Dear Friends in Spirit,
The basis of the Renaissance in humanism, rediscovered from Greek philosophy, is a thread that carried over into the modern period, flowering in the Belle Époque/Gilded Age of the late 19th century and early 20th. It survived the punctuations of western religious rivalries, with triumphant flowering of the science of psychology. The work of William James, so scrupulous and relevant in the study of mental life, has current application in the effort of Henry Stapp to bring the mind-body problem into the realm of physics. Stapp’s breakthrough (made plausible by Roger Penrose) is a synthesis of James and John von Neumann, permitting free will to exist in what naively appeared to be a deterministic world that formerly had no room for an efficacious consciousness. This is good news for humanists.
This recounting is not as historians or philosophers would tell it. It is a brief history of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, ignored in chronicles except as a curious artifact. It requires the concept of the group mind, mostly unexplored except as “crowd behavior.” Perhaps some future science will validate the notion that each of our minds unconsciously participates as a primitive element of a supra-mind – and perhaps more than one, simultaneously. But let’s not wait.
The intellectual warmth of the period, which continued until the 28th of July 1914, is remembered by such lights as Freud, Jung, Sartre ( a little later, but inheritor), Marx (the first sociologist, though a bad one), Engels, and many others. The ensemble was expression of a kind of intellectual hubris. Since man was the measure of all things, he could control of his destiny. Freud and Jung could cure the mind; Marx could systemically remake the man; Sartre gave the task to the individual. Cubism visually expressed the ability to reassemble and recreate the environment. Futurism combined visual art with philosophy of violent overtones. Of these, it was most prescient. Hard science, more resistant to hubris than philosophy, is not part of this discussion.
These thought processes were mostly extinguished in 1914. The elegance of Belle Époque thought has gently faded as flaws were found. Freud and Jung, discredited in medicine, survive mainly in literary tropes. Sartre became a mark of culture, not existence. James survives, yet few elaborate. But in the wake of the Great War, the same hubris gave rise to Fascism, philosophically the opposite and practically the twin of Marxism. In the downfall of the isms, with capitalism the current survivor, the hubris that gave rise to the great and flawed theories of social change gave way to skepticism enforced by scientific objectivity.
In the interwar periods, even without the prescriptions of great “isms”, governments still had problems. In the west, politicians were and are the fixit guys. For the most part, they do their work without a lot of philosophy. Some of the results have been quite impressive, such as the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, and the EU. And western societies continued to evolve in a manner significantly independent of governance, completely unanticipated by the isms, whose proponents seemed to have taken Spengler too seriously.
Karl Popper saw the devastation of the “isms”, and the success of the New Deal. The Open Society and Its Enemies, published in 1945, was his response, with a call to replace the “holistic change” embodied in the “isms” with “piecemeal change”, sparing the individual, and obviating the motive for the state to extend to societal domination.
To be continued shortly, on the limits of piecemeal change.