A Defense (Sort of) of Allan Bloom Against the Calumnies of Tyler Cowen

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Austin Bramwell

I am a freelance opinion-monger living in New York City.

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  1. Avatar Jason Kuznicki
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    Several thoughts, but do keep in mind that I have not read either Nordau or the Cowen book you discuss.

    First, I’m not sure that it would even be such a telling critique of Bloom if he had been influenced by Nordau. Why not just re-evaluate Nordau for the better (much as you’re doing in the above)? Great minds identify their own, and often the reputation of an obscure scholar rises when a notable adopts his ideas.

    Second, you may just be right to lump Bloom in with the 19th-century nihilists and be done with them all. While important in the history of philosophy (and very fun to read) I think Nietzsche is somewhat of a dead end.

    Third, I’ve always thought that while the social contract as history is bunk — a point first made by David Hume — the social contract as a standard of fairness is very solid. “Is this action by the state consistent with something that we would agree to, under the hypothetical social contract?” Now that’s an interesting question — and also a point first made by Hume.

    In any event, Degenerations (or Degeneration, as wiki has it) would appear to be in the public domain. Is there also a public domain English translation that’s electronically available? I might want to do a reprint of it. One of his other books, The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization, sounds delicious too.Report

    • Avatar Austin Bramwell in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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      @Jason Kuznicki, Thanks Jason. From what I can tell, the English translations of Degenerations are all very old. The translation I read yesterday in the NY Public Library was published in 1906, I think. I really do recommend it though – it was terrific.

      On the first point, someone named Howard Bloom wrote a book called The Lucifer Principle which similarly links Nordau and Bloom (though not as explicitly) as two silly moral scolds. That’s sad. As I argued, I’d say that Nordau actually has more in common with today’s liberal cultural optimists. He definitely deserves a postive reassessment, it seems, and I look forward to reading more of his work.

      On the second point, I would never have the guts to dismiss Nietzsche as swiftly as Nordau does. No question that Nietzsche deserves his reputation as a philosophical genius. Still, it is very interesting to read an intelligent contemporary who thinks Nietzsche was being overrated.

      I certain agree the the modern revival of social contract theory (Rawls and so forth) as a useful set of thought experiments has much to be said for it. The Claremonsters, however, if I understand them correctly, believe that the America literally founded on a Lockean social contract.Report

  2. Avatar Austin Bramwell
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    Further speculation on intellectual influences: Nordau thinks Nietzsche’s claim to be an individualist is spurious. So, Nietzsche, in Nordau’s view, is an enemy of reason and a false individualist. Sounds to me a lot like Ayn Rand, who clearly had an early infatuation with Nietzsche, but later turned violently against him. Did Nordau influence Rand’s views on Nietzsche? Who knows, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.Report

  3. Avatar Imaginary Lawyer
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    Interesting. I lost interest in anything Bloom had to say after his rhapsodic essay praising date rape, but it does seem rather unfair to call him a plagiarist.Report

    • Avatar Gorgias in reply to Imaginary Lawyer
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      @Imaginary Lawyer,

      Do you remember the name of the article? I’m interested in reading it, and I’ve been attempting to google search for it, but to no avail for now.Report

    • Avatar Austin Bramwell in reply to Imaginary Lawyer
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      @Imaginary Lawyer, This doesn’t sound like something Bloom would have writtten — or else this description is a serious distortion of something Bloom actually wrote.Report

      • Avatar Gorgias in reply to Austin Bramwell
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        @Austin Bramwell,

        My google fu did turn up this quotation from Bloom, in a speech by another author:

        “What used to be understood as modes of courtship are now seen as modes of male intimidation.”

        http://www.aei.org/speech/17965

        The context is in a speech lamenting how previously ordinary facets of heterosexual life have been defined as deviant… one manifestation of which is acknowledging that date rape is problematic.Report

        • Avatar Austin Bramwell in reply to Gorgias
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          @Gorgias, Thanks. Krauthammer’s point is not that date rape is okay, but that the incidence was exaggerated. Personally, I do think conservatives in the 80s and 90s should have been more sensitive to a general problem — namely, that the sexual revolution lead to a spike in male misbehavior which made life considerably worse for women. Watch movies from the late 70s or early 80s (Hot Dog, the Movie, for example), and it is just stunning how badly women are treated. The feminist reaction was on balance a good thing.
          Still, that’s very different from saying that Bloom or Krauthammer are condoning date rape.Report

          • Avatar Gorgias in reply to Austin Bramwell
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            @Austin Bramwell,

            Again, I can’t speak for Bloom, but Krauthammer’s point wasn’t that date rape was overreported, but that our statistics on rape are inaccurate because it is improper to categorize date rape as such.

            “we start with a real offense: rape. It used to be understood as involving the use of or threat of force. No longer. It has now been expanded by the concept of date rape to encompass an enormous continent of behavior that had long been viewed as normal or, at worst, ambiguous, but certainly not criminal.”

            It’s not reading between the lines to conclude that Krauthammer views much of what would be classified as date rape as normative heterosexual dating behavior. The Bloom quote only reinforces it.

            As for the sideswipe at the sexual revolution, I find Krauthammer’s thesis fairly convincing. Increased scrutiny of sexual behavior was not due to the sexual revolution but because women were increasingly likely to define behaviors that were once normal as problematic. The sexual revolution did not increase genuine sexual misconduct so much as lower our tolerance for such things.Report

  4. Avatar Leo Wong
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    I have not read Degeneration, but I do know and recommend Bernard Shaw’s classic critique of it in The Sanity of Art: An Exposure of the Current Nonsense about Artists being Degenerate (1895, 1908). Those with less time might read Barzun’s paragraph on Degeneration in From Dawn to Decadence, p. 618.Report

  5. Avatar Simon K
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    I remember having a paradoxical reaction to Allan Bloom – I think much of the “degeneracy” he decries is nothing of the sort, so I find the social developments he’s so scornful of quite attractive, on the other hand I think his general thesis that somehow modern culture is a result of German teachers of the humanities teaching too much Nietzsche to be obvious nonsense, regardless of what you think of Nietzsche (also nonsense ..)Report

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