U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Subjectivity Dilemma in 1970s Discourse: One Small Slice for Contemplation & Comment

The following guest post is by Drew Maciag, author of Edmund Burke in America.

I appreciate Andrew Hartman’s offer to post shortened versions of our recent S-USIH conference papers, and mine will have to be a slice of an abridgement.  My original paper was written as an exploratory draft of a proposed book section.  It offered some possible explanations for why the traumas Americans experienced between 1974 and 1980 resulted in debilitating malaise rather than in creative response.  My working hypothesis was that by the 1970s sufficient numbers of Americans had lost confidence in the intellectual pillars of modernity (science, professional expertise, objectivity, human reason, progress, the benefits of technology, the primacy of secular concerns in the public sphere, and other similar concepts), so that, in effect, society’s cognitive immune system had been compromised—rendering it incapable of adequately responding to unforeseen challenges.

During the course of my 1970s research I came across the writings of the sociologist Robert Nisbet (of UC-Berkeley, UC-Riverside, Columbia, and the American Enterprise Institute). Nisbet (1913-1996), a prolific author, was a traditionalist conservative who nonetheless expressed anxiety over the apparent end of modernization. Many of his observations aligned with those of other 1970s writers of diverse political persuasions.  Nisbet was distinctive, however, in placing contemporary trends into a very long-term perspective. While I remain agnostic regarding his “end-of-an-era” predictions as well as his cyclical theory of history, I find Nisbet’s observations (only some of which will surface here) to be interesting food for thought. They provide an intriguing starting point for exploring the intellectual miasma of the 70s, which was so intimately related to the popular malaise.

What follows is a simplified edition of only the Nisbet portions of my paper (one might call it “Subjectivity á la Nisbet”), plus a few general observations.  I welcome comments both as blog responses today and via email at your convenience.  Reach me at [email protected]Thanks!

In his 1975 book Twilight of Authority, Robert Nisbet argued that America’s declining faith in government was neither temporary nor exceptional.  He noted that all Western democracies suffered from the same political “crisis of legitimacy.”  His trans-national view ruled out the standard culprits of Vietnam and Watergate, which were unique to the United States.  Nisbet also refused to blame the crisis on global economic woes or oil shortages; instead he suggested that long-term historical trends were at play, and that the end of the modern era might be at hand.  Chief among the reasons for this condition was the “triumph of the subjective” point of view, which challenged the authority of post-Enlightenment objectivity and rationalism upon which scientific, commercial, and democratic society relied.

Nisbet’s book emerged from the same malaise as Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1979), but while Lasch seemed to describe a temporary “grand funk” (from which society might recover) Nisbet pronounced in more apocalyptic terms: the 1970s marked the beginning of a “new Reformation,” a great historical divide.  Unlike the 16th-century Reformation, which resulted in the rise of the national state and the “gradual retreat of the church, kinship, guild, and hereditary class,” the late-20th-century Reformation initiated the “retreat of the state as we have known this institution for five centuries, though what the consequences will be no one can be certain.”  Furthermore, political deterioration could not avoid becoming social and cultural deterioration, because: “What begins in the political sphere spreads easily to other areas of institutional life.” [1]

Nisbet’s particular take on subjectivity was deeply historical.  He quoted Goethe to the effect that: “Ages which are regressive and in process of dissolution are always subjective, whereas the trend in all progressive epochs is objective.”  And he tied the impending decline of the West to the much earlier decline of classical Greece: “Today, as then, the scene is filled with eruptions of the occult, the superstitious, and the antirational…and of generalized retreat into the subjective recesses of consciousness.  Salvation of the ego [displaces] concern with the human community.” [2]

Aside from highlighting contemporary subjectivity’s ancient parallels (the conversion of the declining Roman Empire to Christianity was another example), Nisbet’s devolutionary view of the situation was in line with a familiar saga of postmodernism’s diffusion from avant-garde circles to mass circulation: “The retreat to inner consciousness that began in literature at the very beginning of the [20th] century…has become a major phenomenon in the cultural setting of the present, and may be seen not only in literature and the fine arts, but in substantial areas of the social sciences, philosophy, and… in the wide range of popular therapeutic explorations of self.  This subjectivity would be less significant if it were not associated with what has become an enlarging distrust of reason and science.”[3]

In his History of the Idea of Progress (1980) Nisbet emphasized the failure of faith in reason to replace traditional religious faith as a vital, unifying cultural force.  “Just as religion has seriously waned,” he observed, “so have most of the systems of thought which for a time served intellectuals as surrogates.”  Consequently, “the same acids which weakened the fabric of religious belief in the late nineteenth century have remained on the scene long enough to weaken the fabrics of secular faiths.”  Stripped of its sacred spirit, respect for and confidence in knowledge could not survive—nor could progress: “The present age of revolt against reason, of crusading irrationalism, of the almost exponential development and diffusion of the occult, and the constant spread of narcissism and solipsism make evident enough how fallible were and are the secular foundations of modern thought.  It is inconceivable that faith in…progress…can exist for long…amid such alien and hostile intellectual forces.” [4]

Early in the 21st century, many of Nisbet’s predictions appear to have been validated.  Surely the Age of Reason has ended, respect for science has declined, and belief in progress has weakened.  Irrationality, subjectivity, and individualism have become more salient.  There is almost unanimous agreement among writers across the ideological spectrum that Americans have proven unwilling to abandon their transcendent impulses (whether conceived as religious, spiritual, sacred, mystical, or even therapeutic) for purely reasonable weltanschauungs.

To the extent that any period as brief as a decade can be identified as culturally pivotal—in this case as the moment when the relative influence of subjectivity began to ascend irreversibly—that time appears to have been the 1970s.  This can be most directly attributed to the after effects of the many “changes of consciousness” that were brought on by the “radical 1960s.”  Well-known examples include the counter-culture, feminism, environmentalism, the sexual revolution, black power, the anti-Vietnam War movement, various inclusivity and anti-foundationalist academic vogues, and a creeping spirit of iconoclasm and antiauthoritarianism. Yet trends that coalesced in the late-60s originated decades earlier, and modernity had always contained the seeds of its own destruction.

One need only read statements from Nisbet’s first book Quest for Community (1953), which instead of depicting a secure modernity complained that human progress may have been counter-productive in important respects: “Surely the outstanding characteristic of contemporary thought is the preoccupation with personal alienation and cultural disintegration…. At the present time there is in numerous areas of thought a profound reaction to the rationalist point of view. ” Tragically, “the modern release of the individual from traditional ties…has made him free; but…this freedom is not accompanied by the sense of creative release but by the sense of disenchantment and alienation.” [5]

Clearly Nisbet’s proto-malaise arrived before liberal reformism began to reassert itself after the Second Red Scare and also before the cultural avant-garde surfaced anew.  A clear disenchantment with rational thought had already appeared in the diverse contrapuntal commentaries and practices of the consensus era, which were not confined to rear-view warnings by conservatives like Nisbet.  I would suggest, for example, that both Existentialism and Zen served as high-profile examples of contra-rational alternative belief systems that became influential while high-modern rationality was still in full bloom. 

Since my research focus here is the 1970s rather than Robert Nisbet, I will not take issue with certain of his points that deserve debate but are not crucial to why I consider his insights to be useful.  I find myself agreeing with him about the increased privileging of subjective thought (and conversely, the decreased respect for objective rationality) since the 1970s.  I also find fascinating (and anxiety-inducing) Nisbet’s claim that the 1970s were a pivotal moment marking the end of a mostly (or at least arguably) progressive long-term era dating back to the Enlightenment or Reformation.  I may not be convinced; but I cannot dismiss the notion as implausible because I see no signs that American society is reversing its slide toward libertarian subjectivity (witness the recent rise of willful ignorance and truthiness).

Finally, I am aware of the benefits and drawbacks of studying a historical period that I personally lived through.  The main benefit is that I have an intimate familiarity with the events—and the feelings—of the times that can only come from having “been there.”  The major drawback is exactly the same thing.  That is, I can remember what I observed (including second hand, via the media) and how it made me feel: how it affected my own sensibility and world view.  I cannot know the extent to which my reality was typical or atypical of “the norm” or of the majority.  Hence it is difficult to discern exactly how my interpretations of 1970s texts are colored by my memories, or by my personal reactions to what has happened to American society since the 70s.  This is one good reason why I would like some feedback from blog readers of all ages and philosophical persuasions!  My 70s project is much broader than this post indicates, but for starters I’d like to stick with a discussion of the growth of subjectivity and (for lack of a better cliché) the possible “end of the Modern Era.”

Any takers?

[1] Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 6, 15.  In the interest of brevity, I will limit notes to citations of direct quotations.

[2] Nisbet, Twilight of Authority, 9, 139.

[3] Nisbet, Twilight of Authority, 140.

[4] Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 353, 355.

[5] Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 3, 7, 10.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Thanks so much for this post Drew. As you know I was there when the paper was first presented. It is good to read this expansion of the excerpt.

    Well you’ve got it completely right that “something happened”. Where others, like Nisbet, see this as mostly a bad thing, I am not as sure it is bad because it seem the subjective turn is itself part of the long term, centuries long democratic project, especially in its Romantic variety. And that to me has so much good in it. I am aware of fundamentalism, fanaticism, political extremism, economic greed and all of the rest of it. But the subjective turn may very well be a response to the limitations of older societies whether these marked by scientific consensus rationality or simply conservative religious communities or neighborhoods. People will draw different lessons and conclusions and moral evaluations of it of course. But the important thing, and this is where your work is so valuable is to chart the nature of the change in ways we as readers can clarify and think it through. Thanks.

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