teachers at the University of Chicago: Leo Strauss, Charles Hartshorne, who was a student of Whitehead, Rudolph Carnap, quite a few different people.

  10. Thanks for chiming in Ben. I was hoping you would contribute, what with your knowledge of the Straussians. I guess you’ve left me confused, though. I realize Bloom didn’t “celebrate” the Enlightenment version of natural rights doctrine. He didn’t celebrate anything, really, except perhaps an idealized university where great minds can think, and serious students can discover themselves, apart from the pressures of the utilitarian society. And he was cagey in his rhetorical analyses of various forms of thought. He usually described theories from the inside, as if a member of that school, only to eventually move to the outside, as a critical demolisher of its failures. This is how he treated Nietzsche, to some degree. Although he loathed nihilism, especially its formless importation into the US, he seemed rather fond of Nietzsche for taking relativism further than the relativists, and for not blinking.

    That said, he never seemed to move outside the natural rights theorists. He never critiqued Hobbes, Locke, Smith, or the Founders for that matter. He seemed to think that, if there is to be democracy, natural rights is the only feasible epistemology to tame its wild and destructive impulses. Please correct me if I’m wrong, or point me to contradictory passages. As a Strauss student, it’s understood that Bloom evinced political elitism, or some anti-democratic tendencies. At the cultural level, he certainly believed that the only interesting works came from anti-democratic right-wingers of the European variant. And even at the political level, he understood aristocratic vestiges as important in its critical capacities vis-a-vis liberal democracy. But to the degree that he liked aristocratic politics, it was for its abilities to hone the reasoning of the liberals. He seemed rather content with classical liberalism in the form of natural rights.

    On the other hand, a conservative culture warrior who in fact loathed the Enlightenment, even of the founders, is Robert Bork. He wrote that the relativism of the identity-politics left was rooted in the Declaration of Independence. Now that’s honesty we’re not used to from our contemporary conservatives. Bork, of course, didn’t find his honest streak until after his failed confirmation to the Supreme Court.

  11. Some Bloom quotes supportive of natural rights.

    In contrasting classic liberalism with the modern liberalism of, say, Dewey: “Liberalism without natural rights… taught us that the only danger confronting us is being closed to the emergent, the new, the manifestations of progress. No attention had been paid to the fundamental principles or the moral virtues that inclined men to live according to them” (29).

    He discussed how natural rights were forged out of the ruins of the “pretended rights of strength, wealth, tradition, age and birth.” “Civil society was to be reconstructed on the natural ground of man’s common humanity”—freedom and equality (110).

    Here Bloom discussed the tensions inherent to liberalism, and how natural rights was an effort to solve these tensions (but which ultimately failed): “The tension between freedom and attachment, and attempts to achieve the impossible union of the two, are the permanent condition of man. But in modern political regimes, where rights precede duties, freedom definitely has primacy over community, family and even nature” (113). This is one of Bloom’s main problems. Freedom, in the sense provided by a modern rights regime, runs towards relativism and nihilism because ancient truths must be denied. Social contract theorists such as Locke and Hobbes understood this tension, and thus prioritized the necessity of non-political hierarchies, such as family, as a mediator between free individuals and their chosen leaders. But Bloom seemed to think freedom would inevitably conquer even these seemingly natural or pre-political constraints. “The spirit of this choice”—the choice of freedom over all constraints, even those Bloom deemed natural—“must inevitably penetrate into all the details of life” (113). Bloom used the example of sex in the context of the revolution in sexual relations. For him, sex could either be about the absolute freedom of individuals, or it could be about subordinating this freedom to a larger good, marriage and raising children. “It cannot be both. The direction in which we have been going is obvious” (113).

  12. Now to return to a few of Tim’s points: I think you are entirely correct that Bloom misdiagnoses the causes of student relativism, or what should more appropriately be called apathy in relation to philosophy, history, the humanities, serious thinking. They see a college degree as a hurdle, a stepping stone to a profession that will guarantee them material goods, economic security, etc. They do not see college as a chance to explore ancient wisdoms about good and evil. So his angry critique of the student protests of the 1960s that, to his mind, flattened out the college curriculum, ring hollow. Why isn’t he critical of the university for funneling its resources to the business, technical, and vocational schools that serve corporate America? This has long been the greatest threat to a liberal education, not black students wanting black studies. Adler and Hutchins were prescient on this point. And Hutchins is a hero for abolishing football at the University of Chicago.

  13. naturally, i overstate my case. it’s not exactly a comparison of the two contexts, but rather the observation that actual individual people moved from the one to the other. people developed political sensibilities and priorities in 1930s Europe, and which then took on a different meaning in the postwar US. one example is karl popper (full disclosure: my advisor wrote a biography of popper, most of this is his way of seeing things–although no doubt a bit polemicized). Strauss is another example of this generation of emigre intellectuals.

  14. Andrew, very interesting post and discussion. As to the original question on the intellectual history of the idea of culture as becoming: the roots of this seem like they definitely predate pragmatism and the anthropology of cultural relativism in the Anglo-American tradition. The central metaphor of “culture,” is, after all, a metaphor of growth and development, rather than one of abstract stasis. Key figures to look to, I would think, would include William Ellery Channing, whose Self Culture had a very wide readership, both in the U.S. and in Europe during a wide swath of the nineteenth century, as well as genteel-tradition liberals like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Charles Eliot Norton. The chapter on culture in Leslie Butler’s _Critical Americans_ provides a good overview of the progressive orientation of “culture” in this mode of thinking, even as it was combined with some of the rights-based political thinking of mid-19th century liberals. As much as Matthew Arnold’s conception of culture is seen as tradition-based and appears as a conservative force in many contemporary readings, reading _Culture and Anarchy_ reveals a conception of culture as the basis of personal growth and expansion in line with 19th century notions of progress and hierarchical unfolding of man’s higher potential. If “culture” is conservative glue against social disintegration, it also provides a means of becoming in line with general notions of progress. I would think a rereading of Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society would be very helpful in getting at elements of this lineage as they were developed in the nineteenth century. Very interesting to see where this is going.

  15. Although he loathed nihilism, especially its formless importation into the US, he seemed rather fond of Nietzsche for taking relativism further than the relativists, and for not blinking.

    I think this is exactly correct, Andrew. While Strauss if anything preferred the “softer” American version of late modernity to the harder European version of it, Bloom seems to prefer Nietzsche and Heidegger to their pale American echoes (if you’re gonna be listening to “Mack the Knife,” it ought to be sung by Lotte Lenya not Louis Armstrong (CAM, p. 151)).

    Both Strauss and Bloom see three waves of modernity, each apparently solving a series of political philosophical problems only to find their solutions create further, deeper problems (Wave 1: Macchiavelli, Hobbes, Locke; Wave 2: Rousseau; Wave 3: Nietzsche, Heidegger). Bloom had a tragic attachment to Waves 2 and 3 (Rousseau was a speciality of his, after all). America failed to get the tragedy, but has the nihilism nonetheless.

    He seemed to think that, if there is to be democracy, natural rights is the only feasible epistemology to tame its wild and destructive impulses.

    I guess I’d ask you to point me to the passages in Closing in which Bloom sings the praises of democracy in any sense. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but my sense is that democracy is the condition in which we find ourselves, not a desired outcome. “There is no intellectual ground remaining for any regime other than democracy,” Bloom notes on p. 330. And the crisis of democracy for Bloom is not so much a crisis of the many as a crisis of the few. How do we carve out a space for the noble in a democracy? Most importantly, how do potential philosophers become philosophers? This is, Bloom suggests, the task of the university….or at least it should be.

  16. As for those passages on natural rights, I think you’re seeing more praise than is actually on the page…..

    Yes he criticizes “liberalism without natural rights” on p. 29. But he’s already told us on p. 28 that “From the earliest beginnings of liberal thought there was a tendency in the direction of indiscriminate freedom.”

    Regarding the passage on p. 110: Bloom is pretty insistent that one cannot stop the story with the first wave of modernity. Note the tense: “Civil society was to be reconstructed on the natural ground of man’s common humanity.” That very paragraph ends with the statement that “The radical transformation of the relation between men and women and parents and children” –this is a real bugbear of Bloom’s–“was the inevitable consequence of the success of the new politics of consent.” That doesn’t sound like a defense of modern natural right to me! And a couple pages later, Bloom more specifically indicts the modern notion of nature: “In the social contract view, nature has nothing to say about relationships and rank order; in the older view, which is part and parcel of ancient political philosophy, nature is prescriptive” (p. 112).

    I agree with your reading of the passage on p. 113, which is (I think …. and I think you think) describing a slippery slope from the creation of modern political philosophy (with its modern natural right) to the destruction of sexual and familial virtues. Again, this doesn’t look to me like any sort of vindication of modern natural right.

  17. One more thing to add to this discussion of Bloom and (modern) natural right: there’s probably a good case to be made that Bloom intended many to (mis)read him as mounting a defense of first-wave liberalism with its commitment to universal natural rights. Bloom wants to construct a university to serve the philosophical few, but the people who will provide the social and material support for such an institution (and will provide most of its students) will overwhelmingly come from a much broader class of the socially prominent (the gentlemen, to use the Straussian term). The truly philosophical life, the only truly human life, is available only to a few. And society treats philosophers with great suspicion…and for good reason, as philosophers’ commitment to the truth and nothing but the truth puts them at odds with the necessary fictions of any society. This is the Straussian take on the trial of Socrates. For some of this in Closing, see Bloom’s discussion of philosophy on pp. 273ff.

    But as Bloom points out on p. 279, “The philosopher wants to know things as they are. He loves the truth. That is an intellectual virtue. He does not love to tell the truth. That is a moral virtue. Presumably he would prefer not to practice deception; but if it is a condition of his survival, he has no objection to it.” See also Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing.

  18. Thanks to Daniel for some 19th century perspective. I was thinking of re-reading Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, and your suggestion has convinced me it’s necessary.

    Thanks to Ben for helping me come to terms with Bloom and first-wave liberalism. Putting Bloom in a Straussian context has given me a lot to think about. If we take the text–The Closing of the American Mind–without this Straussian context, it does indeed seem as if Bloom was selling his reader on natural rights and the ideal of the founding. And in the context of the culture wars, as opposed to the context of Straussian intellectual history, this is important. Hmmm… So what was Bloom’s political ideal? Thanks!

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