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Against the Idols of the Age by David Stove
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Against the Idols of the Age

by David Stove

Other authors: Roger Kimball (Introduction), Roger Kimball (Editor)

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As it turned out, reading "Against the Idols of the Age," an anthology of Stove's work, was a good decision. I received inspiration not because the book reassured me, as in "don't worry, everything will work out just fine." On the contrary, it paints a grim picture of the state of Western intellectual life. Rather, I was inspired because Stove lays bare many of the absurdities--the "idols" of the book's title--that today pass for sacred, unassailable maxims. He shows that one can unravel the knot of politically correct dogma in which we are entwined, and do it in a clear, commonsense way. Think of it as a housecleaning for the brain, sweeping away cobwebs in various unlikely places.

Stove nimbly traces the genealogy of a ubiquitous modern idol, the accusation of "racism." He reminds us that it grew out of the less menacing but equally vacuous notion of "racial prejudice." He adds:

"Nowadays, you cannot open a daily paper or a popular periodical without meeting [the word racism]. You wonder how journalists could possibly have managed without this word until recently. A politician must now neglect no opportunity to pronounce a curse on 'racism.' He can probably still remember the very first time he heard the word, yet he must now pretend that he had always had 'racism' on his curse-list."

Stove maintains that it is perfectly reasonable to make generalizations about groups of people in categories such as race; in fact, everyone does it. For example, it is clear that Ethiopians are more skilled at long-distance running than Eskimos. Such judgments have no necessary connection to violence, and the linkage between them is a canard:

"I am not a fanatical enthusiast for long-distance running. But suppose I were: would consistency then require that I try to extinguish the race of Eskimos, and multiply the number of Ethiopians?"

In fact, it is the general obsession with "anti-racism" that tends to increase violence and strife. It divides society into battling groups, oppressing everyone with its focus on victimization and revenge. And, as we all know, it shuts down discussion of critical issues that are related to differences between people, as in the immigration debate (or lack thereof).

Stove takes the racism ploy to its logical extreme:

"If we are to have 'racism,' we ought also to have 'healthism,' for the belief that some people's health is not as good as others', and that differences in health are sometimes properly made the basis of differences in our behavior towards people....The disadvantage is that there are going to be far too many new words at this rate. We will need 'weatherism' for the belief that the weather is worse on some days than on others....For the crime (already notorious) of preferring one neighborhood to another, we will need 'neighborhoodism.' And so on.

Another idol that Stove smashes is relativism. Tracing the path of this deadly disease of the intellect, he reaches back to idealists such as Kant, who helped strip the Western mind of its belief in objective reality, instead positing a world that exists only when a "subject" perceives and analyzes an "object." This kind of thinking, asserts Stove, paved the way for the anti-rationalist philosophies of science in the 20th century. For this group, no real scientific truth or progress exists, but only competing conceptions, or, as Thomas Kuhn would have it, "paradigms." These paradigms cannot be measured by any objective criteria.

With this infrastructure in place, it is a short hop to cultural relativism. If knowledge can be evaluated only relative to the mind perceiving it, then culture can be assessed only relative to the mass of minds inventing it.

Since no culture has any intrinsic value behind it, all cultures are equal. Western culture, based as it is on science and reason, has implicitly if not formally declared its superiority. This cannot be the case, says the relativist; we must break out of the chains of our own culture and view simultaneously the entirety of cultures (ironically, a view that could only be produced by Western thinking).

Writes Stove:

"The cultural relativist....inveighs bitterly against our science-based, Europe-centered, white-male cultural perspective. She says that it is not only injurious but cognitively limiting. Injurious it may be; or again it may not. But why does she believe that it is cognitively limiting? Why, for no reason in the world, except this one: that it is ours....Since this reason is also generally accepted as a sufficient one, no other is felt to be needed."

Note the jab at the feminists--one of Stove's favorite targets--this being the only place in the book where the pronoun "she" is used in a generic sense. Elsewhere, he describes in gory detail the convergence of feminism with relativism, Marxism, and other related ills.

Stove does not argue from any religious perspective, and in fact in several places takes elements of Judeo-Christian thought to task for what he sees as inconsistency or error. This does not stop him, though, from lamenting the Enlightenment's attack on religion. On the one hand, he says, it is true that religion caused a fair amount of human misery, including wars, expulsions, witch-hunts, etc. On the other hand:

"[This misery] makes a startlingly trivial comparison with the misery which anti-religious zeal has produced in our century. Indeed, it is hardly even a comparison....How many Spanish Inquisitions equal one KGB? How many St. Bartholomew's Day massacres, plus expulsions of the Huguenots, would it take to equal the misery caused by Lenin plus Mao?....And this is to speak only of the societies in which religion has been actively persecuted. It is leaving out of account the misery of mere godlessness which now afflicts the free societies, where religion was never persecuted, but simply faded away under Enlightened criticism and ridicule."

Further on, Stove links this misery back to the problem of philosophical idealism and its derivatives:

"But whatever may be the explanation of it, that misery [of godlessness] is one of the most momentous facts of human life....It is also the fact behind many other post-Enlightenment historical phenomena: for example, the drug-dependence which has in the twentieth century crippled the Western world. Idealism was, to all the profoundest philosophers from Kant to Bradley, what heroin now is to millions in the West."

Another of Stove's "idols" that I found particularly fascinating, because seldom discussed, is modern architecture:

"It is now impossible, and has been impossible for over fifty years, for anyone to make a building which is beautiful or even agreeable. Whatever may be the reason for it, this is simply an historical fact....No one likes to look at a modern building, let alone live or work in it, and hardly anyone even pretends nowadays that they do like to."

The reason for this, according to Stove: Disgust and even horror at the past, particularly its visible relics, on the part of the modern intellectual elite. Perhaps, I would add, it is a case of profound embarrassment at seeing traces of what we used to accomplish, when our civilization was capable of producing great works--even in the most commonplace objects. ( )
1 vote GaryWolf | Mar 7, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Stoveprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kimball, RogerIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kimball, RogerEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0765800004, Hardcover)

Little known outside his native Australia, David Stove was one of the most illuminating and brilliant philosophical essayists of the postwar era. A fearless attacker of intellectual and cultural orthodoxies, Stove left powerful critiques of scientific irrationalism, Darwinian theories of human behavior, and philosophical idealism. Stove's writing is both rigorous and immensely readable. It is, in the words of Roger Kimball, "an invigorating blend of analytic lucidity, mordant humor, and an amount of common sense too great to be called 'common.'"

Whether the subject is race, feminism, the Enlightenment, or the demand for "non-coercive philosophy," Stove is on the mark with a battery of impressive arguments expressed in sharp, uncompromising prose. Against the Idols of the Age concludes with a generous sampling of his blistering attacks on Darwinism.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:51 -0400)

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