The Quest for Self-Knowledge: Where Philosophy Went Wrong

By Jonathan Yudelman

The field has spun out of control on its most important question. How to get it back on track.

See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of Casuistry heaped o’er her head!
Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine:
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! Thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries All.
 —Alexander Pope, The Dunciad IV1
Modern man both knows and denies that he and his civilization are in crisis. Elevated talk of “The End of History” and “The Problem of Modernity” in the places of learning serves only to make interesting what would otherwise be cause for fear. The academy does not really believe in a crisis. When art, literature, and popular culture convey convulsive excitability or hopelessness, the scholars and pundits distract and calm the public with mantras of self-expression, confessing that neither art nor art criticism really believes in a crisis. On the part of the philosophers, a weary resurgence of the question, “What is truth, anyway?” promises no real conviction, while the “post-” that describes and affixes to all our thinking like a rosy pox is vague enough to be ignored or debated. The silver-haired philosophers do not really believe in the crisis, either.
In a situation where those honored and paid to think, feel, and lead, are so tirelessly satisfied with their work on the problem, it is nearly impossible to defy them all and actually believe in a crisis. But at certain times a fleeting instinct nevertheless overpowers socialized modern man and forces him to do so against his will. The threat of global war and the jarring specter of the appalled fist of hatred driving it give pause to even the most complacent. Nevertheless, the evasion nearly always returns eventually, for it is stubborn, and many things beyond the desire for personal happiness are complicit.
Modern man’s secret dream of freedom is to be an artist in a society of artists creating themselves. Almost nothing has been able to dislodge this ideal, neither its failure in fact nor the political logic which promises that a society in which everyone is an artist will soon enough reveal itself as a society of clowns, and from there will not have far to go in becoming a society of bandits. The identification of freedom with self-creation is so entrenched that to point out its reality is considered an impropriety and the serious thinker is made ashamed of mentioning any gritty specifics. The clinical syndromes and disorders that make children’s minds overload with unassimilated stimuli are not spoken of in the context of “The End of History,” and a blind spot in every promising Unified Crisis Theory likewise exists with regard to the small nations of the despondent who are administered drugs to make life bearable. Disregarding the agitating of moralists, as everyone does, even the humble many, desperate to fix their broken relationships, interest our thinking men only as phenomena unto themselves, as they receive their dubious guidance from our reconstituted family life, our confusion of sex, or our surgical toilette.
These and other symptoms attend the waking life of an age which dreams its freedom in unbridled self-creation. The principal thing which modern man seeks to evade is nevertheless not an unpleasant reality. It is the fact that his dream has for some time now grown macabre. Seeking himself in what he desires to be, man has lost sight of who he is.
The crisis of modernity is at least partly a crisis of identity. It is certain that it affects groups and individuals unequally. Yet no thinking man remains untouched by the spirit of an age in which the word “identity” denotes something as desired as it is lacking. Ours is a generation whose intellectuals deconstruct identity, while in the background their echoes rouse a furious public debate that infects even the simple with a deep philosophical malaise. Thus it is due to a common and shared feeling if today we find ourselves with a disconcerting sympathy for what faced the Roman Empire nearly two thousand years ago.
A hollow sound as of dissolution was heard in the world. Man seemed in a hideous case: Placed between two infinities, he knew neither. He knew not past nor future. All belief was dead; dead the belief in the gods, dead the belief in the republic.2
Rome was another civilization. Those who draw too strong a parallel between its great crisis and ours are in error, but whatever the similarities or differences, it is not so blamable an error as that which evades the thought of our own gathering storm. This, then, is a meditation on modern man and what stands before him.
Since modernity gives us a crisis of men, let us imagine an actual man facing the crisis. What is wrong, is wrong in him. The approach to the problem demands simplicity. The object which interests us is modern man in his actual incarnation, not a philosophical one such as could be found, for instance, in many worthy works of scholarship or history. To answer the very basic question, if, and how, modern man is in crisis we will have to sum him up, and then decide “what was rotten and what was fresh.” Not merely refined taste, but especially the modern love of diversity and disinclination to judgment are ill-pleased with a task such as this.
Who are we, nevertheless? The answer does not come easily. No belief, no idea, and no single culture contains us. We know of tendencies, can even make projections to a certain degree, but the essentially modern man will not appear in the mind’s eye. He will not appear because there is no idea of human nature against which to hold him. What is man capable of being? What are his good and evil? By what means does he arrive at these? These questions hang over us unanswered like flags of cultural defeat, or what is worse, they are over-answered and so come to embitter our taste for the pursuit of truth.
Despite or because of modern philosophers’ portentous claims, we remain generally at a respectful distance from philosophy and its peculiar passion. Taste and habit dispose modernity more to raw experience than to the pursuit of wisdom. In spite of this, the bitter taste in our mouths for the philosophy of human nature finds itself not in rebellion but largely in harmony with modern philosophy and science. Philosophy, which began with Socrates’ dictum “Know thyself,” is today fallen mostly silent on man and mankind, and from it no answers to questions on human nature are likely, for without an interest in both the singularity and ideal of man’s character, precisely no kind of comparison is possible. It is strangest that, with few exceptions, this slighting of self-knowledge by philosophers is not under consideration by philosophy.
It has not always been so. Philosophy has not always silently abandoned man, but on the contrary had to openly declare itself against self-knowledge before it could be extricated from him. From a quite definite time onward the philosophers became less and less inclined to inquire about themselves. The feeling begins to gain momentum in German philosophy after Kant, but waits for Hegel to bid an imperious riddance to human nature.
Concern with what is called a cognition of human nature, involving the attempt to investigate the peculiarities, passions and foibles of other people, the so-called recesses of the human heart, is equally alien to the philosophy of spirit. Cognition of this kind is of significance only if it presupposes cognition of that which is universal, of man, and hence, essentially of spirit.3

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