Discover more from a fête worse than death
Sontag, men, a personal pet peeve
Hi, all. I’m mostly writing to report that two (I think?) of my pieces have come out since I last wrote. One, out today, is about a collection of Susan Sontag’s writings on women, which are excellent: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2023/05/25/women-susan-sontag-review/. The other, which was perversely enjoyable to write and which is much longer, is on Josh Hawley’s new book about “manhood,” masculinity and its long history of crises, and the whole genre of “how-to be a man” books. I really hope you’ll read it; I worked hard on it: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2023/05/18/manhood-josh-hawley-review/.
I’m also here to allow myself a short rant that wouldn’t really be long enough to constitute an actual piece or post in its own right, and which has to do with a bête noire of mine. I was most recently reminded of how much I detest the tendency in question when I happened upon an instance of it in a paper by the philosopher Hans Jonas (who might be much better elsewhere; I’ve only read this one distinctly annoying paper by him, so I have no idea), but the tic is ubiquitous in writing that purports to survey the sweep of western intellectual history (an ambition so vast and ill-formed that it is itself a red flag). The habit is this: people trace a multi-faceted social phenomenon, usually “modernity” or “liberalism” (in Jonas’s case, I believe it is something like “the modern condition”) to one thinker or one rarefied intellectual lineage, such as “Descartes” or “The Enlightenment” (in Jonas’s case, I believe it was something like “scientific rationality,” by which he seemed to mean just…“Descartes”). Generally, people who make this error use vague and obfuscatory words about the precise nature of the relation between the phenomenon and its supposed cause. They might say there is an “affinity” or a “connection” between the Descartes or Locke and “modernity,” or that the latter “flows” from the former, or that one is “linked” to the other. Or they might say (as I believe Jonas does) something like, “the modern condition is the logically necessary endpoint of Descartes’s cogito.” The reason they tend to say this sort of thing is because when you spell out the idea more concretely, it’s manifestly ridiculous. “Descartes did modernity” or “Descartes caused modernity” or “Descartes made modernity happen” is obviously a stupid thing to say. But they tend to want to sort of suggest, without actually saying, that there is a strong causal relationship between X and Y.
I find this kind of claim annoying because, clearly, it’s false: a multifaceted phenomenon like “modernity”—whatever that even is, for fuck’s sake—obviously has more than one cause, and it’s rather unlikely that Descartes is the largest one of them. It’s also the kind of thing that’s generally proclaimed in a grandiose and hubristic manner and without much in the way of evidentiary due diligence. It also tends to assume that history is implausibly linear and rational (as if it mattered what the “logical necessary consequence” of a worldview is, as if history were some person in a philosophy seminar working out what follows from the Cogito and then ensuring it comes about, for consistency’s sake). But worst of all, maybe, is that this kind of reasoning is so self-aggrandizing. Intellectuals so vastly overrate the efficacy and reach of their little projects. Most people in any given era—and generally, most powerful people in any given era—are not aware of or are aggressively indifferent to the internecine squabbling of said era’s intellengtsia. It’s far likelier, in fact, that the intellectuals are responding to or reflecting the tenure of the times than the reverse. Descartes probably did not cause modernity; modernity probably did cause Descartes.
Mind you, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do intellectual history or that it’s not important to work out what the logically necessary consequences of some view or some trend are. Not at all. I’m also not saying that there isn’t some interesting relationship between particular thinkers and massive historical developments they presaged or anticipated. I’m just saying, working out the implications of an idea or an intellectual tradition is one thing, and identifying the cause of a series of real-world political developments is another.
Of course, sometimes, ideas formulated by intellectuals in their little ivory towers do have consequences, sometimes even enormous ones, as in the case of Marxism. And this is a fine thing to point out or do actual history about. But then the onus is on the historian to explain what, exactly, the mechanism of transmission is. When I was discussing this with my reading group, one of the members had a vision with which I’ll leave you. Descartes, carrying an assault rifle, appears on the scene of a small rural town, shrieking “I AM HERE TO DISENCHANT THE WORLD! INDUSTRIALIZE, NOW! I AM NO LONGER ASKING!” Does this sound like a compelling account of how “modernity” came about to you?