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February 2012 Policy Study, Number 12-3


The Idea of "the West" and the Revolt Against It

by Donald Paul Byron Racheter



Reason and Art



Pangle draws our attention to the civic implications of an account of reason that excludes the possibility of knowledge of the human condition. Pangle says in chapter three, “Weak Thinking,” that the postmodern movement tries to appropriate many of Heidegger’s basic conceptions of thought, language, and existence, which reject Western rationality, while transforming these conceptions so as to substitute for Heidegger’s anguish from his depth of recognition of the implications of Enlightenment rationality to the condition of man and for Heidegger’s belief in the sincerity of “value” conflict.[54] Pangle says what is aimed at is what Lyotard has christened “la sveltesse”: the exhilaration of a discordant diversity or “difference” metamorphic enough to prevent the rootedness that engenders serious conflict but simultaneously strong and purposeful enough to “contaminate” and subvert the hegemony of rationalist, technologically regimented existence as supported through Western rationalism.[55]


Pangle says the postmodernists disagree upon the degree to which a just or nonexploitative authentic version of a postmodern culture stands from liberal bourgeois society as we now know it. He recounts the thought of Lyotard and Vattimo. Pangle says Lyotard’s moral indignation towards contemporary “capitalist” existence blinds Lyotard to political philosophy. Pangle says:


[Lyotard’s] tirades against the hegemonic character of rationalism in general, and of Socratism in particular, as presented in Plato’s dialogues, provide him with the perfect excuse for indulging apparently redemptive moral or even religious feelings without having to expose those feelings, and the opinions they generate and are generated out of, to the sustained acid test of Socratic questioning. Lyotard thus avoids the initially painful process of Socratic self-purgation and cuts himself off from the serene, consuming pleasure of Socratic self-knowledge and self-liberation.[56]


Pangle notes that Lyotard stands apart from all other postmodernists in the degree to which Lyotard expresses some strong moral passion for justice and liberation. Pangle says Lyotard furthermore stands on the brink of Socratic self-discovery, in that he seriously wrestles with the Socratic challenge, above all, of Plato’s Gorgias. Pangle says Lyotard cannot leave behind uncertainty regarding the collapse of the fundamental distinction between rhetoric and dialectic.[57] Pangle says Lyotard is aware that the “Platonic discourse that inaugurates science is not scientific, precisely to the extent that it attempts to legitimate science.”[58] Without recourse to the sort of argumentation found in the dialogues, Plato’s scientific knowledge “would be in the position of presupposing its own validity and stooping to what it condemns: begging the question, proceeding on prejudice.”[59]


Pangle says Lyotard cannot discern how Plato can be thought to have succeeded in his most fundamental enterprise, because Lyotard fails to distinguish clearly the truly dialectical aspects from what Lyotard calls the “narrative” or “poetic” aspects of the Platonic dialogues. This failure Pangle says is understandable due to Plato’s artful interplay of the “narrative” and “dialectic” which superficially obscures the latter. But Pangle says Lyotard’s reading of the dialogues remains a failure to follow meticulously the guidance Plato offers in the Phaedrus as well as the Gorgias to the interpretation of Plato’s written words.[60]


Pangle says Lyotard above all has failed to see the extent to which what he correctly calls the “legitimation of science,” in Plato, stands or falls with a relentless dialectical cross-examination of our opinions as to the just. Pangle says Lyotard has failed to see that political philosophy in the Socratic, not the Enlightenment, sense, is the first and fundamental philosophy. Pangle says Lyotard’s failure is finally traceable to the fact that Lyotard and his mentor Heidegger appear to have no experience of such Socratic political philosophizing. Pangle suggests a painstaking attention to the surface of the Gorgias might have helped Lyotard to begin to find his way to this Socratic heart of things.[61] If what Pangle says is correct, and the proper understanding of Plato is fundamentally political in operation, revision may be required of the view made popular by Schleiermacher which defines Platonic studies through the Timaeus.


Pangle next evaluates the writings of Gianni Vattimo to illustrate more recent connections of Nietzsche and Heidegger to postmodern thought. Pangle emphasizes the placid nature of this version of Heidegger. Pangle says where Lyotard still looks to the “intensification of life” through art, Vattimo accepts the “death, or better put, the decline … of art.”[62] We should view art not as dying, but as in decline. Heidegger reveals to us the Western tradition based on reason is rooted in a self-destructive falsehood. Decline then, is a merely relative notion that serves as a kind of orientation. Pangle says we discover in this decline a new, “weak” meaning of the aesthetic, and through the aesthetic, of Being itself. Vattimo promotes “il pensiero debole” translated “weak thinking.” We must give up all pretension to see more than we can to be more than we are. Pangle says we see negatively the vicious residue of rationalism, monotheism, and metaphysics. Positively we see very little. Our eyes are “weak” and do not see “beauty” or “nobility.”[63] In Vattimo, these notions are only historical relics, and to claim otherwise is inauthentic. This, for Vattimo, however, is the result of maturation. Whereas previous “strong” eyes looked for notions of justice which now are seen as nonexistent, our new “weak” eyes see what “strong” eyes could not. Weak eyes see the weakness of Being. Pangle says for our time, to be is to “oscillate” in fluid indeterminacy.[64]



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