Saturday, 18 August 2012

Socking It To Socrates: Carlin Romano’s Revisionist Pragmatism

What’s a former philosophy major to do when his favorite literary critic writes a 672 page book denigrating the most beloved philosopher in history as an authoritarian wuss? In his magisterial “America the Philosophical” (Knopf, 2012) he genuflects before a thinker, Isocrates, that I’ve never even heard of, contending that this “unknown” Greek I-Socrates’s anti-authoritarian meliorism is a forerunner of American pragmatism, the movement that has made America the philosophical model for the world, forever! Well, as I-Socrates didn’t say, an unexamined philosophy is not worth touting. Besides, Romano slyly undercuts my initial skepticism by reminding me that my secular saint, I.F.Stone’s last book was a putdown of Socrates.

The heretofore adored Socrates was anti-democratic and always pursuing “ultimate truths,” a mortal sin in Romano’s ethic. He prefers genial consensus, the secret of American pragmatism. How do I proceed? A philosophy major from the Jesuit University of Detroit who won the Midwestern Jesuit essay contest in 1949 with “Needed: More Red-blooded American Catholics”, by which I meant lefties who believed more in social justice and racial integration, two qualities Detroit sorely needed before it collapsed. Then off to graduate school in Cleveland where the brilliant Western Reserve Mortimer Kaddish (sadly dead in 2012) wiped out my galloping Thomism with his 3 credit course in logical positivism.

My dissertation was a study of the minor philosopher John Fiske, the popularizer of Social Darwinism. Fiske wrecked his prospects for a job teaching philosophy at Harvard by being caught reading August Compte in required Sunday chapel. After a short Harvard librarianship, he devised a national career of lecturing about American history to middlebrow audiences which could be assembled by the new “mass Medium” of the national railroad. He got softer and softer in his generaliations thereof, until he earned my scorn as the first president of the American Immigration Restriction League.

A postdoctoral Carnegie grant at Penn to create a new course in Mass Culture in American Civilization plus a serendipitously simultaneous $2 million grant from Walter Annenberg to create a graduate school of communication made me, faute de mieux, the “Gofer” for the new school including my choice for first dean, Gilbert Seldes. Romano has a splendid summary of Gilbert’s development as a philosophically meliorist innovator in mass culture criticism.

But his strongest argument for the importance of pragmatism for the rejection of the Socratic tradition of cocksure certainties is his description of how African Americans, women, Native American and gays painfully conquered the philosophy association’s initial rejection of their diversities. Especially harrowing were the stories of recent grads lining up for the few jobs available in a career hassle for getting an interview for a job. What a difference a generation made: my problem was deciding which job to take: from high school teacher to full professor/chairman with tenure between 1957 and 1964.

But Carlin’s amazing contention that America is the most philosophical of cultures ran smack into my failure to influence the high school/college agendas in making media meliorism effective. Marshall McLuhan’s utopianism had connected with me in the lay Catholic weekly “Commonweal” where he previewed “The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man” (1951). By 1982 I was persuaded to abandon Academe for alternative journalism as I flinched at the emergence of formidable enemies of emptiness like Rush Limbaugh. How could America the Philosophical be taken seriously after the infantilization of our media and public schools?

Finally I got it after a very tough read. The meliorism of consensus that emerged with the Pragmatism that prompted John Dewey to get involved with mass education (not to forget innovative businessman/philosopher like our own Dr. Barnes, or thoughtful dogooders like Hull House Jane Adams). The key was Isocrates’ anti-authoritarian meliorism. No final answers for eternity. Only thoughtful consensus for the present.

Romano has a gift of deep gab. His visit to Paul Fussell’s house is itself worth all the painful grappling with his deeper hassles. And his visit with Hugh Hefner at his Holbey Hills playpen reminded me of my wide-eyed visit there with a TV conference party. There is a list of his almost 200 visitees, as catholic as Susan Sontag and Bill Moyers.

May I recommend that his next book be a coherent gathering of those encounters. This volume is indeed ragged but rewarding. But what enlightening disorder. As Carlin Romano settles down in his profession, we can look forward from the fecundity of his “Inquirer” and “Chronicle of Higher Education” quick takes to a plenitude of deeply coherent speculations.

This essay is also published in Broad Street Review.

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