Via Jonathan Swift, Lee Perlman reflects on the importance of lying to the human condition. Gulliver's Travels turns out not to be a defense of enlightenment ideals but a critique, with a subtle defense of untruth reminiscent of Nietzsche :
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift challenges the idea — advanced by his Enlightenment contemporaries — that truth, including the truth about human nature, is best understood as a matter of simple factual claims. Swift’s view, as we shall see, was that dedication to this rising scientific view of truth as synonymous with fact precisely misses the very essence of human nature.
So lies, which Swift takes to be part of our essential nature, are not the target of his satire. The enemy of human authenticity and flourishing is pride, the pinnacle of which is the denial of the lies inherent in our nature.
While the pride of the common human being may be a willful ignorance of our faults, the pride of the rational absolutist is a mixture of self-hatred and pious self-worth. ... Dedication to the truth of abstracted rationality, and perhaps most of all to the pursuit of seemingly concrete facts that scientific empiricism promotes, tends toward this absolutism.
certainly the question of the role of lies is an important one, as is the role/status of science, but I wonder if there isn’t a more pernicious protestantism at work that demands that I be rigorously unified and somehow avoid multiplicity, avoid contradictions (and kinks!) in my person (including thoughts) so that I might for example do/say the same things/explanations to my children as I might my wife or my coworkers, that I am the same in public as in private. Here we might find a Romantic poly”theistic”counter in more psychologically astute thinkers like Nietzsche, William James, and Walt Whitman.
I like the Romantic critique of the demand for unification (unification which is ultimately realized through our relationship with the modern nation state). Could this be used to also counter MacIntyre’s notion of coherent life story. I’m thinking of my anecdote about the Samoan chief in a previous post:
This also brings to mind work on different discursive genres.
have you read:
I had not read it, thanks! I first had to reread the Geertz article found here:
I had actually evoked Levi-Strauss’ UNESCO speech to which Geertz compares Rorty’s views in the thread about MacIntyre and patriotism, and posted a link critiquing this view of cultural diversity here:
The difference between the perspectives of Geertz and Rorty are in some ways very minor. Rorty is a little more optimistic about the Western liberal project, and thinks the “guardians of love” (those who make us sensitive to diversity) and the “guardians of justice” (those who uphold universal standards) are balanced. He seems to think there are plenty of windows opened up in our cultural monad already; no need to fret, anthropologists, historians, and journalists are standing by. And that procedural justice and market economy provide the best basis for cultural diversity to flourish unharassed. This is where I find his optimism a tad naïve. He believes that cultural diversity can be simply ignored when constructing political systems. Yet the perceived failure of multicultural doctrines in many European countries and the rise of racist anti-immigrant sentiment would indicate otherwise (see the circumcision debate). As does the troubling legacy of foreign political structures in former colonies where they clash with local social systems. Not to mention the destructive effects of rampant capitalism.
I agree with Rorty that we should drop the distinction between rational judgement and cultural bias, but this should not lead to smug self-satisfaction, since I also agree with Geertz that we must be vigilant in our self-examination, and that one way to do this, especially in the context of cultural difference, is broadening the scope of our ethnographic understanding. In other words I think there is room for improvement (I’m sure Rorty would not disagree) and that cultural comparison is a powerful tool to achieve this. (We are left with an amusing paradox: we can be happy with our cultural perspective because our cultural perspective is so self-critical)
(Not sure how this relates to the blog post, but I assume it might have to do with my reference to the homogenizing ideology of modern nation state.)
I don’t know if I would call it a “lie”. More a contradiction or paradox that is at the core of being human. The balancing of body and mind or the metaphysical and the material. The Ying and Yang or Christian Cross are nice symbols of this.
Swifts book seems to be hitting on this idea. Using Enlightenment ideas to criticize itself. Hegel is famous for the idea that great art should merge “form and content”. I think this might be an example of it.
Dandies and Traditionalists are great practitioners of this.
In the modern era, you could say, many great movies do essentially what Swift was doing. “Easy Rider” takes the counter culture of the sixties as a vehicle for the story but actually criticizes the failures of that culture. I think Captain America says “They’re not going to make it”. Even though they were chasing money (materialists) with a drug delivery while surrounded by hippie idealists. The delivery is an nice paradox.
The same could be said for “The Social Network” which uses the current cultures dominating vehicle of the internet: facebook. Then actually critiques that culture or the essence of “connecting” on the internet as a failure. It’s seems to be the contradiction or paradox that you referred to as a “lie”. Whatever we call it, it’s great storytelling and apparently as old as Swift (or the Greeks).
Maybe someone can explain this better. Where’s Danto. LOL.
I like all these Counter Enlightenment posts. And being on the internet it’s a nice contradiction, A nice paradox of “form and content”.
Here’s something on the difference between Rorty and Geertz:
And here’s an example of the failure to incorporate difference that is perceived to be hostile to the state:
Btw. I did not mean to imply in the above post that Rorty thinks capitalism is the solution to the worlds problems. It was in reference to his citing of Rawls (p. 532).
It always struck me that one of the primary goals of Gulliver’s Travels was to show that a dependence on rationality won’t overcome the fact that we have conflicting sets of ends that are determined based on individual perspective. The travel narrative sets up the whole conflict along with the make-up of the communities that Gulliver visits that set up conflicting lines of sight. That being said, I don’t know that it’s pride that is being solely critiqued. I think Swift is also critiquing our incapability or unwillingness to be honest about the ends we seek and our motivations and our ability to get lost instead in rational argument.