Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, January 3, 2014


Cassirer's criticism is not confined to preserving the ideal of a lively interaction between a multitude of cultural forms as expressions of human freedom-- the implicit guiding ethos of the cultural criticism unfolded in his philsophy of symbolic forms-- rather, his suspicion is directed more generally at the dismantling of cultural complexity.-- Enno Rudolph, SYMBOLIC FORMS AND CULTURAL STUDIES.

The "problem" I address in the above title is not intrinsic, but extrinsic.  Pluralism's problem is that it continually insists on the "cultural complexity" of which Rudolph speaks. But Edward Skidelsky's history of Cassirer, "the last philsopher of culture," illustrates again and again the fact that even many of those who claim to desire complexity resolve those issues in terms of simplistic "good vs. bad" rhetoric. I've recently critiqued this tendency in the fulminations of Alan Moore, here and here, but in Moore such crankiness is par for the course. It's rather disheartening, though, to realize that current philosophy has marginalized the contributions of Cassirer for similarly vacuous reasons.

In this early essay I celebrated Cassirer's ambitious task-- one I've endeavored to emulate-- of uniting the worlds that German idealism termed "the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften," the natural sciences and the cultural sciences.  Though this task would probably by definition be open-ended-- a "never-ending battle," as it were-- the ideal seems anything but old-fashioned in my eyes.

In chapter 2 of ERNST CASSIRER, Skidelsky offers his take on the reason why Cassirer-- a German Jew who sought to reconcile the "two sciences"-- came to seem out of date to the thinkers of the early twentieth century.

The First World War brought an end to that era [of Cassirer's "Marburg school"], and with it the philosophy of neo-Kantianism.  [Herman] Cohen died in 1918.  The various social and intellectual forces he had striven to keep together rapidly came apart.  Socialists revolted against liberals, liberals turned their guns on socialists.  Anti-Semitism spread; young Jews lost faith in assimilation and turned increasingly to Zionism or international Marxism.  The intellectual world suffered the same polarization. The two cultures fell irretrievably apart; the Naturwissenschaften were given over to a reinvigorated positivism, while the Geisteswissenschaften shaded increasingly into political mysticism. Under these new conditions, the Marburg school disappeared almost without a trace.

Possibly Skideksky allows the "almost" in deference to his subject.  While the author's brief historical synopsis may be overly simple, he makes the devastating point that the very movement that sought reconciliation and synthesis was the mutual target for both positivism and mysticism.

If the logical positivists criticized neo-Kantianism for its residual idealism, many on the other side of the philosophical divide condemned it for its crypto-positivism.

Skidelsky does show that there may have been some genuine problematical positions expoused by the Marburg school.  However, these over-reactions from opposing sides of "the divide" suggest to me nothing so much as a pair of brawlers trying to fight one another no matter what-- brawlers who are quite willing to turn on anyone who tries to make peace.

Given my history as a comics-critic, it's natural that I should make comparisons between the "two cultures" of comics-fandom. Any parallels must be limited, though.  It's true that partisans of 'artcomics" often expouse critical positions suggestive of either positivism or, at the least, anti-idealism. Populist adherents of "the mainstream," however, hardly line up well with the "political mysticism" that led to Nazi Germany, despite the exaggerated rhetotic of Frederic Wertham and his apologists.  At the most one might say that mainstream defenders tend to see the idealization offered by fictional characters-- including, but not limited to, that old bugaboo the superhero-- as an "essence" to be enjoyed in itself, as opposed to being something reducible to some sociopolitical trope.

Further, the gains of positivism and what I call "ratiocentrism" in modern culture have caused many critics on opposing sides to use much the same terminology.  Thus Noah Berlatsky and Julian Darius may be total opposites in terms of the comics upon which each of them chooses to write.  But they end up using the same logical apparatus to sneer at sexy pictures.

This essay, I suppose, is a bit of a downer for my first essay of this year.  I should be clear that I'm not stating that I think pluralist criticism has been marginalized in the same way Skidelsky claims that neo-Kantianism has been.  This would hardly be the case since I've expressed some doubts about other aspects of Skidelsky's analysis of his subject.  Nevertheless, he offers a useful warning about how extremists can deliberately misrepresent the arguments of others-- especially of those offering a synthesis between extremes-- and with that warning in mind, one can view just how long the road ahead will be.

No comments: