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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



Moral and Political Choices



Pangle challenges this fluid interpretation of Heidegger by asking what precisely and concretely this means for civic life. He says the “weak thinkers” refuse Heidegger’s invitation to join in Heidegger’s longing for cultural revolution, and yet they accept Heidegger’s overthrow of pre-Heideggerian philosophy, religion, and art. Pangle asks if Heidegger’s critique can be so easily accepted while rejecting the momentum of that critique. Pangle says the “weak thinkers” remain morally committed to a vaguely anarchistic democratism, while simultaneously warning us of the exclusive tendencies of moral dogmatism, of the danger that standards can lead to oppressive hierarchies, of the ease with which devotion to causes, even beautiful causes, can obfuscate the elemental fellowship of human beings qua human beings.[65]


Pangle notes these warnings are necessary, especially when applied to late Enlightenment thinking. Pangle says these warnings are particularly apt when applied to the totalitarian temptations rooted in left-wing Hegelianism and in Marx, in the scientism and neo-Darwinism that have marked and marred American philosophy, and when applied to Jurgen Habermas’s so-called “emancipatory” theory of “communicative action.”[66] Pangle asks if the warnings of the “weak thinkers” are not more properly directed against modern antirationalism than against the older forms of rationalism, pointing to modern antirationalism’s results in Nazism.


Pangle says the more immediate danger found in postmodern thought, from Vattimo and Lyotard on the continent to Paul De Man and Richard Rorty in America, is the open boasting of “weakness” of thinking. Pangle

asks of this weakness:


In celebrating their incapacity and inclination to seek grounds for life’s most necessary moral and political choices, do the postmodernists not license escape from those choices, or from responsibility for thinking them through? In stressing the “oscillation” of all thought, do they not inadvertently cultivate a climate of moral vacillation? Is the unintended consequence not a tendency to flatter whatever now exists, and to serve whatever academic, cultural, and political powers there be?[67]


If this is true, it is hard to see how education continues in the postmodern conception. The postmodern account of education boldly promotes subversion of traditional Western authority found in reason. Pangle says this subversion begins from the dogmatic denial of the very possibility of cross-cultural or transhistorical dialogue, and culminates in the explicit rejection of any traditional conception of humanity.[68] Pangle says this posture towards education will hardly cultivate students of passionate concern for deciphering what can be learned from a text or work of art. Rather, Pangle says what will be cultivated is indeed a pensiero debole, or weak thinking, characterized by a superficial sense of satisfaction which masks a fundamental emptiness of the spirit.[69]


Examination of Lyotard’s political goal reveals more weakness. Lyotard promotes the view that life is “just gaming” with no rules, and that this view will somehow lead to emancipation. Lyotard says the solution is really, “in principle, quite simple:”


give the public free access to the memory and data banks. Language games will then be games of perfect information at any given moment. But they will also be non-zero-sum games, and by virtue of that fact discussions will never risk fixating in a position of minimax equilibrium because they have exhausted their stakes. For the stakes will be in that case constituted by knowledge, which are language’s reserves of possible utterances, are inexhaustible. This sketches the outline of a politics in which the desire for justice and the desire for the unknown will be equally respected.[70]


What little guidance Lyotard does provide for the political goal of postmodernism is ambiguous at best, and Pangle concludes it likely to be only another “game.”




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