November 19, 2005

In the last issue of Phlit, I said, “I plan to focus on Bruno in the next issue of Phlit.” My Bruno essay isn’t quite ready, however, so I’d like to devote this issue to other topics, and return to Bruno in the near future.

1. John Dewey

There’s a Great Books group in East Providence; I participate now and then. Recently we read and discussed a short piece by the American philosopher, John Dewey. The piece was called “Habits and Will”; it was an excerpt from a book called Human Nature and Conduct.1

Dewey is known for his theories on education. He advocated “learning by doing.” At the University of Chicago, Dewey and his wife ran an experimental school at which “Children learned much of their early chemistry, physics, and biology by investigating the natural processes which went into cooking breakfast — an activity they did in their classes.”2 Dewey is considered one of the three major exponents of the philosophy of Pragmatism (the other two are William James and Charles Sanders Peirce).

Dewey’s reforming instincts went beyond the classroom to man in general:

The story of the achievement of science in physical control is evidence of the possibility of control in social affairs. It is our human intelligence and human courage which are on trial; it is incredible that men who have brought the technique of physical discovery, invention, and use to such a pitch of perfection will abdicate in the face of the infinitely more important human problem.3

“Habits and Will” is an interesting essay. I wouldn’t describe it as a literary work; pragmatist that he is, Dewey is more interested in practical reforms than belles-lettres. And I would hesitate to call it a philosophical work since it doesn’t belong to any philosophical tradition that I’m familiar with. It’s a practical work about our habits, our everyday habits, the habits that we find it so hard to change. I would place the essay at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and inspirational literature (also known as “self-help literature”). When I describe something as “inspirational literature,” people think I’m criticizing it, but actually I respect inspirational literature, and I’ve discussed it in several earlier issues.4 Inspirational literature aims to improve your life. An Amazon reviewer said of Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct, “This book... helps people solve their problems and get rid of their hang-ups.”

Everyone can relate to Dewey’s remarks on bad habits:

A bad habit suggests an inherent tendency to action and also a hold, a command over us. It makes us do things we are ashamed of, things which we tell ourselves we prefer not to do. It overrides our formal resolutions, our conscious decisions. When we are honest with ourselves we acknowledge that a habit has this power because it is so intimately a part of ourselves. It has a hold upon us because we are the habit. Our self-love, our refusal to face facts, combined perhaps with a sense of a possible better although unrealized self, leads us to eject the habit from the thought of ourselves and conceive it as an evil power which has somehow overcome us.5

Dewey forces us to admit that our bad habit is a fundamental part of our self — more fundamental than “vague, general, conscious choices.”6

Dewey insists that a bad habit can’t be overcome by will alone. We need to forget the bad habit, to find an alternate activity that can absorb us, an activity that we can focus on as if it were our goal. In short, a bad habit can’t be overcome by a frontal assault, but only by a flanking movement:

The main thing is to find some act which is different from the usual one. The discovery and performance of this unaccustomed act is the ‘end’ to which we must devote all attention. Otherwise we shall simply do the old thing over again, no matter what is our conscious command. The only way of accomplishing this discovery is through a flank movement. We must stop even thinking of [correcting our bad habit].7

To illustrate his argument, Dewey discusses a habitual drinker:

The hard-drinker who keeps thinking of not drinking is doing what he can to initiate the acts which lead to drinking. He is starting with the stimulus to his habit. To succeed he must find some positive interest or line of action which will inhibit the drinking series and which by instituting another course of action will bring him to his desired end.8

People fall short of their goal, and dissipate their time on bad habits, because their goal seems distant, and difficult to attain. We must translate our end into means, and treat these means as if they were our end:

To reach an end we must take our mind off from it and attend to the act which is next to be performed. We must make that the end.... Until one takes intermediate acts seriously enough to treat them as ends, one wastes one’s time in any effort at change of habits. Of the intermediate acts, the most important is the next one. The first or earliest means is the most important end to discover.9

2. Hank Whittemore

In an earlier issue, I discussed Hank Whittemore’s new theory about Shakespeare — more specifically, about Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I asked a local library to invite Hank to speak, they did so, and on November 13, he spoke.

Hank’s talk was a success — well-attended and well-received. They said it couldn’t be done, they said people wouldn’t come to the East Providence library, on a perfect Sunday afternoon, to hear a talk about Shakespeare, but we took the risk, Hank drove from New York, and we managed to get an audience that was sizable and interested. I don’t think there was a single Oxfordian in the audience, but Hank managed to introduce people, not only to the Oxford theory, but to the Prince Tudor theory and the Monument theory as well. He didn’t hit people over the head with his convictions; rather, he dropped hints, and let people follow the trail for themselves. He concentrated on the Sonnets, and drew on his training as an actor to read sonnets in a lively and entertaining way. He used a PowerPoint presentation to good effect.

One anecdote: at the end of his talk, I introduced Hank to an elderly Providence actress, Marilyn Meardon, who does an excellent solo performance of Queen Elizabeth. Hank looked at Marilyn, and said, “you have a wonderful face, you must be a very interesting person.” One can only imagine how pleased Marilyn was to hear Hank’s words! I can’t resist repeating the Schopenhauer remark that I quoted in the last issue:

The countenance expresses and reveals the whole essence of a man.... A man’s face as a rule says more, and more interesting things than his mouth, for it is a compendium of everything his mouth will ever say, in that it is the monogram of all this man’s thoughts and aspirations.

3. The Mailbag:
National Character and the Occult

In response to my remarks about occult phrases in French, two subscribers wrote to me and said that there were similar phrases in English. Jim Fedor wrote: “Actually, we do have such a phrase concerning someone talking about you. Didn’t your mother or friend ever say to you (as mine do) ‘Were your ears burning? We were just talking about you.’” Yes, I have heard that phrase, but only once (about 3 weeks ago). Another subscriber reminded me of the English expression, “If looks could kill...” Again, I’ve heard that phrase very seldom. I never heard someone use both these phrases, as I heard my French professor use their French equivalents. Though I won’t try to prove anything, I suspect that further research into English and French would find more “occult expressions” in French than in English, since Protestantism separated the English from the unconscious, the subliminal, and the occult.

One subscriber said, “The English are actually more into the occult than either the French or the Germans, I would say, and I’ve lived in both countries as well as England.” True, there was a spiritualist movement in England and the U.S. in the late 1800s. But this was when Protestantism/Christianity was in decline, so it doesn’t disprove my argument that Protestant countries have less interest in the occult. If Protestantism/Christianity decline further in England and the U.S., then interest in the occult is likely to grow. “But isn’t Christianity still popular in the U.S.?” Perhaps so, but ascetic Protestantism isn’t popular, and that’s the kind of Protestantism that reduces our feeling for the occult.

When spiritualism was popular in England and the U.S., it was even more popular in Dublin, which was a hotbed of Hermetism. (Joyce often pokes fun at the Dublin Hermetists.) Doesn’t this suggest that Catholic countries are especially receptive to the occult?

4. Mansfield on Feminists

In a recent issue, I discussed the Harvard conservative, Harvey Mansfield. I said he was supportive of the Harvard president, and critical of Harvard’s left-wing feminists. Then I discovered that Mansfield wrote an essay about Harvard for The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine edited by his former student, William Kristol. I found it to be an interesting and well-written essay. Here are some excerpts:10

At last week’s Harvard faculty meeting, President Larry Summers saved his job, but he took a pummeling from his angry critics. Summers is easily the most outstanding of the major university presidents now on the scene — the most intelligent, the most energetic, as well as the most prominent. So, alarmed at his abilities and intentions, the Harvard faculty decided it would be a good idea to humiliate him.

Summers has supporters, and not all the faculty joined in the game of making him look sick. But the supporters, like Summers himself, were on the defensive, making concessions, and the critics were not. The critics consist of feminist women and their male consorts on the left.... Together the feminists and the left make up perhaps half the faculty, the other half being moderate liberals who are afraid of the feminists rather than with them.

Summers saved his job by skating backwards, listening to his critics without demur and occasionally accepting their harsh words by saying he agreed with them. At no point did he feel able to say yes, but... in order to introduce a point of his own in response. His accusers were relentless and, as always with feminists, humorless. They complained of being humiliated, but they took no care not to humiliate a proud man. They complained too of being intimidated, but they were doing their best to intimidate Summers — and they succeeded....

One faculty colleague [said] “Can anybody on earth have less reason to fear than a tenured Harvard professor?” True enough, a Harvard professor has both the prominence to awe and, if that doesn’t work, the security to escape. But feminists do not think like this. They insist on a welcoming atmosphere of encouragement to themselves and to their plans. If they do not get it, they will with a straight face accuse you of intimidating them even as they are intimidating you.

It takes one’s breath away to watch feminist women at work. At the same time that they denounce traditional stereotypes they conform to them. If at the back of your sexist mind you think that women are emotional, you listen agape as professor Nancy Hopkins of MIT comes out with the threat that she will be sick if she has to hear too much of what she doesn’t agree with. If you think women are suggestible, you hear it said that the mere suggestion of an innate inequality in women will keep them from stirring themselves to excel.... Even in the gender-neutral society, men are expected by feminists to open doors for women. If men do not, they are intimidating women.

Thus the issue of Summers’s supposedly intimidating style of governance is really the issue of the political correctness by which Summers has been intimidated. Political correctness is the leading form of intimidation in all of American education today, and this incident at Harvard is a pure case of it. The phrase has been around since the 1980s, and the media have become bored with it. But the fact of political correctness is before us in the refusal of feminist women professors even to consider the possibility that women might be at any natural disadvantage in mathematics as compared with men. No, more than that: They refuse to allow that possibility to be entertained even in a private meeting. And still more: They are not ashamed to be seen as suppressing any inquiry into such a possibility. For the demand that Summers be more “responsible” in what he says applies to any inquiry that he or anyone else might cite.

Of course, if you make a study of differences between the sexes with a view to the possibility that some of them might be innate, no violence will come to you. You will not be lynched. But you will be disliked, and you will have a hard time getting appointed at a major (or a minor) university. Feminists do not like to argue, and they consider you a case if you do not immediately agree with them. “Raising consciousness” is their way of getting you to fall in with their plans, and “tsk, tsk” is the only signal you should need and will get. Anyone who requires evidence and argument is already an enemy because he is considering a possibility hurtful to women....

We do need feminism, because women are now in a new situation. But we need a new feminism conceived by women more favorable to liberty and the common good than the “feminists” of today.

© L. James Hammond 2005
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1. The piece can be found in Introduction to Great Books: Third Series. back
2. Wikipedia, “John Dewey” back
3. p. 15 back
4. See, for example, 2003-04. back
5. pp. 17, 18 back
6. p. 18 back
7. p. 23. I recently saw a documentary called “Newton’s Dark Secrets.” It argued that Newton, though regarded as a rational thinker par excellence, had a deep interest in alchemy, and in heterodox religious ideas. It also said that Newton battled sexual temptation by using a “flanking movement” (to use Dewey’s phrase). Newton said that if we preoccupy ourselves with chastity, we’ll be assailed by temptation; we need to get our mind off the whole subject of chastity/temptation, by immersing ourselves in an entirely different subject. back
8. p. 23 back
9. pp. 23, 24 back
10. The essay appeared in the 3/7/05 issue of The Weekly Standard. Click here to see the whole essay. back