August 26th, 2013

Allan Bloom: on learning history and cultural relativism

I’ve just spent a fruitless hour trying to find the source from which I’d copied the following Allan Bloom quote some time ago. Somehow I’d lost the link, and now I can’t find it again.

But I thought I’d present the quote anyway because—like so much of Bloom’s oeuvre—it shows his uniquely facile mind and brilliant observations.

It was from an audio recording of a lecture that Bloom had given back in (to the best of my recollection, anyway) the mid-1980s. I had tried to transcribe it faithfully, complete with hesitations and idiosyncrasies and audience reaction. Bloom—whom I’ve written about before several times, mostly in the context of discussing his wonderful and highly-recommended book The Closing of the American Mind, was a professor of philosophy for most of his life. He was exceedingly familiar with the outlook of university students, primarily in America but also in Europe. Note that what he said back then describes trends that have only intensified since:

You know, we’ve all read history. Everybody, you know, world history, and weren’t all past ages maaaad? There were slaves, there were kings—I don’t think there’s a single student who reads the history of England and doesn’t say that that was crazy. You know “that’s wonderful, you gotta know history, and be open to things and so on,” but they’re not open to those things because they know that that was crazy. I mean, the latest transformation of history is as a history of the enslavement of women, which means to say that it was all crazy—up till now.

Our historical knowledge is really a history which praises, ends up praising, ourselves—how much wiser [voice drips with sarcasm] we are, how we have seen through the errors of the past…Hegel already knew this danger of history, of the historical human being, when he said that every German gymnasium professor teaches that Alexander the Great conquered the world because he had a pathological love of power. And the proof that the teacher does not have a pathological love of power is that he has not conquered the world. [laughter] We have set up standards of normalcy while speaking of cultural relativism, but there is no question that we think we understand what cultures are, and what kind of mistakes they make.

Bloom was not a cultural relativist; he believed it was a pernicious influence that had taken over American education. Time has proven him correct, has it not?

22 Responses to “Allan Bloom: on learning history and cultural relativism”

  1. Sam L. Says:

    Yea, Verily!

  2. Mead Says:

    One of the most surprising things I’ve discovered as a teacher is the extent to which “presentism” has a hold on the minds even of intelligent students. It’s very hard for people to accept that we — our generation, our age, our individual selves — almost certainly believe things that future eras will find ridiculous and see as unproblematic behaviors that future eras will find monstrous. Early in my teaching career, I once made this point rather casually — more as a reminder than as an insightful observation — and it was like I had sprayed the class with a fire hose.

    If history is just about us sitting in our privileged perch and judging other times and places as inferior, then it’s just an exercise in narcissism. Ultimately, I think, the point of history is to allow us to find other human perspectives from which to judge the present.

    I think Bloom makes a very shrewd point at the end of that quotation: the modern academy doesn’t really deal in cultural relativism: genuine relativism would deprive us of our sense of specialness and oblige us to take other cultures seriously on their own terms. What actually pervades the academy is a form of shallow bigotry *disguised* as cultural relativism.

  3. sdferr Says:

    The first few sentences from Bloom’s essay Commerce and “Culture”, under the subhead “The Fate of Books in Our Time”, in the collected essays of his book Giants and Dwarfs [Simon and Schuster, 1990]:

    We all know with some degree of precision what commerce is, while I, at least, have no understanding of what “culture” is, and it is a word I never use. “Culture” somehow refers to the “higher” things, to “spirituality,” and shares the vagueness and contentlessness of those terms. It belongs in the family of other amorphous notions like “genius,” “personality,” “intellectual,” and “creativity,” all of which were invented with a noble, if flawed, intention and have inevitably been debased over the two centuries of their currency. This abstraction, “culture,” is now used to supplant the instinctive concern with county, putting in its place a factitious loyalty and fostering a dangerous insensitivity to real politics. In the communist countries there are “culture” commissars who weave the floral overlay for the tyrannies that were supposed to produce the higher “culture.” In the liberal democracies, aside from the sociologists who entertain us with descriptions of drug and rock “cultures,” among others, we have a “culture” establishment which has ever less learning of inspiration and a large part of which performs the function of persuading us that the Marxist critique of crass commercialism has no relation to Stalinism, and that we can sill expect dialectical materialism to eventuate in the realm of freedom and the full development of personality.

  4. M J R Says:

    I’m reminded of a conversation from back in the late 1980s, between me and a fellow analyst. The fellow analyst had innocuously remarked something having to do with being open-minded to ideas that just may be outside the normal stream of human thought (or something to that effect).

    I enthusiastically agreed, and I offered an example: that *non*-nutty people have, in fact, described experiences having to do with ghosts and spooks/spirits [I think I’d just watched something on tee vee in that arena].

    NOTE — I have *never* seen or experienced such, but I am (gasp) open to such phenomena that (can’t help it) do defy conventional scientific explanation and are occasionally described by non-nutty people. Another example might have been UFOs; maybe I should have offered up that one to begin with. But then I might not be able to report on the incident:

    I was surprised at how *instantly* fellow analyst totally switched modes, quantum-leaping from being open-minded to being a card-carrying, paid-up member of that “normal stream of human thought”. He came back with, “Oh sure, [M J R], ghosts and spooks, riiiight” (or something to *that* effect), and even offered a very similar additional rejoinder for emphasis — as if to clinch the idea that certainly *he* had his normal-stream membership card right there in his wallet, was proud of it, and would defend it to the death if necessary.

    Okay, so I’m exaggerating. But just a little!

    Different intellectual boundaries for different thinkers, I suppose. But the guy was, and I’m sure still is, absolutely, utterly, immoveably sure he’s one of the *truly* open-minded.

  5. Richard Aubrey Says:

    M J R
    You’re supposed to be open-minded about the good things. Other things…not so much.

    Said it before, one place or another. If cultural relativism vis a vis other cultures today is legitimate, so is cultural relativism vis a vis earlier cultures.
    And if we can’t judge earlier cultures, neither can we judge current cultures.
    IMO, judge the hell out of the lot of them.

  6. SteveH Says:

    It’s all an out of control, full of shit narcissism. One of my favorites is the astonished weather channel spokesman declaring arctic ice is at a lower level than in all recorded history.

    Which maybe covers .00000000000019 % of arctic ice actual history. But it’s only the history during his lifetime that matters.

  7. Don Says:

    M J R,

    My dad was a very intelligent man who believed in ghosts. He had a number of ghost stories. He was a gold prospector, and one of his partners and close friends did not believe my dad’s stories until he experienced some of it himself.

    I experienced some of it as well. Knocking on the door at night, and no one there . . . Unlike my dad, I don’t jump to the “ghost” conclusion, but I can’t rule it out either.

  8. Don Says:

    Back in college in the 80s, one of my professor’s pointed out that people from the old days were more individualistic then those of the present. Many students objected. But I could see both viewpoints: the 80s had things like punk rock and pink hair, but in many respects old timers were realy more individualistic.

    Growing up in a small town I knew a number of old timers. They were characters for sure. They grew up prior to TV, and consequently learned “propers social behaviour” from family and friends.

  9. Mr. Frank Says:

    I find the history of the U.S. humbling. Crossing the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the Great Basin often by foot where there is little water and little shade takes really tough people. Starting the transcontinental railroad in the midst of a Civil War took real fortitude. Our founding fathers were some of the greatest people who ever lived, anywhere.

    Too bad the left is aggressively pissing away what greatness remains.

  10. Mike Says:

    Bloom nailed it.

  11. Michael Rittenhouse Says:

    Kings? We got ’em. What else should we call North Korea’s latest Kim, or Syria’s newest Assad?

    They’re dynasties with a phony veneer of democratic legitimacy. Shame that our media’s obsessed with the notion of calling them what they want to be called, instead of what they are, or we’d have a lot more clarity in the public sphere.

  12. John Says:

    The novelist Michael Crichton gave a presentation at Cal Tech about psychic phenomena in which he reminded the scientists in attendance that in the not too distant past, phrenology was a science, and concept of continental drift was lunacy. Crichton did not attempt to prove psychic phenomena existed, just that it should not be dismissed because it may be a case of it not being understood yet. It can be found at the end of Travels. By the way, Crichton was not only a novelist and director, but had an MD from Harvard medical and lectured in anthropology at Cambridge. Makes you want to slap him around, doesn’t it?

  13. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Ah, ‘presentism’ – one of the subtle pitfalls for a scribbler of historical fiction. I try very, very hard to avoid writing characters of the 19th century have attitudes from the late 20th. Sometimes it is a bit liberating for me to kick certain attitudes in the shins, though. In the current book, set in 1875-77 (which will be out in November) I have a very daring lady who smokes cigarettes. I have her remark that it is a very soothing habit and doctors recommend it for the lungs. And I have written rather freely of how – and why – Texans of that time hated and feared Comanche Indians.
    I agree with Mr. Frank, too – about the frontiersmen who dared venture into the far west in the 19th century. It was a marvelous, optimistic and confident time – and that is why I love writing about it. And I also hope to educate readers, too.

  14. Richard Aubrey Says:

    The first part of Clarke’s “Profiles of The Future” is devoted to absolutely unqualified scientific assertions and others which have proven to be absurd.
    Making absolutely unqualifed assertions is likely to end you up–presuming you’re sufficiently prominent–in the next iteration of Clarke’s work.

  15. Yancey Ward Says:

    I am not sure quite what you call it, but I don’t think “presentism” really fits. We seem to have more ignorance of our ignorance.

  16. Ymarsakar Says:

    He came back with, “Oh sure, [M J R], ghosts and spooks, riiiight” (or something to *that* effect)

    That reminds me that chi was named by the Ancient Chinese because they could never see it, only see what it did to things in the physical universe or feel it with their bodies.

    This was very similar to Western perspectives on electricity and electro-magnetism. The last one was named a “field force” because all they could see was the consequence of the force, the wind, on a field of wheat. They couldn’t see the wind or special force itself. So it was an invisible “field”. To most people, even the individual maverick scientists experimenting with this power, it might as well have been witchcraft and divine miracles. Something you cannot see, but can only feel and witness its consequences? Isn’t that like a miracle.

    Science masters eventually postulated that magick is merely a sufficiently advanced science that cannot be yet understood. Western civilization has benefited greatly from lone mavericks that researched subjects that previous civilizations might have considered magick or witchcraft. A decline automatically means that much of what was once science, will be turned into a religious dogma that nobody will understand fully.

    Magick was originally any knowledge, ancient wisdom, or method that was forbidden by the ruling elites and society at large. It was forbidden primarily to keep it out of the reach of the common masses for one reason or another.

    Going back far enough, even reading and writing was considered a forbidden magickal art.

  17. View From The UK Says:

    As an Englishman I view my past as vastly superior to my present, I only have to walk out of my door to reach that conclusion.

    I would invite any American student who views our monarchs with disdain to join me on a weekend visit to our stately homes and castles that litter this land to give them a taste of a more glorious past.

    Following a good tea and scones I’d read them several jolly good passages from “The Republic” (Plato), take them to a Shakespeare play and put them on a plane home.

  18. Ymarsakar Says:

    Americans have some nostalgia for the past, but given the country was created from exiles and frontier conquerors, American patriotism is centered more around “we can build whatever we need, anywhere” vs European patriotism centered around standing on the ruins of the great civilizations and empires.

  19. Wolla Dalbo Says:

    I believe that the world if likely far stranger than we would like to believe, and that there are all sorts of things roaming around “out there” in the darkness, outside of the circle of light provided by the comforting camp fire.

    Looking at the evidence for UFO’s as being real, tangible objects, especially several of the well-documented sightings on or around U.S. and UK military installations, involving multiple trained observers as witnesses and simultaneous visual sightings and radar confirmations, and particularly in view of the strenuous efforts made by our government–starting with the 1947 Roswell incident (take a look at the wording and details comprising the initial official Army Air Force 1947 press release, and then look at the government generated dog and pony show–the “weather balloon” newspaper story the next day or two after—pictures included–that tried to “walk back” the original announcement, and what it had said) and spread out over the next several decades up until the present–to “debunk” UFO sightings, the idea that UFOs exist, and are of extraterrestrial origin, I’d say there is something there.

    Moreover, the recent almost weekly discoveries adding to a lengthening list of close star systems that have planets, leading to some of the recently revised estimates that our galaxy contains perhaps millions of potentially habitable planets, makes the likelihood of extraterrestrial visitors a lot more plausible.

  20. David Metis Says:

    I was honored to study under two of Bloom’s classmates, themselves both students of Strauss. Bloom had the knack for giving the at-times esoteric and rareified critiques of modernity – and, eventually, post-modernity, whatever that is, or was, or will be – a certain immediacy. You needn’t have steeped yourself in Heidegger to understand his point.

  21. Steve Skubinna Says:

    I love reading history, kings and slaves and all. It reinforces my belief that we’re the same people who walked the planet a thousand or two years ago. We just have different assumptions.

    I think for the most part the assumptions are better – the fact that slavery, for example, is looked on with nearly universal revulsion is a prime example. Two centuries ago it was widely accepted as an inevitable, even proper condition for some people.

    Reading history also reinforces a solid belief of mine: we are one generation away from barbarism and savagery. Children must be taught to be decent and honorable, it is not, Rousseau notwithstanding, the natural condition of mankind.

  22. Warning about Presentism | Insomniac memos Says:

    […] quotation from Allan Bloom on our poor historical sensitivity. It’s hard to break free from our present sensibilities (even from my mature sensibilities […]

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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