Monday, February 20, 2012

Tom Hart and Reading Lists

Tom Hart (see ) wrote of reading (during retirement) the stuff he missed out on earlier, e.g, “. . . . stuff like Kant, Hegel, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Ariosto, Machiavelli, parts of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and blogging about it. I'm also reading less pretentious stuff, mostly science fiction.”

In a sense I did what he is doing, but I did it earlier. I grew up having contempt for my many of my teachers which carried over into college; so I developed a “reading list” of books I wanted to read at the earliest opportunity, especially books rejected by professors I didn’t respect.

Tom writes of not liking the jobs he held and I sense a hint of Catholic guilt for not engaging in work with social benefits (although this could be my imagination). I can relate to this concern a bit, but I can’t really say that I hated working in engineering because I became good at it and enjoyed mastering matters I wasn’t educated for, but I was often more interested in completing the gaps in my education (the ones I was aware of) than my engineering assignments. I recall once, for example interesting a couple of fellow engineers in a slow reading of one of Ockham’s works.

Douglas, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing hired a lot of people educated in matters not directly related to engineering. I recall working with and debating a fellow named Cy Gallick who was working on his PhD in Geology. After he earned as much money as he was interested in he quit to complete his degree and find a job more to his liking. I recall another fellow who was educated in Economics. He hated engineering, but on the plus side fell in love with his boss’s secretary and went with her to live in Montana. “Bill,” I asked. “What will you do in Montana?” “Anything but this,” he said. “I don’t care. I’d rather work in a hardware store than do this.”

People educated in English seemed to last a bit longer. English was at the time considered to be the closest could get to a classic education; which would equip a graduate for any sort of work he was interested in. I had a great number of discussions and debates with Lee Griffith, a graduate of Duke University. He abandoned his education, I forget why, after getting an M.A. in English. His interest was Criticism, and since I was always writing poetry, he was always offering his opinion, but we also read and debated a lot of the same things. Lee could do the work well enough, but after a divorce, he drank a bit too much and lost interest in keeping his job. All of which is to say that I worked on my reading list during the time I worked as an engineer in aerospace and didn’t wait for retirement.

In recent years I have taken up a parallel concern. Perhaps we all know that ideas, climates of opinion, change from one generation to the next, but how can we put the accepted ideas of today in “proper perspective,” and, perhaps, avoid the foolishness that historians will see in us a hundred years from now? That is, can someone step back, figuratively step outside of the accepted “truths” of this age the way historians do with earlier periods? Impossible, historians will tell us – at least generally impossible because we can’t dredge up and set aside all the assumptions we were raised with. They are in us like a cancer that can’t be pulled out without killing us. That is generally true, but not entirely so else historians and social scientists would not be writing the books they do.

I have been rereading H. Stuart Hughes’ Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. Hughes wrote this book in 1958. He didn’t set out to do quite what I described in the preceding paragraph. Instead he sought to determine the impact of some of the great thinkers of the preceding generation upon the generation in which he lived. Hughes conscientiously describes his own presuppositions: “In my own case, I might proffer the information that while I am American by nationality, my intellectual formation has been largely European. Originally it was Anglo-French: Cartesian logic, the common sense of Locke, the skepticism of Hume were already in the background of my education long before I had read a line of these philosophers. And I still fall most naturally into a ‘rationalistic’ way of thought. But an exposure to Germany and to the German idealist tradition came early enough in my life to effect a radical change in orientation. More recently I have been primarily concerned with Italy, and the tranquil persuasiveness of Croce has been ever with me.”

Ah, “Croce.” I never encountered him in college, or if I did he made no impression. After my first reading of Hughes’ book I purchased translations of Croce’s Theory of Aesthetic and History of Aesthetic, and while I have yet to read them, they have been added to my “list” which is getting longer rather than shorter.

In my quest to put our age into some sort of historical perspective, I have been interested in theorists, especially Fukuyama who have sought something similar. In reading Hughes treatment of the Positivists, he said that none (or few?) are thorough-going determinists; so what of Fukuyama? I don’t recall wondering about it before, but in picking up Hegel’s view that Capitalism (now Liberal Democracy) is to be the end of history, isn’t that rather deterministic of him? Fukuyama didn’t put matters in deterministic terms. Marx may have when he predicted Socialism to be the end of history, but Fukuyama was interested in following Kojeve in his criticism of Marx and his observation that while Marx may have turned Hegel on his head, events, especially the fall of the USSR in 1989, have set Hegel back on his feet. Perhaps one can make a deterministic inference from Fukuyama’s arguments, but I doubt that he himself would.

Another of the intellectuals Hughes will be discussing is Weber who gave us the “Protestant Work Ethic,” which bothered me a bit in aerospace because I finished my work more quickly than anticipated and as a consequence spent long periods reading such writers as Ockham.

And does the Protestant Work Ethic extend into retirement? Perhaps in earlier periods retirement was a matter of getting too sick and feeble to work any longer. What sort of perspective can we put Tom and me into: two retirees working on their book lists – and, sometimes, feeling guilty about it?

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