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Allan Bloom and the American Mind

Patrick Deneen gives Allan Bloom’s classic The Closing of the American Mind a mixed review over at The Imaginative Conservative. He says that Professor Bloom was correct to critique relativism and its projected dominance among the American educational system, but Dr. Deneen believes that Prof. Bloom’s rejection of multiculturalism, or really culture in general, was a mistake, placing Bloom in the camp, not of the conservatives, but of the neo-Conservatives, heirs to the legacy of Leo Strauss. Dr. Deneen writes:

At his best, Bloom sees through the sham of yesterday’s “multiculturalism” and today’s push for “diversity”—little of which had to do with enthusiasm for real cultural diversity, but which was then and remains today a way for individuals in under-represented groups to advance entitlement programs within America’s elite institutions. Those individuals, while claiming special benefits that should accrue to members in a particular group, had no great devotion to any particular “culture” outside the broader American anti-culture of liberalism itself. Indeed, the “cultures” in question were never really cultures at all, if by a culture we mean an identifiable group of people who share a generational, geographical, and distinctive set of customs aimed at shaping the worldview and practices of successive generations.

By this measure, women, blacks, Hispanics, and so on were people who might once have belonged to a variety of particular cultures, albeit not specifically as women or blacks or Hispanics. These new categorical groupings came to be based on claims of victimhood rather than any actual shared culture; many cultures have been persecuted, but it does not follow that everyone who has been mistreated constitutes a culture. While in passing Bloom acknowledged the paucity of such claims to cultural status, too often he was willing to take seriously professions of “multiculturalism” and to lament the decline of the American project of universalist natural rights.

The stronger case would have been to expose the claims of multiculturalism as cynical expressions from members of groups that did not, in fact, share a culture, while showing that such self-righteous claims, more often than not, were merely a thin veneer masking a lust for status, wealth and power. If the past quarter century has revealed anything, it has consistently shown that those who initially participated in calls for multiculturalism have turned out to be among the voices most hostile to actual cultures, particularly ones seeking to maintain coherent religious and moral traditions.

Bloom was prone to obtuseness about this fact because, at base, Bloom himself was not an admirer or supporter of the multiplicity of cultures. Indeed, he was suspicious and even hostile to the claims of culture upon the shaping of human character and belief—including religious belief. He was not a conservative in the Burkean sense; that is, someone apt to respect the inheritances of tradition and custom as a repository of past wisdom and experience. Rather, he was at his core a liberal: someone who believes that the only benefit of our cultural formation was that it constituted a “cave” from which ambitious and rebellious youth could be encouraged to pursue a life of philosophy.

While Dr. Deenan makes some good points about the relationship between feigned multicularism and political power, it is not at all clear that he has answered the question of objectivity. Appealing to Burke may be interesting when it comes to intellectual genealogies and taxonomies, but it hardly explains why “culture” does not still fall under Prof. Bloom’s critique. Indeed, one of the more valuable aspects about The Closing of the American Mind is that it is equally effective against modern “conservative” thought as it is against mid-20th century “progressive” or “liberal” thought. The terms which Bloom sees being used by the progressives of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, are now common currency among the political right: “culture,” “worldview,” and “values” top the list. What Prof. Bloom pointed out was that these are the product of German philosophy, what he called “The Nietzscheanization of the Left or Vice Versa.” The retreat to commitment-language simply makes plain the underlying foundation of nihilism. In the absence of true truth, which is really what Bloom means by “philosophy,” thinkers must appeal to the social sciences, particularly psychology and sociology. Culture, then, really is just a replacement for truth. And this is, as Prof. Bloom explains, why identity politics are now the only politics. They are simply all anyone has anymore.

While Prof. Bloom’s reading of Plato as a Utopian may have indeed been Straussian, his insistence that culture itself must be trained by reason is surely an accurate reading of Plato. And it is surely true! Whether this makes one “conservative” or “progressive” is a much less important point, unless we are still allowing these labels themselves to serve as “cultures” for our own identity politics, something which was at the heart of Prof. Bloom’s critique. We could debate whether Nietzsche himself is a progressive or a conservative. Indeed, a major part of Prof. Bloom’s critique was that Nietzsche was not really an appropriate thinker for the Left to appropriate and that, in doing so, they were departing from their own liberal tradition.

“Culture” is a dangerous word. It is almost always used as a reification and thus a way to project a certain set of biases onto a larger group or persons. The fact is that everyone is always already en-cultured and it is no particular value to point out that something is the product of “culture.” The real question is whether cultures, or any given culture, are good, true, or beautiful. To answer that question–a question which both today’s “conservatives” and “liberals” are terrified of even posing– we will need some objective and universal standard. If Prof. Bloom’s Straussianism fails as an answer, it does not then follow that there is no answer and his critiques can be safely ignored.

The really traditional answer to the question of objectivity is neither “culture” nor “philosophy,” but rather the concrete universal, or (if that still sounds too German) absolute being. This is what philosophy once pursued and cultures once worshiped. It stands outside of both but gives both their point of reference and reason for existence. This is something that has never really set well with “the American mind,” and perhaps Prof. Bloom’s flaw was in not going deep enough with this line of critique. Indeed, the absolute being is what, or, better yet, Who is necessary to truly open that mind.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.