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Posts Tagged ‘Gnosticism’

John William Corrington on Gnosticism and Modern Thought

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy on December 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

Corrington delivered “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a lecture at a conference on Gnosticism (“Gnosticism and Modernity”) held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978. The original version of this essay, located in the archives at Centenary College, consists of a typed document with handwritten pages at the end. An edited version of this essay appears in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below.

Corrington opens the essay with a reference to Nick Adams, a character from a short story by Ernest Hemingway who has established for himself an alternate, deformed sense of reality—a Second Reality—whereby he orders his experience. Corrington likens this Second Reality to the structure of consciousness accepted and propagated by Gnosticism. Corrington argues that the Gnostic acceptance of a false reality brought about an embrace of magic and fantasy, both of which the Gnostics used to order their social and political experience.

This perceived form of order is, in fact, disorder. Gnosticism is manifest in modern political movements, Corrington suggests, and it renews and reuses certain symbols to describe the nature of the world. It premises itself, moreover, on assumptions about the divine ability of man to achieve a unified, monistic, salvational telos on earth.

Gnosticism, which is part of an irrepressible drive for the divine that is common to each psyche, has a coherent ideational, narrative structure that makes its symbology appealing and plausible. Gnosticism is a symptom of the desire to achieve the symbolic return to the womb, a representation of paradise in which unity and perfection and order are attained. The Gnostic thus seeks to realize in the concrete world, by way of magic and other breaks from reality, the supposedly ultimate and eternal state in which pure, transcendent unity and monism are instantiated.

Corrington sees Gnosticism in the scientism of the modern era. If metaxy represents the proper understanding of the place of man and the divine on earth, the Second Reality, which the Gnostic chooses over metaxy, is a distorted teleological worldview. Corrington submits that more would be known about modern Gnostic tendencies in the form of ideology if there were not a breakdown of the disciplines into such compartments as history, science, political science, theology, psychology, and so on.

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John William Corrington on the Structure of Gnostic Consciousness

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 5, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote the essay “The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” around the time he delivered his paper “Gnosticism and Modern Thought: A Way You’ll Never Be” at a conference titled “Gnosticism and Modernity,” held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” developed out “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a contribution that Corrington prepared for an edition that he and Richard Bishirjian were planning to publish after the Vanderbilt conference. The edition was never published because, according to Bishirjian, some of the contributors did not want to be associated with Mel Bradford, who was contributing a chapter to the book.

Corrington was involved in organizing the 1978 conference with Bishirjian and Eric Voegelin. Bishirjian would later relate that Voegelin considered Corrington’s paper to be the best that weekend. Among those participating in the conference was the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. Ellis Sandoz and Mel Bradford were also in attendance; Bradford delivered a paper and Sandoz moderated a panel.

“The Structure of  Gnostic Consciousness” in some ways summarizes Corrington’s philosophical interpretations of Gnosticism, political order, consciousness, myth, symbolism, the psyche, and knowledge. Corrington criticizes Gnosticism for failing to deal with reality as it is constituted in consciousness. The collapse of the Gnostic understanding of reality leads to disorder and confusion and the embrace of such things as magic that are at odds with a symbolic order emanating from a sound understanding of reality apprehended through consciousness. The Gnostic failure to comprehend reality generates delusional, ahistorical assumptions about the divinity of man and the ability of man to bring about a heaven on earth within history. Marxism is an example of a type of modern thinking that displays Gnostic elements.

The Gnostics felt alienated by and disenchanted with the cosmos as it exists in reality; they hated the real cosmos and remade it in the image of distorted, mythopoetic concepts whose symbology of disorder is mistaken for order. To achieve gnosis, or knowledge, is actually to accept a wrong and archaic mode of mythopoetic thought whereby magic is possible rather than beyond the realm of reality. This form of gnosis is attributable to Simon the Sorcerer or Simon the Magician, the Gnostic leader who is recounted briefly in the canonical Book of Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

Corrington discusses the work of the twelfth century mystic Joachim of Fiore, who exposited a millenarian view of history that influenced modern symbolic systems and consciousness which, according to Corrington, represent a divorce from earlier types of mythopoetic thinking. Joachim of Fiore rearticulated a Gnostic vision of earth and the cosmos, projecting eschatological salvation onto the concrete activities in which we are immersed and seeking to realize a heaven on earth within history. His notion of consciousness rendered a conceptual end to history, a fantasy in which the real is lost to a deformed system of symbolism whereby the natural desires of the psyche are satisfied by a false eschatology.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

John William Corrington on Intuition and Intellect

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 17, 2018 at 6:45 am

In my edition of John William Corrington’s essays, I assembled Corrington’s unpublished notes and sections of his unpublished lectures from the early 1970s that he maintained in one document.  Because of the subject matter, I titled this section “Intuition-Intellect.”

This material demonstrates the shift in Corrington’s interests in poetry as a craft to more philosophical concerns that were influenced by poetry, or mythopoetics. His discussion of myth and his references to Eric Voegelin in these notes suggests that he had just begun to read Voegelin and to explore Gnosticism and myth criticism.

Corrington questions here the relationship between science and philosophy and hypothesizes about how the truths generated by science become mythologized to satisfy certain human desires. He proposes that science itself has a “mythic” character and claims that “the aftermath of every significant act of science is its mythologization.” Corrington speculates whether myth is inevitable because it fulfills something basic or instinctive in human nature.

Science amasses data for their predictive value, but asking what these data mean is the beginning of myth, which, properly understood, is another form of understanding and articulating truths about the world. However, myth can also, Corrington claims, have destructive implications at odds with truth. He warns about mismanaging myth, giving such examples as Nazism, Marxism, and free enterprise: ideological constructs that rely on abstract myth narratives to stamp out opposition.

Corrington critiques the scientism that has developed since the Enlightenment because he considers its emphasis on empiricism and rationalism to mask its role in formulating mythic patterns or archetypes for governing the phenomenal world, including the human social order. These patterns or archetypes, despite their mythic nature, are taken as authoritative and valid because they are conflated with or understood as scientific truth; in this manner they are assumed to be separate and apart from myth when in fact they constitute myth.  They are dangerous because they are presumed to be scientific truth subject to certain and definite application when in fact they represent mythopoetic urges to satisfy innate and instinctual human impulses.

Corrington transitions from this discussion of myth and science into a discussion of twentieth-century poetry and its “overintellectualization,” as evidenced by the implementation of supposedly scientific approaches to the study of poetry. Corrington considers the New Criticism to represent such a scientific approach to poetry.

The turn to reason and science, Corrington suggests, has destroyed the aesthetics of poetry just as it has destroyed human civilizations in the sociopolitical context. In both contexts there has been, he believes, a failure to realize the distinction between science and the mythologization of science, a failure that has led certain groups to mistake what is unreasonable and irrational for absolute reason and rationality, to believe, that is, that what is merely a pattern or archetype—a human construct—is something given and definite even apart from human knowledge of it. Those who fail to understand the distinction between science and the mythologization of science embrace a potentially destructive psychic system that mistakes science for its opposite. This essay shows that, as Corrington begins to transition away from the writing of poetry, he is also trying to integrate his interest in poetry with his growing interest in philosophy.

The exact date of this Corrington material is unknown; however, certain references suggest that Corrington wrote these notes in or around 1971. For example, he mentions a “new” album by the Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, which came out in 1971. It is possible that part of this material comes from a lecture that Corrington gave to the South-Central Modern Language Association in 1968. That lecture was titled “Cassirer’s Curse, Keats’s Urn, and the Poem Before the Poem.” Some of the material may have come from the National Science Foundation Lecture that Corrington titled “Science and the Humanities” and delivered at Louisiana State University in 1966. Corrington began the essay with four discursive notes under the heading “Statements and Questions.” Because the ideas in these notes are more fully developed in the text proper, I have moved them to the end of the essay.

“Intuition-Intellect” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

John William Corrington’s Credo for Poets

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on October 3, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington’s essay “A Poet’s Credo” appeared in the journal Midwest in 1961. In it, Corrington writes that over the course of the twentieth century, poetry gradually became less “intellectual,” a view he purports to share with Norman Mailer. Corrington decries as “love drivel” much of the poetry from the sixteenth to the twentieth century but considers the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century to have been a renaissance for poetry that is now in decline, with the notable exception of the poetry of Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Corrington writes against the mass proliferation of quarterly journals that, he says, has resulted in the publication of more and more bad poetry. Corrington expresses appreciation for poets like Auden, Eliot, and Pound, but wishes there were more room in anthologies for writers like Bukowski, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, who, he says, represent “the new vision, the new lightning that is shaking on the west coast and in New Orleans, in New York and along the tidewater.”

Corrington is not against modernist poets like W. H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound; rather, he is against those who continue to imitate or copy these figures. What Corrington prizes in poetry is originality, which he considers to be lacking in the industry of literary periodicals in no small part because the editors of such periodicals publish only poems that copy the poetry of an earlier age rather than staking out new territory.

Corrington calls this essay a “credo,” perhaps because of the incantatory rhythms of the essay in addition to the statement of his belief that lasting poetry is, paradoxically, that which seems new.

This essay is remarkable for revealing Corrington’s early affiliation with Beat writers. Early in his career Corrington was known as a poet and interested mostly in poetry. Later in life he began to retreat from poetry as he grew more interested in philosophy, specifically in the thinking of Eric Voegelin and Gnosticism.

“A Poet’s Credo” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

Attuned to the Daimon

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 27, 2016 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in the Library of Law & Liberty.

Richard Bishirjian wears many hats. He’s a businessman, speaker, educator, regular contributor to Modern Age, founder and president of Yorktown University, and champion of online education. He has been a visible presence at conservative conferences and colloquia and an active member of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Philadelphia Society, and the National Association of Scholars. As a young man he studied under Gerhart Niemeyer, Ralph McInerny, Eric Voegelin, and Michael Oakeshott, whose philosophical influences are on display in The Conservative Rebellion, Bishirjian’s latest book, which seeks to reclaim that evocative and oft-abused signifier, “rebel.”

The author disavows the term “conservative movement” even as he uses it out of convenience. Movements as he describes them are “anti-traditional and ideologically motivated revolutionary currents” such as communism or National Socialism that have nothing to do with conservatism, which, he maintains, is constitutionally anti-ideological and anti-utopian. The conservative rebellion, then, is not a movement but a state of mind shared by enough individuals to comprise a community of purpose.

Bishirjian assures us that “this is a work of political theory by which its author affirms a reality that ‘is’ at the same time that he and his fellow Conservative Rebels are its representatives.” He thus locates himself and others like him—the conservative rebels—in a moment of American history that he calls the period of recovery.

This recovery follows four paradigmatic, transitional stages of the American body politic: 1) the revolutionary “spirit” that galvanized the Declaration of Independence; 2) the circumspect limited-government ethos that found expression in the U.S. Constitution; 3) the quasi-religious new nationalism of Abraham Lincoln, which was spiritual and democratic in substance; and 4) the civic religion of modern millennialism in which Progressive idealism, characterized by Woodrow Wilson’s crusading reforms, actualized Lincoln’s mystical vision by replacing limited government with nationalized and centralized power.

Just as each paradigm supplanted its predecessor, so the conservative rebellion of today—a fifth paradigmatic stage—is working to undermine the normative principles bequeathed to us by Lincoln and magnified by Wilson. Bishirjian believes we are struggling with the tensions between the fourth and fifth stages, even within conservative circles, insofar as neoconservatism recalls Lincoln’s and Wilson’s “consciousness of order.” He’s used a Voegelinian term there. It’s the Voegelin in Bishirjian that elicits his overall critique of neoconservatives, whose vision for global democracy and human rights, in his mind, resembles the Gnostic conception of a heaven on earth within history.

The Conservative Rebellion is part memoir, part prescription. It recalls Bishirjian’s formative university years and might be described, in part, as the story of his intellectual awakening. The prose is anything but pedantic, its muscular quality seen, for example, when he writes that “from 1961 to 1964 I read any and every book I could get my hands on to try to figure out what in the hell was going on.” Political incorrectness abounds, as when he describes where he studied:

Take a backwater graduate institution along the St. Joseph River like Notre Dame, have it focus on a backwater region like Latin America, and you seal Notre Dame’s fate as just another graduate program in government.

Bishirjian here refers to the chairman of the Department of Government deciding, in the late 1960s, to reorient the curriculum toward Latin American studies rather than capitalizing on the talent and specialties already existing among a faculty that included Voegelin, Niemeyer, and Stanley Parry. This reconfiguration followed the alleged purging of Notre Dame’s conservative faculty under Father Theodore Hesburgh, its president from 1952 to 1987. The criticisms of the university’s administration during his graduate studies reveal the intensity with which Bishirjian approaches ideas. So does his recalling the fact that he wept the first time he read Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics (1952).

He primarily considers the conservative rebellion he participated in from the time of the Kennedy presidency through that of Jimmy Carter. With the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bishirjian and his cohorts saw the fruits of their labor and rejoiced, but only for a time. Eventually infighting and enforced ideological standards slowed their momentum and sent well-meaning friends along differing paths. Bishirjian relates that traditional conservatives in the Reagan administration were gradually displaced by neoconservatives after the resignation of Richard V. Allen as National Security Adviser. From that moment on, he suggests, Republican presidential administrations were increasingly peopled by neoconservatives, a word that goes undefined.

The object of Bishirjian’s animus is Progressivism, or Woodrow Wilson’s “political religion.”  That he also calls communism a “political religion” suggests how destructively ideological he believes Wilson’s programs and legacy to have been. He submits that political religion is “ersatz religion” in that it’s a “false construction that intervenes between us and the experience of reality,” a bold and curious claim that makes sense only in light of Voegelin’s teachings.

At times, though, the author denominates Progressivism as liberalism. Not to be mistaken for the classical variety, his targeted liberalism is “intolerant, illiberal, devoid of magnanimity and devoted to the expansion of state power.” So defined, liberalism stands in contradistinction to conservatism, which, he says, is a “political theory linked to an attitude of spirit and mind, not a political philosophy by which the greater universe becomes visible.”

The Wilsonian worldview is most obviously manifest in foreign policy. Bishirjian articulates his longstanding discontent with the Vietnam War and believes “it is not a moral obligation of the American people to die so that others may realize their nationhood.” At the same time, he condemns the coordinated ostracizing of faculty who spoke out in favor of that war. He lambasts both Bush presidencies for their grandiose foreign policy and cautions that

Nothing grows more quickly during war than the powers of the state with the result that by the end of the twentieth century the American administrative state had become the enemy of all Americans, but only social, political and economic conservatives seemed concerned.

Although bitter, Bishirjian is something of an optimist. He sees the potential for cultural restoration, hoping our decline will be followed by prophetic renewal. He notes that Plato and Augustine, respectively, arose from the collapse of the Greek city-state and the Roman Empire. Anxiously alive to the intellectual bankruptcy of mainstream conservatism of the prepackaged, mass-market television variety, he laments “the decline in conservative scholarship and influence in academe,” where institutions of knowledge and learning ought to breed contemplative figureheads.

St. Augustine’s Press has put out a handsome hardback edition of this book. (One would have liked to see more careful copy-editing, though. The typographical errors are distracting.) Its normative assessments and presiding themes should provoke readers on the Left and the Right. Its main thrust is that, to recover the lost tradition of conservatism, what is required is the leadership of men and women attentive to the redemptive and visionary powers of the daimon.

The Conservative Rebellion reaches print just three months after the publication of Harold Bloom’s The Daemon Knows, in which the notion of the daimon (Greek), or the daemon (Latin), figures prominently as a sublime, aboriginal force of human imagination. The daimon prophesies a cosmology, not a short-term political platform or “get-out-the-vote” campaign. He consults Boethius, not Karl Rove. He counsels a consciousness of time and order, not a debate strategy or partisan wager. The luminosity of consciousness isn’t a purely pragmatic strategy capable of yielding quick results, but it does fulfill the mundane task of disclosing a way forward. It’s a prudent plan, in other words, not just a numinous agency, and it has the potential to instantiate once again the fusionism of Frank Meyer.

If Bishirjian is correct, then those attuned to the dynamism of the daimon might be found among “philosophers, knowledgeable political leaders, non-ideological publications, wealthy benefactors and supportive institutions.” It’s telling that he doesn’t name living examples. One wonders if there are any.

Pragmatists Versus Agrarians?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on June 19, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at The University Bookman.

John J. Langdale’s Superfluous Southerners paints a magnificent portrait of Southern conservatism and the Southern Agrarians, and it will become recognized as an outstanding contribution to the field of Southern Studies. It charts an accurate and compelling narrative regarding Southern, Agrarian conservatism during the twentieth century, but it erroneously conflates Northern liberalism with pragmatism, muddying an otherwise immaculate study.

Langdale sets up a false dichotomy as his foundational premise: progressive, Northern pragmatists versus traditionalist, Southern conservatives. From this premise, he draws several conclusions: that Southern conservatism offers a revealing context for examining the gradual demise of traditional humanism in America; that Northern pragmatism, which ushered in modernity in America, was an impediment to traditional humanism; that “pragmatic liberalism” (his term) was Gnostic insofar as it viewed humanity as perfectible; that the man of letters archetype finds support in Southern conservatism; that Southern conservatives eschewed ideology while Northern liberals used it to present society as constantly ameliorating; that Southern conservatives celebrated “superfluity” in order to preserve canons and traditions; that allegedly superfluous ways of living were, in the minds of Southern conservatives, essential to cultural stability; that Agrarianism arose as a response to the New Humanism; and that superfluous Southerners, so deemed, refined and revised established values for new generations.

In short, his argument is that Southern conservatives believed their errand was to defend and reanimate a disintegrating past. This belief is expressed in discussion of the work of six prominent Southern men of letters spanning two generations: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford.

Langdale ably demonstrates how the Southern Agrarians mounted an effective and tireless rhetorical battle against organized counterforces, worried that scientific and industrial progress would replace traditional faith in the unknown and mysterious, and fused poetry and politics to summon forth an ethos of Romanticism and chivalry. He sketches the lines of thought connecting the earliest Agrarians to such later Southerners as Weaver and Bradford. He is so meticulous in his treatment of Southern conservatives that it is surprising the degree to which he neglects the constructive and decent aspects of pragmatism.

Careful to show that “Agrarianism, far from a monolithic movement, had always been as varied as the men who devised it,” he does not exercise the same fastidiousness and impartiality towards the pragmatists, who are branded with derogatory labels throughout the book even though their ideas are never explained in detail. The result is a series of avoidable errors.

First, what Langdale treats as a monolithic antithesis to Southern conservatism is actually a multifaceted philosophy marked by only occasional agreement among its practitioners. C. S. Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, followed by William James, yet Peirce considered James’s pragmatism so distinct from his own that he renamed his philosophy “pragmaticism.” John Dewey reworked James’s pragmatism until his own version retained few similarities with James’s or Peirce’s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. never identified himself as a pragmatist, and his jurisprudence is readily distinguishable from the philosophy of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Each of these men had nuanced interpretations of pragmatism that are difficult to harmonize with each other, let alone view as a bloc against Southern, traditionalist conservatism.

Second, the Southern Agrarians espoused ideas that were generally widespread among Southerners, embedded in Southern culture, and reflective of Southern attitudes. By contrast, pragmatism was an academic enterprise rejected by most Northern intellectuals and completely out of the purview of the average Northern citizen. Pragmatism was nowhere near representative of Northern thinking, especially not in the political or economic realm, and it is hyperbolic to suggest, as Langdale does, that pragmatism influenced the intellectual climate in the North to the extent that traditionalist conservatism influenced the intellectual climate in the South.

Third, the pragmatism of Peirce and James is not about sociopolitical or socioeconomic advancement. It is a methodology, a process of scientific inquiry. It does not address conservatism per se or liberalism per se. It can lead one to either conservative or liberal outcomes, although the earliest pragmatists rarely applied it to politics as such. It is, accordingly, a vehicle to an end, not an end itself. Peirce and James viewed it as a technique to ferret out the truth of an idea by subjecting concrete data to rigorous analysis based on statistical probability, sustained experimentation, and trial and error. Although James occasionally undertook to discuss political subjects, he did not treat pragmatism as the realization of political fantasy. Pragmatism, properly understood, can be used to validate a political idea, but does not comprise one.

The Southern Agrarians may have privileged poetic supernaturalism over scientific inquiry; it does not follow, however, that pragmatists like Peirce and James evinced theories with overt or intended political consequences aimed at Southerners or traditionalists or, for that matter, Northern liberals. Rather than regional conflict or identity, the pragmatists were concerned with fine-tuning what they believed to be loose methods of science and epistemology and metaphysics. They identified with epistemic traditions of Western philosophy but wanted to distill them to their core, knowing full well that humans could not perfect philosophy, only tweak it to become comprehensible and meaningful for a given moment. On the other hand, the Southern Agrarians were also concerned with epistemology and metaphysics, but their concern was invariably colored by regional associations, their rhetoric inflected with political overtones. Both Southern Agrarians and pragmatists attempted to conserve the most profitable and essential elements of Western philosophy; opinions about what those elements were differed from thinker to thinker.

Fourth, Langdale’s caricature (for that is what it is) of pragmatism at times resembles a mode of thought that is alien to pragmatism. For instance, he claims that “pragmatism is a distinctly American incarnation of the historical compulsion to the utopian and of what philosopher Eric Voegelin described as the ancient tradition of ‘gnosticism.’” Nothing, however, is more fundamental to pragmatism than the rejection of utopianism or Gnosticism. That rejection is so widely recognized that even Merriam-Webster lists “pragmatism” as an antonym for “utopian.”

Pragmatism is against teleology and dogma; it takes as its starting point observable realities rather than intangible, impractical abstractions and ideals. What Langdale describes is more like Marxism: a messianic ideology with a sprawling, utopian teleology regarding the supposedly inevitable progress of humankind.

Given that pragmatism is central to his thesis, it is telling that Langdale never takes the time to define it, explain the numerous differences between leading pragmatists, or analyze any landmark pragmatist texts. The effect is disappointing.

Landgale’s approach to “superfluity” makes Superfluous Southerners the inverse of Richard Poirier’s 1992 Poetry and Pragmatism: whereas Langdale relates “superfluity” to Southern men of letters who conserve what the modern era has ticketed as superfluous, Poirier relates “superfluity” to Emerson and his literary posterity in Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Both notions of superfluity contemplate the preservation of perennial virtues and literary forms; one, however, condemns pragmatism while the other applauds it.

For both Langdale and Poirier, “superfluity” is good. It is not a term of denunciation as it is usually taken to be. Langdale cites Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim to link “superfluity” to traditionalists who transform and adapt ideas to “the new stage of social and mental development,” thus keeping “alive a ‘strand’ of social development which would otherwise have become extinct.”

Poirier also links superfluity to an effort to maintain past ideas. His notion of “superfluity,” though, refers to the rhetorical excesses and exaggerated style that Emerson flaunted to draw attention to precedents that have proven wise and important. By reenergizing old ideas with creative and exhilarating language, Emerson secured their significance for a new era. In this respect, Emerson is, in Poirier’s words, “radically conservative.”

Who is right? Langdale or Poirier? Langdale seeks to reserve superfluity for the province of Southern, traditionalist conservatives. Does this mean that Poirier is wrong? And if Poirier is right, does not Langdale’s binary opposition collapse into itself?

These questions notwithstanding, it is strange that Langdale would accuse the Emersonian pragmatic tradition of opposing that which, according to Poirier, it represents. Although it would be wrong to call Emerson a political conservative, he cannot be said to lack a reverence for history. A better, more conservative criticism of Emerson—which Langdale mentions in his introduction—would involve Emerson’s transcendentalism that promoted a belief in innate human goodness. Such idealism flies in the face of Southern traditionalism, which generally abides by the Augustinian doctrine of innate human depravity and the political postures appertaining thereto.

What Langdale attributes to pragmatism is in fact a bane to most pragmatists. A basic tenet of pragmatism, for instance, is human fallibilism, which is in keeping with the doctrine of innate human depravity and which Peirce numbers as among his reasons for supporting the scientific method. Peirce’s position is that one human mind is imperfect and cannot by itself reach trustworthy conclusions; therefore, all ideas must be filtered through the logic and experimentation of a community of thinkers; a lasting and uniform consensus is necessary to verify the validity of any given hypothesis. This is, of course, anathema to the transcendentalist’s conviction that society corrupts the inherent power and goodness of the individual genius.

Langdale’s restricted view of pragmatism might have to do with unreliable secondary sources. He cites, of all people, Herbert Croly for the proposition that, in Croly’s words, “democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.” The connection between Croly and pragmatism seems to be that Croly was a student of James, but so was the politically and methodologically conservative C. I. Lewis. And let us not forget that the inimitable Jacques Barzun, who excoriated James’s disciples for exploiting and misreading pragmatism, wrote an entire book—A Stroll with William James—which he tagged as “the record of an intellectual debt.”

Pragmatism is a chronic target for conservatives who haven’t read much pragmatism. Frank Purcell has written in Taki’s Magazine about “conservatives who break into hives at the mere mention of pragmatism.” Classical pragmatists are denominated as forerunners of progressivism despite having little in common with progressives. The chief reason for this is the legacy of John Dewey and Richard Rorty, both proud progressives and, nominally at least, pragmatists.

Dewey, behind James, is arguably the most recognizable pragmatist, and it is his reputation, as championed by Rorty, that has done the most to generate negative stereotypes and misplaced generalizations about pragmatism. Conservatives are right to disapprove of Dewey’s theories of educational reform and social democracy, yet he is just one pragmatist among many, and there are important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other pragmatists.

In fact, the classical pragmatists have much to offer conservatives, and conservatives—even the Southern Agrarians—have supported ideas that are compatible with pragmatism, if not outright pragmatic. Burkean instrumentalism, committed to gradualism and wary of ideological extremes, is itself a precursor to social forms of pragmatism, although it bears repeating that social theories do not necessarily entail political action.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind traces philosophical continuities and thus provides clarifying substance to the pragmatist notion that ideas evolve over time and in response to changing technologies and social circumstances, while always retaining what is focal or fundamental to their composition. The original subtitle of that book was “From Burke to Santayana,” and it is remarkable, is it not, that both Burke and Santayana are pragmatists in their own way? Santayana was plugged into the pragmatist network, having worked alongside James and Josiah Royce, and he authored one of the liveliest expressions of pragmatism ever written: The Life of Reason. Although Santayana snubbed the label, general consensus maintains that he was a pragmatist. It is also striking that Kirk places John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun, both Southern conservatives, between these pragmatists on his map of conservative thought. There is, in that respect, an implication that pragmatism complements traditionalism.

Langdale relies on Menand’s outline of pragmatism and appears to mimic Menand’s approach to intellectual history. It is as though Langdale had hoped to write the conservative, Southern companion to The Metaphysical Club. He does not succeed because his representation of pragmatism is indelibly stamped by the ideas of Rorty, who repackaged pragmatism in postmodern lexica. Moreover, Langdale’s failure or refusal to describe standing differences between the classical pragmatists and neo-pragmatists means that his book is subject to the same critique that Susan Haack brought against Menand.

Haack lambasted Menand for sullying the reputation of the classical pragmatists by associating pragmatism with nascent Rortyianism—“vulgar Rortyianism,” in her words. Langdale seems guilty of this same supposition. By pitting pragmatism against Southern conservatism, he implies that Southern conservatism rejects, among other features, the application of mathematics to the scientific method, the analysis of probabilities derived from data sampling and experimentation, and the prediction of outcomes in light of statistical inferences. The problem is that the Agrarians did not oppose these things, although their focus on preserving the literary and cultural traditions of the South led them to express their views through poetry and story rather than as philosophy. But there is nothing in these methods of pragmatism (as opposed to the uses some later pragmatists may have put to them) that is antithetical to Southern Agrarianism.

Superfluous Southerners is at its best when it sticks to its Southern subjects and does not undertake comparative analyses of intellectual schools. It is at its worst when it resorts to incorrect and provocative phrases about “the gnostic hubris of pragmatists” or “the gnostic spirit of American pragmatic liberalism.” Most of its chapters do a remarkable job teasing out distinctions between its Southern conservative subjects and narrating history about the Southern Agrarians’ relationship to modernity, commitment to language and literature, and role as custodians of a fading heritage. Unfortunately, his book confounds the already ramified philosophy known as pragmatism, and at the expense of the Southern traditionalism that he and I admire.

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